Congresswoman Maxine Waters (D-CA), Chairwoman of the House Committee on Financial Services, testified before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs to call attention to the ongoing plight of Black Native American Freedmen and the violation of their rights to tribal citizenship promised through 1866 treaties with the Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole Nations. Chairwoman Waters urged the Senate to use its authority to uphold the treaties and hold these tribes accountable to their agreement to provide the descendants of Freedmen full citizenship rights.
“We must stand by the rights promised to Freedmen and the treaties that guaranteed those rights over a century ago and hold these tribes accountable,” Chairwoman Waters said. “I’d like to say how proud I am of the descendants of Native Freedmen, who have never wavered in their fight for human dignity and equal recognition, even when it seemed no one would listen. Even with the growing movement for reparations that recognizes the forced and uncompensated labor that built this country, and the riches amassed because of it, it seems that the fight of the descendants of Freedmen still has never been rightfully acknowledged and affirmed.”
Read the full testimony HERE, which is also included below.
Thank you, Chairman Schatz, Vice Chair Murkowski, and members of the Committee.
Today, I am here to discuss an issue I care very deeply about but has been ignored for far too long. Many remain unfamiliar with the history of those who came to be known as the Native American Freedmen and the ongoing plight of their descendants. The Freedmen were Black individuals who were enslaved by five formerly slave-holding tribal nations and were forced to walk and suffer on the Trail of Tears alongside their slave masters. A year after the Civil War ended, the Fives Tribes agreed to abolish slavery and accept Freedmen and their descendants as full tribal citizens under the 1866 treaty agreements they made with the United States government.
Specifically, the 1866 treaties required the Five Tribes to abolish slavery and to agree to treat and accept formerly enslaved individuals and their lineal descendants as equal tribal citizens.
For example, the treaty signed by the Cherokee Nation reads, and I quote, “All native born Cherokee, all Indians, and whites legally members of the Nation by adoption, and all freedmen who have been liberated by voluntary act of their former owners or by law, as well as free colored persons who were in the country at the commencement of the rebellion, and are now residents therein, or who may return within six months from the 19th day of July, 1866, and their descendants, who reside within the limits of the Cherokee Nation, shall be taken and deemed to be citizens of the Cherokee Nation.” The four other tribes all signed similar treaties.
Despite the fact that these treaty obligations still exist and are binding on the Five Tribes, beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the tribes began to take formal actions to take away the citizenship rights of descendants of Freedman.
For instance, in 1983, Freedmen were prohibited from voting in Cherokee Nation elections and received letters informing them that their citizenship had been canceled. In 2007, the Cherokee amended their constitution to limit citizenship to only individuals who were quote, “Cherokee by blood.” These actions led to years of litigation that was finally settled in 2017, when a federal district court judge ruled in favor of the Freedmen and their right to citizenship.
In this ruling, the judge stated, and I quote, “In accordance with Article 9 of the 1866 Treaty, the Cherokee Freedmen have a present right to citizenship in the Cherokee Nation that is coextensive with the rights of Native Cherokees.”
Following the court decision, which the Cherokee Nation accepted as binding, the tribe has taken actions to comply with the decision and ensure that descendants of Freedmen are treated as equal citizens. Before my Committee, Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin testified that these actions have made the Cherokee Nation quote, “a better nation for having recognized full and equal citizenship of Freedmen descendants.”
Despite the actions of the Cherokee to right the wrong inflicted on its Freedmen, the descendants of Freedmen of the other four tribes continue to be denied tribal citizenship and other basic rights associated with citizenship like equal access to federally funded affordable housing.
My Committee even heard testimony last year that Freedmen have even been denied access to life-saving vaccines during the ongoing pandemic. It was this testimony that prompted even the Biden administration to designate all Seminole Freedmen as eligible for health care services, including the COVID vaccine, through the Indian Health Service. However, this decision only applies to Seminole Freedmen, and not Freedmen from the other tribes.
We know that equal access to housing sits at the heart of many of the racial and economic injustices we continue to see across the country today. As Chairwoman of the House Financial Services Committee, I recognize that Native communities face some of the worst housing conditions in the United States. It is also important to recognize that the legacy of land and cultural disenfranchisement has created and maintained these circumstances.
That is why I proposed providing $2 billion for affordable housing in tribal communities in my “Housing is Infrastructure Act,” and why I am moving to reauthorize NAHASDA with language that ensures that descendants of Freedmen have equal access to these resources, as the 1866 Treaties promised.
When Barney Frank, my predecessor, was Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, he recognized the plight of the Freedmen and was a staunch advocate for their rights. I worked closely with him on legislation to prevent tribes from disenfranchising their descendants. As Ranking Member and now Chairwoman of the Committee, I continue that fight for justice for the descendants of Freedmen.
Currently, there are tribes that are implementing federally funded programs in a way that actively discriminates against descendants of Freedmen in direct violation of treaty obligations. Congress has every right to ensure that federal funding is implemented in compliance with all relevant obligations.
We must stand by the rights promised to Freedmen and the treaties that guaranteed those rights over a century ago and hold these tribes accountable.
I’d like to say how proud I am of the descendants of Native Freedmen, who have never wavered in their fight for human dignity and equal recognition, even when it seemed no one would listen. Even with the growing movement for reparations that recognizes the forced and uncompensated labor that built this country, and the riches amassed because of it, it seems that the fight of the descendants of Freedmen still has never been rightfully acknowledged and affirmed.
This pandemic has made clear that the ongoing discrimination of the Freedmen descendants can literally mean the difference between life and death for descendants of Freedmen who have been denied COVID vaccines.
So, I urge the distinguished Members of this Committee: We must honor our word as a nation and uphold, as honorable people, the obligations of these treaties. This is as much true for the United States government, which has failed to meet all of its treaty obligations, as it is for the Five Tribes. This work is ongoing, and it is the obligation to the descendants of Freedmen that can’t be left out of that conversation.
I want to thank again Senator Schatz for holding this important hearing and working with me on this issue. And I must indicate that even though there appears to be only one representative here for the Freedman, I would like, if at all possible, to make sure that the voices of other Freedman are heard in some sense, in some way.
And while I’m pleased that the U.S. Senate is finally hearing testimony from a Freedmen descendant, I must state that hearing from more voices—not less—is the key to productive dialogue. It is when we don’t expand our table to hear more from those who have been disenfranchised that injustices and systemic inequities are perpetuated.
So, moving forward, I am convinced that we can work together to not simply uplift the stories of Freedmen, but also to recognize the shared suffering of Native Freedmen and Native Americans forced to walk that Trail of Tears together and the need to honor the treaties of 1866. I do not believe that the documented history of the descendants of Freedmen can be ignored, forgotten, or dismissed any longer.
Thank you and I’m happy to take any questions that you may have.