CNO launches initiative to consider tribal membership for Freedmen
By Chief Gary Batton
July 1, 2021
The Choctaw Nation recently announced the launch of an initiative to consider tribal membership for Choctaw Freedmen. Changing the tribal membership requirements will require a Constitutional amendment, which will require a vote from tribal members. To be successful, we’ll have to tell the story of why we believe this is necessary and listen to tribal members’ input. This initiative will engage Choctaw Freedmen, the Department of Interior, existing tribal members, our elected officials and membership department officials, and other Choctaw proud in listening sessions to present findings and a recommendation to Choctaw elected officials.
I respectfully request that you take a moment to read this open letter and learn more about how we have arrived at this critical juncture in both tribal and American history.
Our mission is, “To the Choctaw proud, ours is a sovereign nation offering opportunities for growth and prosperity.” Our vision is, “Living out the Chahta spirit of faith, family and culture.”
Our tradition of oral storytelling brings Choctaw history to life, and has long been one way we educate young Choctaw people.
When I first learned of the US government’s plan to withhold promised funding unless we changed our Constitution, I was frustrated. As you might imagine, there is a lot of baggage in the relationship between Native Americans and the US government. As chief, protecting tribal sovereignty is one of the most sacred honors and responsibilities entrusted to me. In this moment, I was focused on a threat to our sovereignty – that’s all I heard. The story of Choctaw Freedmen deserves our attention and thoughtful consideration within the framework of tribal self-governance.
I, along with the Tribal Council, have meditated on the words of our mission and vision. We have reflected on the stories our elders have shared with us about the experiences of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. We have unpacked some of the baggage and remember that while today in 2021, part of our tribal sovereignty is being able to determine tribal membership; that right was also tarnished by the federal government 125 years ago.
The Dawes Rolls. Early in the 1830s, nearly 125,000 Native Americans lived on millions of acres of land in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, North Carolina and Florida. Land our ancestors had called home for generations. Among them, thousands of enslaved people were forced to provide manual labor along the way and after arriving in what is now Oklahoma. The Trail of Tears left an indelible scar on Choctaw people and on African American people among us.
In 1887, the US government, led by Senator Henry Laurens Dawes of Massachusetts, passed the Dawes Act to take the land of Native American people, break up our tribal governments and assimilate us. Like many other times in Native history, the US government did not honor its treaties.
According to Dawes Act language, Native Americans could apply to receive their due allotment of land. White people also applied for the Dawes Rolls to get “free” land, at times using bribes to federal agents to be selected. History shows us that over 250,000 people applied for tribal membership and land, and a little over 100,000 were approved. Over half of the applicants were “rejected, stricken, and judged to be doubtful.” The approved received an allotment of land. Some Native Americans did not trust the US government and did not apply in an attempt to protect their families from additional harm. For 10 years after Dawes left the Senate, he worked to dissolve tribal governments and managed to take 90 million acres of treaty land. In 1928, just 23 years after the Dawes Rolls closed, President Calvin Coolidge’s administration studied the effects of the Dawes Act and found that the Dawes Act had been used illegally to deprive Native Americans of their land rights. And yet no changes were made.
Today our tribal membership is based on the Dawes Rolls — a poisonous legacy from 125 years ago that took root and caused a myriad of membership issues for tribal nations, including Freedmen.
The CDIB Card & Blood Quantum Law. The US government’s Bureau of Indian Affairs issues a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood, commonly known as a CDIB card. According to the US government, “it provides a blood degree by tribe.” These degrees are based on the Dawes Rolls. I respectfully ask you to take a moment and reflect on that. This is a federal construct that has fueled division and racism. To receive a CDIB card, a person must trace their “blood” ancestry to the Dawes Rolls. At this time, the US government also does not recognize Freedmen in its CDIB enrollment process. This systemized measuring a person’s “degree of Indian-ness” is fundamentally flawed, has heavily influenced modern-day tribal membership and should change.
This moment in Choctaw Nation history calls for courage and bravery. It is a moment to live out the Chahta spirit of faith, family and culture. We know that by calling for these reforms, we are peeling away layers of scar and are exposing a deeply painful wound for tribes across the US. And we know it is the right thing to do.
Today we call upon the US government to also consider its moral and legal obligations and review the CDIB process for Freedmen. CDIB enrollment for Freedmen would mean automatic access to critical programs like tribal health care, housing programs and more.
Today we call upon the Choctaw proud to open dialogue on the issue of Choctaw Freedmen. Ours is a sovereign nation offering opportunities for growth and prosperity. Our stories, Native American, African American, are inextricably linked with European Americans, and with one another. Let us not be bound by an artificial construct of those who sought to take our lands, culture and dignity hundreds of years ago. Let our sovereign nation reclaim what was taken 125 years ago – the ability to determine tribal membership.
Today we reach out to the Choctaw Freedmen. We see you. We hear you. We look forward to meaningful conversation regarding our shared past.