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Transcript: Into the Black Creeks Pushing for Tribal Citizenship

Black people helped shaped the Muscogee Creek Nation. Now, they’re fighting to be recognized as citizens of the tribe again.


Into America

Into the Black Creeks Pushing for Tribal Citizenship

Trymaine Lee: So Rhonda, thank you so much for joining us. How are you doing today?

Rhonda Grayson: I'm doing well, how are you?

Lee: You know what? I could complain. You know--

Grayson: We could.

Lee: --I could complain, but I won't.

Grayson: That's exactly right, I won't complain.

Lee: At the end of last week, I sat down with 51-year-old Rhonda Grayson. She joined me from her kitchen in Oklahoma City.

Grayson: My great grandmother was America Cohee (PH), she was an original enrollee of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. She was creek freed woman 4661.

Lee: Growing up, Rhonda knew the Creek tradition was a part of her birthright.

Grayson: Well, I was born and raised in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. My family, my mom and dad, they were raised in a little small community called Wewoka, Oklahoma. So much of my family ties were there, spent a lot of summer months there, visiting my grandparents. I had always been keenly aware of my Creek heritage, just because of the stories that my grandfather would tell. They identified themselves as Native Negros, African Creeks, Black Creeks.

Lee: The Muscogee (Creek) Nation is one of the largest federally recognized Native American tribes in the U.S. It spans more than 7,000 square miles across the state of Oklahoma. Stretching from the city of Tulsa, in the North, to a Southern border carved out by the Canadian River. Today there are more than 86,000 enrolled citizens, but Oklahoma is not their original homeland.

Grayson: Before there was a Creek Nation, these are individuals who were removed from their traditional homelands in Alabama and Georgia on the Trail of Tears in the 1800s. And the interesting part of history is that people often think about on these Trail of Tears, they never think about the folks of African descent.

Lee: Part of the history of the Creek tribe included slavery. On the Trail of Tears, the tribe made their way to the reservation allotted to them by Andrew Jackson in what was then known as Indian Territory. And they took their enslaved people with them. And Rhonda told me that freed Blacks, known as Freedmen, also went.

Grayson: And so there were free men and women of color who were on the Trail of Tears. So they suffered loss just like full blood Indians suffered loss. And so the other important thing is, is that we talk about the tribes holding and having slaves. They did have slaves, but again, there were people who were free. Not everyone that was of African descent was a slave.

Lee: For over a century, people of African descent were part of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. And then, suddenly, many of them weren't.

Grayson: They were disenfranchised from a nation, the nation of their birth.

Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today, on Indigenous Peoples Day, we're bringing you the story of the Creek Freedmen. How they helped shaped the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, and why many of them are now having to fight for citizenship in a community they always thought of as their own.

To understand the Creek Freedmens' fight focus citizenship, there are three big dates to pay attention to: 1866, 1898 and 1979. Let's start with 1866. The United States of America officially ended slavery in 1865, at the end of the Civil War. In Creek Nation, slavery ended a year later, after the Creeks signed a treaty with the U.S. government that freed its slaves and gave them citizenship into the tribe.

Grayson: The 1866 treaty had specific language for the adoption of Creek Freedmen. And in article two, it says that these people of African descent, they have all rights and privileges of the said land. So specifically what that means is that it didn't matter whether you were considered a full blood Native American, or if you were an African, whether you had one third blood, or if you were half, you were citizens on equal standing, based off of that treaty of 1866. So that is essentially what gave people like my family their citizenship within the Nation.

People who were of African descent, they served in high places within the Creek Nation. So these individuals served as senators, judges, lawyers, they even served as principal chiefs of the Creek Nation. You had people like Cow Tom, who was a interpreter, a very important man in the Creek Nation. He spoke three languages.

He spoke English, he spoke the Creek language, and he spoke African. And so he was a person who spoke to government officials for the so-called Indians, because most of them only spoke the Creek language. But people like Cow Tom could negotiate the needs of the tribe.

Lee: So for decades, Black Creeks played an integral part in the tribe.

Grayson: And so when you think about all of the contributions that Black Creeks have made to the Creek Nation, the Creek Nation literally would not be what it is today.

