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Breaking News: Department of Interior Addresses Select Provisions of the 1866 Reconstruction Treaties Between the United States and Oklahoma Tribes

By WesPointOfView
October 3rd, 2023 – In a recent hearing before the United States Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, Bryan Newland, Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs at the U.S. Department of the Interior, presented testimony on the select provisions of the 1866 Reconstruction Treaties between the United States and Oklahoma Tribes. The focus of the discussion was on treaty provisions that provided rights and privileges to the Freedmen, individuals who were previously enslaved by citizens of the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muscogee (Creek), and Seminole nations – collectively known as the “Five Civilized Tribes.”
The history of the Five Tribes is one marked with sorrow due to United States governmental policies that marginalized Native American Indians and forced them from their lands. Each of the Five Tribes had citizens who owned slaves and enacted laws supporting slavery or restricting the rights of enslaved people. However, these laws are no longer in effect today.
In the aftermath of the Civil War in 1866, the Five Tribes entered into treaties with the United States that addressed the status and rights of freed slaves and individuals of African descent residing among them. It is important to note that there is no single or uniform law or treaty that applies to all Freedmen. The Freedmen provisions in each of the 1866 treaties varied in important respects.
For instance, the 1866 Treaty with the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma stipulated that persons of African descent among the Seminoles, along with their descendants, should have and enjoy all the rights of native citizens. The laws of the Seminole Nation would be equally binding upon all individuals, regardless of race or color, who may be adopted as citizens or members of the tribe.
Similarly, the 1866 Treaty with the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations guaranteed that all persons of African descent, including those held in slavery among the nations and their descendants, residing in the tribes would be granted all the rights, privileges, and immunities, including the right to suffrage, of citizens of those nations. In exchange, the United States received certain lands which were to be held in trust until the tribes enacted the necessary laws.
The 1866 Treaty with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation recognized that there were individuals of African descent among the Creeks. These individuals and their descendants would enjoy all the rights and privileges of native citizens, including an equal interest in the soil and national funds. The laws of the Muscogee Nation would equally bind and protect all such persons, as well as individuals of any race or color who may be adopted as citizens or members of the tribe.
Lastly, the 1866 Treaty with the Cherokee Nation granted all Freedmen who had been liberated, as well as free colored persons who were present in the country at the beginning of the rebellion, and their descendants, all the rights of native Cherokees.
In 1896, Congress established a Commission to the Five Tribes with the purpose of preparing membership rolls for each tribe in preparation for the breaking-up and allotment of their lands. The Commission was tasked with determining applications for citizenship, taking into account the tribes’ laws and treaties with the United States. The Commission also created a roll of Freedmen entitled to citizenship, known as the “Dawes Rolls.”
Over the past half-century, disputes have arisen within some of the Five Tribes regarding the legal status of Freedmen. However, the Cherokee Nation recently resolved its dispute by approving a new constitution that explicitly secures the citizenship and political rights of Cherokee Freedmen. This important step fulfills the nation’s obligations to the Freedmen and sets an encouraging example for other tribes to meet their moral and legal obligations.
While the status of Freedmen in the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Muscogee (Creek), and Seminole Nations is yet to be fully resolved, the Department of the Interior acknowledges the remaining issues and expresses readiness to work with the tribes to address these important matters. The goal is to ensure that all individuals, regardless of their racial or ethnic background, are granted equal rights, privileges, and protections within these tribal communities.
As discussions continue, the Department of the Interior remains committed to upholding the principles of justice, fairness, and inclusion for all individuals within Native American communities. The examination of the 1866 Reconstruction Treaties between the United States and the Oklahoma Tribes is an essential step towards achieving true reconciliation and fostering stronger relationships between the tribes and the federal government.
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