The Indian Health Service announced this week that black Native Americans in the Seminole Nation, known as the Freedmen, will now be eligible for health care through the federal agency, which previously denied them vaccinations against coronaviruses and other care.
The policy shift comes as the Biden administration and members of Congress pressure the Seminole and other native Oklahoma tribes to desegregate their constitutions and include the Freedmen, many of whom are descendants of blacks who had been held as slaves by the tribes, as full and equal citizens of their tribes after the civil war contractual obligations.
“The Wewoka Indian Health Clinic operated by IHS provides services to members of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, and staff at the clinic and other IHS facilities in Oklahoma have been advised that they should provide services to Seminole Freedmen who come to their clinics and hospitals, “the Indian health service said in a statement.
The Seminole Nation did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the announcement.
Chuck Hoskin Jr., the main chief of the Cherokee Nation, announced Friday that his tribe will also begin allowing the Seminole Freedmen to visit their tribe-run IHS hospital near Wewoka.
The IHS system consists of 26 hospitals, 56 health centers and 32 health posts across the country that provide health care to 2.6 million Native Americans. The IHS clinic in Wewoka provides care to the Seminol Nation, headquartered there.
The Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek), Cherokee, Seminole, and Chickasaw Nations, which originally inhabited the Southeast, purchased enslaved Blacks as laborers in the 18th and 19th centuries, and took them with them when the federal government forcibly displaced the tribes in Indian country, now the oklahoma state. Thousands of freedmen currently live there.
The Seminole Nation currently only grants limited citizenship to the Freedmen, many of whom are poor and live in isolated areas where IHS clinics may be the only health care option. They can vote and hold certain elective positions under the tribe’s constitution, but have not been eligible for a number of tribal services – including housing, health care and education – many of which are funded by the federal government.
“It brings tears to my eyes,” said Reggie Knighton, the leader of the Dosar-Barkus band – one of the Freedmen tribal bands of the Seminole Nation – of the IHS announcement. will not feel better until we get all the rights to which we are entitled.
Mr. Knighton and other senior members of the Freedmen bands, including two representatives in the Legislative Assembly of the tribe, have been refused vaccination against Covid by IHS clinics earlier in the year. Mr Knighton ended up getting the shot at a nearby Walmart drugstore, he said.
Dora Thomas, 82, a former representative of the Seminole Nation Council, attempted to get an IHS vaccine after being hospitalized with Covid-19 in January with her late husband.
Ms Thomas’ son Patrick Thomas said he called the IHS clinic in Wewoka next month to schedule vaccinations for him and his mother. They were refused, he said, because they were freedmen.
“When I got to this point I was like, ‘Dude you hate us all that much, I don’t even trust you to give me a chance now,” said Mr. Thomas, who is also a former representative of the city council. .
The denial of health services to freedmen was raised during a hearing on their status in July, causing a furious reaction by Representative Maxine Waters, Democrat of California and Chair of the House Financial Services Committee.
“People have died, including leaders of the Freedoms people,” said Marilyn Vann, Cherokee citizen and president of the descendants of the Freedmen of the Association of Five Civilized Tribes.
“I don’t know what else to say,” Ms. Waters replied after a stunned silence.
In a statement, IHS said the Wewoka Indian Health Center made the vaccine available to Freedmen on March 1 – two months after the center began offering it to tribal members.
It is not known how many freedmen have been denied the IHS vaccination. almost double the rate white Americans.
The IHS and the Seminole Nation have blamed each other for denial of service. The health agency said in June that the agency “has no role” in determining whether Freedmen were eligible for its services. In March, the leader of the Seminole Nation said the tribe does not operate IHS clinics and has “no political control” on the eligibility of the Freedmen.
Post-Civil War treaties in 1866 gave the formerly enslaved freedmen of the Seminoles and other tribes of Oklahoma full rights of tribal citizenship. But in practice, the freed have often been separated within tribes and their political rights have eroded over time.
The Seminole Nation voted in 2000 to strip their freedmen of tribal citizenship, but the nation toppled after the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs funding retained of the tribe in response. Now the Seminole Freedmen are classified as not having “Indian blood”, separating them from the blood citizens of the tribe who can be elected. in management positions and are eligible for financial assistance.
Documents obtained by the New York Times show that the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma intentionally excluded the Freedmen from receiving a one-time payment of $ 2,000 through a federal coronavirus relief program, the American Rescue Plan, requiring all applicants to be a “registered blood member of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma.”
The same blood requirement was also used to deny Freedmen access to last year’s federal Covid-19 emergency assistance program, as they did not hold “valid” tribal cards, according to the documents. Seminol Freedmen receive tribal membership cards indicating that they have “voting benefits only”.
A bill tabled in the Seminole nation the legislature that would make the tribe’s Freedmen eligible for US bailout funds was defeated, 12-15, last month.
Other tribes of Oklahoma – such as the Choctaw and Muscogee (Creek) nations – completely expelled their freedmen in changes in their tribal constitutions who added “by blood” requirements for citizenship. The Chickasaw Nation jointly signed its Treaty of Reconstruction with the Choctaw Nation, but never registered its freedmen as citizens.
The freed and “blood” members of Oklahoma’s native tribes have been separately listed by the federal government in the Dawes rolls from 1906; descendants of people on both lists are believed to be eligible for tribal membership, according to the treaties that the tribes have signed with the federal government.
The tribes changed their constitutions over time to expel black tribal members who were descendants of the Freedmen. Only one tribe in Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation, completely reversed these policies and disaggregated its constitution in February of this year.
Now two branches of government are pressuring other tribes to comply with their treaty obligations. In May, Deb Haaland, the First Native American Secretary of the Interior, called on the tribes of Oklahoma to follow the example of the Cherokee Nation and voluntarily modify their constitutions to suppress the racial qualifications which had separated and expelled the freedmen.
A legislative provision that could be included in the House version of President Biden’s $ 3.5 trillion social policy bill would also penalize tribes who continue to exclude freedmen – giving the Home Office power to withhold tens of millions of dollars in federal funding from tribes that do not comply.
Last year, a nurse at the Indian Health Service clinic in Wewoka took a look at LeEtta Osborne-Sampson’s tribal ID card and denied him an injection, Ms Osborne-Sampson said because she said she was a Freedmen. Ms. Osborne-Sampson, who also sits on the Seminole Nation Tribal Council, asked why she was being denied services. The nurse called the tribal police, who asked her to leave.
The IHS said it was “unaware of any such incident.”
Ms Osborne-Sampson said experiences like hers were all too common for Seminole Freedmen seeking health care during the pandemic, and that they contributed to deaths in the Freedmen community.
Despite the victory, Ms Osborne-Sampson said there remained a battle for the Freedmen Seminol to be treated as equal tribal citizens.
“We should be treated as equals in this nation,” Ms. Osborne-Sampson said. “We are already suffering in this country and are not treated as equals. Why should we continue to be treated like second class citizens in our tribe? “