Lee: That is until 1898. In 1898, under the Curtis Act, the United States government began dividing up the tribal governments and communal lands in Indian Territory. In Oklahoma, the government created allotments and gave payments to every tribal member.

In order to figure out who was an enrolled member of a tribe, the government took a census. This census was run by a man named Henry Dawes, and was part of what was called the Dawes Commission. Dawes had a huge impact on families like Rhonda's. Black people were assigned a different status in the tribe.

Grayson: The term, Freedmen, didn't actually come into play until around 1890s. And that's when the Dawes Commission came in, and they established the rolls. And that's how my family members received their roll numbers. Like, for example, America Cohee, her roll number is 4661.

Lee: The Dawes Rolls are now digital. You can look up any member online through the National Archives. And I was able to find Rhonda's great grandmother, listed just as Rhonda described, as Miss America Cohee, age 11, female, number 4661, a Creek Freedman. It's this record of history that also exposes a much darker truth.

Grayson: So Dawes came in and established these rolls. He separated families. So for example, there was a by blood roll, and there was a Freedmen roll. There was no DNA test in the 1800s. So what they did was the eye test. They would look at you, if you were a darker person, they would say, "Well, you have to be an African, so you don't get any credit for being Native American."

Lee: How did the Dawes Rolls kind of complicate culture and heritage when you could be as brown as you want to be, but you could be half Creek, right? So how did that complicate the lineage?

Grayson: Well, I think for us, today we feel this pain. So if we say that we're Black Creeks, oftentimes we will get flack from not only people who don't look like us, but from people who look like us. And they will tell us that we are trying to be Indians, and we're not Indians. We are just Black people, or you know, other terms that they would use. And so unless you have been raised in the culture, unless you have been raised to identify yourself a certain way, you wouldn't know.

Lee: As Rhonda describes, the Dawes Rolls created a division between blood Creeks and Freedmen. And that became really important in 1979. Nineteen seventy nine, that's the final important date in this story. It was around the time when many tribes began building their economies, and making more money. And in '79, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation voted on a new constitution, and with that vote came new rules about who was eligible to be a member of the tribe.

Grayson: There was language in that constitution that required a blood degree to be citizens of the Nation. So prior to that 1979 constitution, there was no mention that blood was a requirement. Because the treaty of 1866 states that people of African descent will share in the land, they will share in everything. So they just disenfranchised Creek Freedmen from the Nation illegally. Because the treaty of 1866 has not been abrogated, it is still good law.

Lee: Talk to me about how that changed things for Black Creek.

Grayson: Nineteen seventy nine certainly changed things for Black Creeks, in terms of it took away their identity, who they were. They were disenfranchised from a nation, the nation of their birth. And so for example, think about being a citizen of the United States.

You wake up the next morning, and the headlines state that you have been disenfranchised from the United States, so you have to go back from wherever you came from. This is exactly what happened in 1979. My great grandmother was born in 1888, America Cohee Webster.

She passed away in 1980, one year after she was disenfranchised from the tribe. So I can only imagine how she felt being disenfranchised from the nation of her birth. So it changed things a lot for our people. I think the identity has been lost. You know, there are many people who followed the ways of the Indians, so when you were disenfranchised from the tribe, you lost a lot of that. You know, cultural identity and things like that, I mean, there's a lot of things that we lost. I mean, I can't, I mean, speak the language, but had we never been removed from the tribe, it's possible that we would be fluent in Creek. But mostly, it is the identity of who these people identified as being.

Lee: Alongside a loss of identity, there's also a financial loss for people like Rhonda. By limiting the number of enrollees, a tribe's resources don't have to be stretched as far.

Grayson: I mean, our people have missed out on government funding, such as education, housing, business opportunities, health benefits. And a good example, I believe that the Creek Nation just recently sent out a stipend for citizens due to COVID-19. How many people of African descent have been affected by COVID, and could use that payment? And so we've been excluded from that.

Lee: If it's by blood, with technology and DNA, are some folks able to retrace their genetic steps and get back into the tribe, and apply for membership?

Grayson: No, it doesn't work that way. They do not base it on DNA. I've actually taken DNA, and it does show that I have Native American blood. But what they're basing it off of is the final Dawes Roll. So if you are not on that by blood roll, then you're not going to be admitted as a citizen.

