House lawmakers are considering legislation that would withhold federal funds from tribal nations who discriminate against Freedmen, the descendants of people they once enslaved.
The House Committee on Financial Services held a subcommittee hearing on Tuesday to discuss reauthorizing the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act (NAHASDA), a federal government program that provides assistance to tribal governments to support affordable housing and infrastructure.
Included in the draft bill is a provision that would require tribes to uphold their ends of agreements made with the US government and ensure full tribal citizenship rights to Freedmen before they can receive federal housing assistance.
“This is a fight that’s about fairness and equality,” Rep. Maxine Waters, chairwoman of the House Committee on Financial Services, said at the hearing. “For one minority group to discriminate against another minority group cannot stand. And as chair of this committee, I don’t intend for it to stand.”
Freedmen have long fought for their rights
The history of the Freedmen dates back to the early 1800s.
By that time, some wealthier citizens from the Five Tribes — the Chickasaw, Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek and Seminole — had started to enslave African Americans, a practice they adopted from White settlers in the Southeast.
When the tribes were forced out of their homelands in the South beginning in the 1830s and made to move west of the Mississippi River, African Americans they enslaved made the journey with them.
After the Civil War ended, the Five Tribes agreed to abolish slavery and grant Freedmen tribal citizenship rights under treaties signed with the US government. But in practice, Freedmen were often denied those rights and excluded from the tribes. To this day, they face hurdles to tribal enrollment, voting and access to federal services, among other issues.
Over the years, Freedmen have challenged discrimination and fought to protect their treaty rights through various legal proceedings.
The Cherokee Nation is the only one of the Five Tribes that currently recognizes and guarantees the citizenship rights of Freedmen. Its Supreme Court ruled earlier this year that the tribe must remove the phrase “by blood” from its constitution and other tribal laws, and in May, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland approved a new Cherokee Nation constitution that explicitly protects Freedmen rights and citizenship.
While the Choctaw and Muscogee (Creek) Nations signaled recently that they were considering changing their constitutions to allow Freedmen to become full tribal citizens, they have not yet made a firm commitment to do so.
Witnesses were mixed on the bill provision
Marilyn Vann, president of the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes Association, said in her testimony at Tuesday’s hearing that Freedmen experience poverty and barriers to housing at higher rates than other Native Americans — issues that stem from their enslavement.
“Tribal governments receive monies for the housing programs but the majority of Freedmen are excluded,” Vann said. “I ask you include the treaty obligation language in the final bill and support its passage in the full House.”
Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., who has long supported efforts to restore the rights of Cherokee Freedmen, said in his testimony that despite the actions of his predecessors, the Cherokee Nation had not possessed the right to exclude Freedmen from citizenship since it entered into a treaty with the US government in 1866.
“The enslavement of other human beings and the subsequent denial to them and their descendants of basic rights is a stain on the Cherokee Nation, and it is a stain that must be lifted,” he said. “I offer both an apology on behalf of the Cherokee Nation for these actions but more importantly… I offer a commitment to reconciliation.”
Still, Hoskin said that tribal access to federal housing funds shouldn’t be tied to the rights of Freedmen.
“I don’t believe Congress should condition federal housing policy and dollars on this type of public policy end,” he said. “I think it breeds antipathy. I don’t think it breeds understanding.”
Other tribes, such as the Choctaw Nation, have previously characterized the effort to withhold housing assistance over the Freedmen issue as an attack on tribal sovereignty. Waters, however, pushed back on that assertion.
“While many confuse this issue with tribal sovereignty, I want to be clear that this is not a tribal sovereignty issue,” she said. “Rather, it’s about honoring the treaty rights promised to the Freedmen and their descendents all those centuries ago.”
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