Place  /  Dispatch

Black, Native American and Fighting for Recognition in Indian Country

Enslaved people were also driven west along the Trail of Tears. Now, their descendants are fighting to be counted as tribal members.

Ron Graham never had to prove to anyone that he was Black. But he has spent more than 30 years haunting tribal offices and genealogical archives, fighting for recognition that he is also a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation.

“We’re African-American,” Mr. Graham, 55, said. “But we’re Native American also.”

His family history is part of a little-known saga of bondage, blood and belonging within tribal nations, one that stretches from the Trail of Tears to this summer of uprisings in America’s streets over racial injustice.

His ancestors are known as Creek Freedmen. They were among the thousands of African-Americans who were once enslaved by tribal members in the South and who migrated to Oklahoma when the tribes were forced off their homelands and marched west in the 1830s.

In treaties signed after the Civil War, they won freedom and were promised tribal citizenship and an equal stake in the tribes’ lands and fortunes. But what followed were broken promises, exclusions and painful fights over whether tens of thousands of their descendants should now be recognized as tribal members.

Some of the descendants have won lawsuits seeking inclusion in the Cherokee Nation. Some gained nominal citizenship as Seminoles, but said they could not access tribal services. Others, like Mr. Graham, have nothing.

But now, a landmark Supreme Court decision for tribal sovereignty has breathed new life into their fight.

In July, the Supreme Court recognized a huge portion of eastern Oklahoma as reservation land under the terms of an 1866 treaty. The same treaty also guaranteed that freed slaves and their descendants would “have and enjoy all the rights and privileges of native citizens.”

To groups of their descendants, the logic was simple: If the United States still had to honor treaty promises it made to tribal nations, then tribal nations had to keep their word to the descendants of those formerly enslaved by the tribes.

“We’re making noise,” said Marilyn Vann, a Cherokee citizen and president of the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes.

Ms. Vann estimated that there was a diaspora of some 160,000 descendants of those formerly enslaved by the tribes, many of them living in Oklahoma. There are groups representing descendants from each of the five tribes who meet to share sepia photographs of ancestors, compare genealogical records and plan protests.

Ms. Vann added: “There are chiefs who’d like to get rid of what they think of as the Freedmen problem. We have our rights.”