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Native Tribes Face Funding Cuts Over The Treatment Of Descendants Of Former Slaves

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In 2017, because of a court ruling, the Cherokee Nation granted citizenship to people known as freedmen. They are the descendants of people enslaved by the Cherokees. Now other tribes feel pressure to do the same. And Congress is getting involved. Here's Allison Herrera from KOSU in Tulsa.

ALLISON HERRERA, BYLINE: At a small table near the back of the Midwest City Library, LeEtta Osbourne Sampson pulls out a census sheet from the late 1800s.

LEETTA OSBOURNE SAMPSON: My great-great-grandmother, Minerva Moppins, was a medicine woman.

HERRERA: The sheet has all the names and some details about her family.

SAMPSON: She taught my grandfather how to do the herbs and everything. But she helped take care of the people in the nation.

HERRERA: Sampson is carrying on the family legacy. She's a home health care worker and a band chief for the Seminole Nation Tribal Council. Even though she sits on the tribal council and votes on important tribal business, she says she can't receive any tribal benefits, like housing or health care. That's because she doesn't have full citizenship.

SAMPSON: So with our family to tell me that I don't belong where I am, it's disrespectful.

HERRERA: Sampson is a Seminole Freedmen descendant. Freedmen were formerly enslaved people of the five tribes that were removed to Oklahoma from the southeast on the Trail of Tears. A quick history lesson - after the Civil War, these same five tribes signed treaties in 1866. As part of those treaties, tribal nations agreed to free their slaves and give them the same rights as other tribal citizens. To Sampson, that means citizenship into the Seminole nation. She points back to that census.

SAMPSON: So if you're on this here - and this is a census from 1898 to 1914 - by blood, why are we having this problem today?

HERRERA: The Seminole Nation declined to be interviewed for this story but says they are considering Freedmen citizenship. Sampson's struggle was bolstered by the Cherokee Nation allowing Freedmen into their tribe and more recent protests over racial injustice. Last month, she and other Freedmen traveled to Washington, D.C., for a hearing on a key housing bill for Native Americans. They want language put in that legislation allowing them to receive benefits just like other Seminole citizens do. The Seminole Nation says it comes down to sovereignty. They decide who is a citizen, not the U.S. government.

MATTHEW FLETCHER: They've used lots of arguments, you know, this violates their sovereignty. These people are not part of our community. They don't contribute anything.

HERRERA: That's Michigan State University law professor Matthew Fletcher. He says the Freedmen should be citizens, full stop.

FLETCHER: The treaty requires the tribes to accept and enroll the Freedmen.

HERRERA: Because of the bill in Washington, Freedmen now have the attention of some of the members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including House Committee on Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MAXINE WATERS: This is a fight that's about fairness and equality. For one minority group to discriminate against a minority group will - cannot stand.

HERRERA: For LeEtta Osbourne Sampson, who is proud of her Seminole heritage, she says it's simple. She is and always has been part of the tribe.

SAMPSON: But my grandfather had it on his wall. They said, as long as the rivers flow and the grass grow, that we are Seminoles. And we're talking about the Freedmen.

HERRERA: The Seminole Nation just had an election. And Sampson hopes new leadership will finally grant her and all Freedmen tribal citizenship.

For NPR News, I'm Allison Herrera in Tulsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOONCAKE'S "CAST THE ROUTE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.