Lee: And here you are, a descendent of these folks. How does it actually feel to be pushed away from people who you have deep genetic historical roots to?

Grayson: It's just devastating for us. You know, for many of us, it's our identity, our culture, I mean, it's everything that we hold true to. It's really a travesty for something like this to still be occurring in the 21st century. And it's really time for the Creek Nation to do the right thing.

Lee: After the break, Rhonda talks about her fight to enroll in the Creek Nation, an effort she's taken to court.

Lee: We're back with Rhonda Grayson. So what does it look like to try to fight for citizenship in a nation that turned its back on you? In 1979, the Creek Nation amended their constitution, and in doing so, voted to disenroll Freedmen descendants. That affected about a third of the population who, under the new constitution, were no longer considered Creek citizens. It kicked off a decades long fight that, today, is getting some new attention.

Grayson: Ever since the 1970s, when we were disenfranchised, Creek Freedmen have been fighting, they have been writing the Bureau of Indian Affairs for relief, for help. Creek Freedmen have been applying over and over to the Creek Nation, submitting their applications, and of course, over and over being denied. I applied for membership years ago, I was denied.

And I will tell you how I actually got my application, it was from an associate that I worked with for many years on Creek Freedmen studies. This individual happened to live in the Muscogee area, and so that's how I was able to even get an application.

Because the Creek Nation would not even send out or give an application to individuals, if they knew they were Creek Freedmen. You'd call the Creek Nation, let them know that you needed an application, or that you wanted to apply for citizenship within the tribe. They would immediately ask the question, "Who was your ancestor?" "America Cohee." "Do you know the roll number?" "4661."

They would immediately look at that and say, "Well, she was on the Freedmen roll. Freedmen don't qualify for membership within the tribe." And they wouldn't even give you an application. And I would call periodically, asking, "Has anything changed? Can we enroll in the Creek Nation?" The last time, when I called, it was right after the Cherokee Freedmen has regained their citizenship back into the Cherokee Nation, this was in 2017.

Lee: In 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a landmark case between another tribe, the Cherokee, and its freedom descendants. The court said the Cherokee Freedmen must be considered part of the tribe, and were entitled to their rights as members. Rhonda thought it might be an opening.

Grayson: Shortly after that, I actually wrote the Creeks' citizenship board, basically letting them know who my great grandmother was, she was an original enrollee of the Creek Nation. I would like to enroll for membership within the tribe. They did respond back, and told me because she was a Creek Freedman, she was not eligible for membership within the tribe.

Lee: After getting denied again in 2017, Rhonda filed a lawsuit with the U.S. Federal Court system. But it was ultimately dismissed by a district court judge.

Grayson: And she gave us some homework to do. She wanted us to exhaust tribal remedies. It's time consuming, and it is a costly process, because you have to hire attorneys.

Lee: Exhaust tribal remedies basically means try to figure it out without the help of the Federal Courts. What the judge told her is essentially to go back to the Creek Nation to address it directly with them.

Grayson: And so I just gathered all of my death records, proof in death and heirships, and I had my application to them within the week, to the Creek Nation. Sent it in by certified mail, and so I did receive a denial letter, as expected. Once you receive the denial, you have to appeal within ten days. If you don't appeal within ten days, then that's it, you have to start the process completely over.

And so I appealed and wrote my statement, got it in within ten days, and so then at that point, they were able to schedule a hearing for me. So we had me seven page letter appeal was drafted, and so my attorney, Damario Solomon-Simmons, Sharon Lindsay Scott, Jeff Kennedy, they traveled to Okmulgee with me for the appeal and another associate attorney.

And I read my appeal to the Creek Nation. I did finally receive, in November of last year, a final denial from the hearing appeal. Based upon that, attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons drafted the petition to file the lawsuit in the district court of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. So that's where we're at now. The good news is, is that the Creek Nation did not dismiss the lawsuit. So we're in a discovery stage now.

Lee: So three years after filing her Federal Court case, Rhonda is still fighting. We reached out to the Muscogee (Creek) Nation to get their side of the story. A sense of why there is this resistance to allowing descendants of Creek Freedmen to enroll. And whether there is a chance things could change.

