The widespread recognition of Native Americans’ participation in and profit from the institution of slavery is relatively new. More attention has been focused on the issue with recent re-evaluations of the United States’ history of racism, and it remains a complex issue for many Americans who identify as both Black and Native. This history of enslavement of African Americans and people of African descent by Native Americans results in bureaucratic, political, and social challenges for descendants of those enslaved, such as the Seminole Freedmen, or Black Seminoles.
The Seminole are one of the Five Tribes of Native Americans who, historically, first lived in what is known now as Florida in the 18th century, and who today live in the states known as Oklahoma and Florida, comprising three federally recognized tribes: the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, the Seminole Tribe of Florida, and Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida.
By the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, Native American members of the Five Tribes owned approximately ten thousand enslaved African Americans. Many of them had made the perilous passage on the Trail of Tears to Indian Territory (Oklahoma) in the 1830s. The emancipation of enslaved African Americans brought contention and murkiness to the situation of Native Freedmen and their descendants.
In 1866, in a treaty between the Seminole Nation and the United States, Seminole Freedmen were promised “all the rights of native citizens.” However, living ancestors of Seminole Freedmen and Black Seminole Natives continue to report experiences of systemic racism within the Seminole Nation that they claim directly contradict the treaty’s agreements. These experiences include claims of segregation and denial of the rights of tribal citizenship within their respective tribes. Because many Seminole Freedmen are not recognized as full citizens of their respective Seminole tribe, but rather as “members,” they don’t have access to crucial tribal services such as healthcare, life insurance, burial assistance, and even doses of the COVID-19 vaccine that are relegated to Native American tribes.
The Seminole Freedmen plan to take their case to the Supreme Court, and it won’t be the first case of its kind. In Davis v. United States, decided in 1999, plaintiff Sylvia Davis claimed that the rights of her son Donell E. Davis, a descendant of Seminole Freedmen, was denied his rights as a Seminole citizen – upon applying for a tribal funding program, Donell was rejected because he lacked the identification card necessary to qualify; this identification card was denied because Ms. Davis was unable to prove her son’s descendance from the Seminole Nation “as it existed in Florida on September 18, 1823.” The 1823 Treaty of Moultrie Creek established the reservation on which the Seminole were required to settle after forced relocation.
Similar cases have appeared previously in which Black Native Americans have claimed discrimination within other Native American tribes. In 2017, a U.S. District Court ruled that descendants of Cherokee Freedmen have a right to tribal citizenship with the Cherokee Nation. In 2021, U. S. House Representative Maxine Waters, who chairs the House Financial Services Committee, which oversees the reauthorization of funding the Native communities, attempted to encourage tribal leadership into reconciling issues with Native Freedmen by suggesting the withholding of federal funds from tribes that violate their treaties.