Maxine Waters leads push to get justice for Black Native Americans

EXCLUSIVE: A dispute between Black members of Indigenous tribes and the federal government is part of a history that is now being exposed on Capitol Hill.

Congresswoman Maxine Waters is calling out Native American tribes who held Black slaves and continue to discriminate against Black Native Americans.

Rep. Maxine Waters
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) speaks at a press conference on Capitol Hill January 31, 2017 in Washington, DC. Waters called for investigation into Trump administration ties to Russia. (Photo by Aaron P. Bernstein/Getty Images)

Descendants of those enslaved by the hands of Native American tribes may get a slice of justice through access to Native American federal subsidies that had previously been denied to them. The California Congresswoman is seeking to get five tribes to comply with their 1866 treaty obligations that recognize Black Native American Freedmen and their descendants as full citizens of their tribes, therefore making them entitled to all of the rights afforded to any other citizens of the tribes.

Rep. Waters tells TheGrio that the Cherokee had 2,511 slaves (15% of the total population); The Choctaw had 2,349 slaves (14% of the total population); the Creek had 1,532 slaves (10% of the total population); the Chickasaw had 975 slaves (18% of the total); and the Seminole had 200 to 300 slaves.

Much of the dispute between Black members of the Indigenous tribes and the federal government is part of a history that is now being exposed on Capitol Hill. Tulsa rose to national notoriety this year as the nation commemorated the century-old massacre that destroyed 40 blocks of Black wealth commonly known as Black Wall Street.

Tulsa race massacre survivors Hughes Van Ellis Sr., left, Lessie Benningfield Randle, center, and Viola Fletcher, right, wave and high-five supporters from a horse drawn carriage before a march Friday, May 28, 2021, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

But now, Waters is leading efforts to get the descendants of Black enslaved people on Native American reservations across Oklahoma and western states their due. The Chairwoman and House Financial Services Committee Democrats have been fighting for the treaty rights of Freedmen descendants since at least 2008.

Many of these tribes forced their enslaved along the famous “Trail of Tears” that carried the Native Americans west and helped establish the roots of the Black population of Greenwood. Much of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma was also built from treaties between the United States government and tribes.

Maxine Waters
House Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Water (D-CA) Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Five tribes in Oklahoma — the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muscogee Creek, and Seminole Nations — sided with the Confederacy in the Civil War, but after the war concluded, each of them signed treaties in 1866 with the United States that granted tribal citizenship to those who were enslaved, as well as their descendants. 

After the Civil War, Black tribal slaves gained their freedom through sections of treaties issued in 1866 and in turn were then known as Freedmen.

Both the Dawes Act of 1893 and Curtis Act of 1898 allowed the United States to acquire the Native American land. Land allotment went against Native American culture that subscribed to common ownership of property. But additionally, as members of the five formerly slaveholding tribes, Freedmen received unequal land allotments, which were less than the allotments provided to some White, non-tribal citizen individuals.

Rep. Maxine Waters, who serves as the chairwoman of the U.S. House Financial Services Committee, plans to legislate and work with agencies on this issue. Because the Department of Housing and Urban Development, as well as housing issues are within the jurisdiction of the Committee, the Chairwoman is able to propose legislation related to housing subsidies tribes receive. Ultimately, the HUD Secretary has the authority, in consultation with the Secretary of the Interior, to put funds on hold until a given tribe comes into compliance with their 1866 treaty obligations.

A proposed committee provision in President Joe Biden‘s Build Back Better plan, currently being worked out legislatively by Democrats in Congress, would hold funding for tribes that discriminate against Freedmen descendants. Tribes would not receive their withheld funds until they comply.

Trail of Tears statue
Statue commemorating the ordeal of native American Indian tribes at the Trail of Tears Memorial and Museum in Pulaksi. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Waters’s committee intervention could mean a focus on cutting housing subsidies to those tribes that continue to resist compliance with the treaties.

Damario Solomon-Simmons, an attorney for the last remaining survivors of the Tulsa Massacre is also a Black Creek and represents Black Creeks who are petitioning to access the full rights and citizenship of the Muscogee Creeks. Solomon-Simmons told TheGrio, “there would not have been a Black Wall Street or successful Greenwood without Black Indian, Black Creek, Black Cherokee, etc.”

Welcome to Oklahoma Sign
(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Many of the Tulsans who established Greenwood’s business district in the early 1900s were of mixed Native American heritage due to their tribally enslaved ancestors. However, there were also freedmen who also belonged to the tribes.

Solomon-Simmons said his great grandfather was a Black Creek and became a chief. “He saved the lives of countless,” he said. “He was one of five individuals who negotiated the Treaty of 1866 … and signed it. And in that treaty, it stated that Black people who were formerly enslaved would have the same citizenship rights.”

The same tribes today are resisting giving the descendants of their enslaved federal subsidies they agreed to in those treaties.

As noted by Congresswoman Waters, the Cherokee went to court “to defend the right not to have to share the resources of the federal government with the descendants of the slaves,” — something Solomon-Simmons said was “a breach of the contract.”

“It substantially impacts tens of thousands of Black people who should have their citizenship,” he added.

With all of the lost history, comes a loss of identity that Rep. Waters also wants to address.  

Maxine Waters
U.S. House Financial Services Chair Maxine Waters (D-CA) (C) (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

“Many of the Blacks who went to Tulsa to commemorate the massacre that took place don’t even know the connection between those who were, you know, the victims of the massacre and their relationship to the Indians, and that they were descendants of slaves,” Waters explained. “They were descendants, direct descendants of slaves, and they were guaranteed their rights through the treaty and the five tribes who were all federally recognized.”

Both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are focusing in on righting wrongs that impact Black people in America. There are more actions taken by the Biden administration to correct some of the injustices of the past when it comes to Tulsa, Oklahoma specifically.

Natalie Madeira Cofield, assistant administrator of the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Office of Women’s Business Ownership — and first Black woman to hold the position — said the focus is on restorative economics for that area with “the Greenwood Chamber in partnership with the U.S. Black Chamber being the award recipient for what is our new women’s business center.”

Tulsa "Black Wall Street" sign is seen during the Juneteenth celebration
The “Black Wall Street” sign is seen during the Juneteenth celebration in the Greenwood District on June 19, 2020 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images)

The Greenwood Chamber of Commerce, which is the oldest Black chamber in the country, will receive $150,000 in grant funds to support nonprofit organizations through SBA’s establishment of a new center that will join a network of women’s business centers, as well as feature a five year renewable commitment and three additional option years. A higher share of Black-owned businesses are owned by Black women.

“This is a real investment that totals more than a million dollars in investing in the ecosystem of women entrepreneurs in Tulsa,” Madeira Cofield emphasized. “And this is again what the Office of Women’s Business Ownership does, with nearly $70 million in grant funding across the country. For all of our one hundred and thirty nine centers that we fund and support.”

The launch is scheduled to take place during the coming weeks and will include programs that focus on women’s entrepreneurial growth, counseling services, and access to capital and contracts. 

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this story claimed that Congresswoman Maxine Waters’s committee provision seeks to get “reparations” for Black Tulsans. This story has been edited to reflect that the provision actually seeks to get Native American tribes to be in full compliance with their 1866 treaty obligations by providing federal subsidies to general descendants of Black people enslaved by Native American tribes.

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