When the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in southwest D.C. invited members of the Creek Nation for its celebration of American Indian Heritage Month, officials could not have foreseen the consternation it would cause because of the tainted history of that tribe.
“I’m a Creek citizen, Native American and my family were slaves,” said Eli Grayson, who said while celebrating certain tribes is fine, the Smithsonian should also consider their history.
“There were five civilized trials of Cherokee Creek Nation and they were called civilized because they owned African slaves and when the Civil War broke out, they allied with the U.S. Confederacy to protect their slave economies,” said Grayson a member of the Muscogee Nation Hall of Fame and an advocate for the Creek Freedmen — emancipated African-Americans who were slaves of the Creek Nation of Indians, one of the Five Civilized Tribes.
They were emancipated after the Civil War and by a new treaty signed in 1866 between the United States and the Creek Nation, they were adopted as tribal citizens with full rights of Indians. However, the battle has continued today, hundreds of years later.
“The Tribe is now saying we don’t want you to be citizens anymore,” Grayson said. “These tribes are kicking people out, saying, ‘You are black, you don’t have Indian blood,’ but they weren’t saying that when they took slaves.”
In August, a federal judge ruled that the descendants of former slaves held within the Cherokee Nation were entitled to tribal citizenship. It’s a feud that reportedly stretched across three U.S. presidential administrations.
Judge Thomas F. Hogan said a treaty signed in 1866 guarantees citizenship to the former slaves — known as freedmen — and, by extension, their descendants.
“The history, negotiations, and practical construction of the 1866 treaty suggest no other result,” Hogan wrote in his 78-page ruling in August. “Consequently, the Cherokee Freedmen’s right to citizenship in the Cherokee Nation is directly proportional to native Cherokees’ right to citizenship.”
The decision isn’t the first time a court ruled on the treaty.
A published report said that, in 2006, the Cherokee Nation’s highest court arrived at the same interpretation and the tribe started processing citizenship applications for freedmen, eventually enrolling about 2,800 descendants.
But tribal citizens — motivated by the chief at the time — went to the polls and amended their constitution in a way that prevented more Freedmen from enrolling. They also cleared the way for those already enrolled to be ousted.
The significance lies in the ownership of profitable Indian casinos and federal programs, which Grayson said has motivated the tribes in their quest to keep slave descendants from claiming citizenship.
“This should be included in the Smithsonian, this is what someone should be asking because this history shouldn’t be ignored,” Grayson said.
Smithsonian officials said they simply are observing the heritage of all Native Americans and the celebration isn’t about slavery and oppression.
Experts, meanwhile, said the Creek Nation probably had much less to do with slavery than what’s been suggested.
“One of the overarching American policies toward Native Americans was and is acculturation, assimilation — kinder and gentler versions of conquest and genocide,” said Richard Monette, a professor of law at the University of Wisconsin and the director of the Great Lakes Indian Law Center.
“By either carrot or stick, Native Americans were persuaded to adopt the norms and values of those around them,” Monette said. “If the Creek or Cherokee Nations had adopted the norms and values of Pennsylvania rather than Georgia, they may not have adapted to slavery, but they also certainly would not have mitigated the ire of their immediate neighbors.”
Also, Creek and Cherokee Nations weren’t struggling to survive as a people, as they clearly were already nations, the professor said.
“Rather, they were struggling to survive … with a territory with well-defined boundaries and, as a result, it’s not necessarily that the actual Creek and Cherokee people owned slaves, but rather, as a matter of acceptance, they allowed it in their territories,” Monette said.
He argued that the record appeared to show that few, if any, full-blood Creeks and Cherokees held slaves, particularly those maintaining Creek and Cherokee cultures.
“Those full-blooded Creek and Cherokees that interacted socially with slaves or African-Americans had a far greater tendency to start families with them,” Monette said.
However, Grayson stated his claim.
“The condition of surrender when the Creeks sided with the Confederacy was that the Africans they held in slavery would become members of the tribes. You became a Creek citizen after the war,” he said.
The court’s ruling also reaffirmed Grayson and others claim.
“I am filled with joy that my people, the Freedmen, will continue to be citizens, as our ancestors have, in the Cherokee Nation,” Marilyn Vann, the president of the Descendants of the Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes Association, said in a statement. “I look forward to the healing within our proud and amazing people.”
Vann’s attorney, Jon Velie, added that the court victory was a win for Native Americans.
“The federal courts have enforced both treaty rights of citizenship while maintaining Tribes and elected officials rights to determine citizenship and self-determination pursuant to law,” Velie said.