Here's what they said, and I'm reading this whole thing because it's pretty interesting. Quote, "The systemic abuse of Native Americans and the enslavement of African Americans in the United States have created a complicated history and many present challenges. Our people, our nation and our identity long predate the United States.

"Many of our citizens feel that identity is at the heart of this issue and that blood lineage is essential to protecting it. But on the other hand, the grave injustice done to the slaves owned by some Creeks has to be acknowledged and discussed. The constitution approved by the Creek Nation and federal government in 1979 elevates blood lineage as the current standard for citizenship.

"But times change. And there is a process for our constitution to change as well. This is a challenging issue with implications that cut to the core of self-determination, and will require a thoughtful conversation among our citizenry. We are confident that our nation is equipped to rise to the occasion."

So it sounds like at least the Creek Nation does recognize that times are changing. But there's something in that statement that stood out to me. The idea that there are implications here that, quote, "Cut to the core of self-determination." Self-determination, sovereignty, the right of a tribe like the Muscogee (Creek) Nation to govern itself after decades and decades of government abuse is something that comes up again and again in this fight. Blood lineage is the weapon they've chosen to protect that right.

I put that defense to Rhonda. You know, the tribe has said, you know, this is an issue of sovereignty. And I wonder, do they have a right to the sovereignty? Do they have a right to say, you know what? This is how we're going to run things, and this is who we are?

Grayson: But I don't think that as a tribe they have a right to discriminate against people, and that's essentially what they're doing. I don't think that that's what sovereignty means. The Cherokee Nation case in 2017 was argued on the treaty of 1866. It's still valid. So they can't pick and choose what part of the treaty that they want to be valid.

Lee: Is it about racism? Is it about maintaining resources? What is it about?

Grayson: Those are the two things, greed and racism. That's exactly what it's about.

Lee: In your correspondence with the tribe, is there anyone who's sympathetic at all?

Grayson: Well, actually, there have been many citizens who have been receptive, and actually, one of our attorneys that's representing us, he is a citizen of the Creek Nation. So there are citizens who are rallying in support of Creek Freedmen.

It's an awakening. And I think it has a lot to do with what's going on all over the world. People are in the streets in protesting. People that you've never seen before protesting. And so that's what we're seeing within the Creek Nation. More and more citizens are reaching out to us, and saying that we are ashamed of our tribe, and all of the racism that still exists in the tribe toward our own family members.

Lee: Has there been a moment when you said, you know what? I just want to give up. I just want to throw my hands up, and stop beating my head against this brick wall. Have you felt that?

Grayson: I have felt that many, many times. But the thing that keeps me going, and people have asked me over the years, "Rhonda, why do you stay on this journey? Why do you continue to fight?" And I have to tell them, I said, "I fight for my great grandmother."

Just imagine, as I stated before, being removed from the land of your birth. I fight for her, I fight for all of the other hundreds of Creek Freedmen, who were disenrolled unjustly. I fight for them. It's not necessarily for me, but I fight for other Creek Freedmen descendants. Because they could use the educational loans. They could use the health. All of the various different benefits that are afforded to people who were tribal members of this nation. That's why if fight. I'm a fortunate person, where I've had a career for 22 years. I'm in a management role, I'm blessed. So I don't need the help. I don't need any of the benefits. But I fight for Willie Cohee. Can I step away and show you these pictures?

Lee: Yes, ma'am, please.

Grayson: This is why I fight. This is a photo of Willie Cohee, and he is the father of America Cohee. But I think that we can look at Willie Cohee and see that he was not a full blood African. Okay, and this is the photo of his daughter, America Cohee. She was an original enrollee in the Creek Nation. I fight for these people, I fight for their rights, because they were removed unjustly from the tribe. And we just need to, again, hold these people accountable. We're not going to stop fighting until you do the right thing. And it's time. It's time to bring the Black Creeks, the Freedmen back home into the tribe. I mean, it's been 41 years. It is time to do right by Creek Freedmen, and bring us home.

Lee: That was Rhonda Grayson, great granddaughter of America Cohee, a Creek Freedman. Rhonda is one of the founding members of the Muscogee Creek Indian Freedmen Band, a group of Black people fighting for their tribal recognition.

You can check out those photos Rhonda shared with me on our website, America Cohee's portrait is the podcast image for this episode. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio. I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll be back on Thursday.