By the point the Seminole Nation in Oklahoma started distributing vaccines to tribal members, LeEtta Osborne-Sampson had already witnessed practically two dozen members of her prolonged household die of COVID-19. She was relieved vaccine doses had lastly arrived to guard those that remained.
However when she confirmed up on the Indian Well being Service clinic in Wewoka, the capital of the Seminole Nation, staffers refused to provide her a shot. They advised her that she wasn’t eligible as a result of her tribal ID card identifies her as a Freedman, a Seminole citizen who’s a descendant of enslaved Black individuals. When she demanded solutions, staffers referred to as over a tribal police officer.
“It’s a horrible day to search out out that your personal individuals will allow you to die,” mentioned Osborne-Sampson, who sits on the Seminole Nation’s tribal council.
Whereas tribal leaders and the Indian Well being Service have been hailed for efficiently rolling out COVID vaccines throughout the nation, Osborne-Sampson is considered one of six Freedmen who advised Information that the Seminole Nation has denied them vaccines, well being companies, and COVID monetary aid primarily based on the ancestry listed on their tribal ID playing cards. Freedmen make up roughly one-eighth of the Seminole Nation’s practically 20,000 residents and are counted within the tribal census — which the federal authorities used to allocate over $16 million in CARES Act funds to the tribe.
The excellence between a “Native American” and a “Freedman” depends on what Freedmen name a racist and outdated ideology of “citizenship by blood.” All Seminole Freedmen obtain tribal ID playing cards that learn “Freedman citizen, 0/0 Indian blood” on the entrance and “Voting advantages solely” on the again. Different tribal residents obtain playing cards that record their blood quantum (their fraction of “Indian blood”) with no restrictions. Paperwork reviewed by Information present that the Seminole tribe has used these ID playing cards to disclaim Freedmen entry to COVID well being and monetary companies.
Indigenous communities throughout the nation have been hit exhausting by the pandemic, with Native Individuals and Alaska Natives dying at greater than twice the speed of white individuals within the US — greater than some other racial or ethnic group. However for Freedmen, many years of exclusion from their native tribal well being companies have left them notably susceptible to COVID-19 — the identical sort of disparities skilled in Black communities throughout the US.
In early March, shortly after Information started reporting this story, the Wewoka clinic modified its coverage to supply vaccines to anybody over 18, no matter tribal standing. However the IHS allocates vaccines to the clinic primarily based on the variety of lively sufferers — and since Freedmen are usually not eligible for any healthcare by the Seminole Nation, they weren’t included within the tallies figuring out what number of vaccines the clinic receives, the company confirmed to Information.
In response to questions on why Freedman residents of the Seminole Nation had been denied vaccines on the Wewoka clinic, the IHS mentioned it was “coordinating intently with tribes and the state of Oklahoma to make sure that vaccines attain Indian Nation as rapidly and equitably as attainable.” Requested about Freedmen being excluded from companies aside from the vaccine, the IHS mentioned it’s “not concerned in figuring out tribal enrollment of particular person residents.”
The Seminole Nation didn’t reply to a number of requests for remark from Information. In a public assertion on Friday, Seminole Nation Chief Greg Chilcoat mentioned, “America Indian Well being Service is the entity accountable for administering Covid-19 vaccinations to the Seminole Nation, and it’s the Nation’s understanding that such vaccine dissemination is being administered totally per federal legislation and coverage in offering such vaccinations.” He added, “Any allegation that the Seminole Nation is denying entry of the Covid-19 vaccine to a bunch of individuals is totally false.”
Osborne-Sampson and different Freedmen leaders have been combating for full rights from and recognition by their tribal governments for many years. Now, they are saying, the stakes are even greater.
“I don’t need my title in lights,” Osborne-Sampson mentioned. “I would like my place on the desk so our individuals can survive.”
Dora Thomas, a Freedmen elder and former member of the Seminole Nation’s tribal council, and her son, Patrick Thomas, a industrial truck driver who’s combating his latest removing from the council, utilized for COVID emergency monetary aid from the tribe final summer season. Each had been denied help, in response to letters the Seminole Nation’s COVID-19 Emergency Help Committee despatched them: “The evaluate committee has decided that you’re ineligible to obtain funding beneath the Program as a result of you don’t maintain a sound Tribal Membership card for the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma.”
Dora and her husband had been hospitalized with COVID-19 in January, and each had been positioned on ventilators. He died about two weeks later whereas she was in a rehab facility. As a Freedman, Dora was not eligible for healthcare by the Seminole Nation, so she went to the state to obtain public insurance coverage.
The subsequent month, Patrick referred to as to see if he and his mom might get vaccinated by the tribe. He was advised they weren’t eligible.
“They hate us that unhealthy,” Patrick mentioned. “We’re caught in a system that doesn’t care about us.”
Till March 1, the Wewoka clinic’s vaccine coverage prioritized the well being of “by blood” residents, making exceptions for Freedmen who stay with “Native Individuals,” in response to a telephone recording reviewed by Information.
Anthony Conley, a member of Seminole Nation’s tribal council, referred to as the Wewoka clinic in February to see if Freedmen had been eligible. A consultant mentioned the clinic didn’t “honor the Freedmen” — but when they shared a family with or had been a caretaker for a “Native American,” they might be eligible.
Regardless of the coverage change, due to these experiences, Conley, Patrick, Dora, and Osborne-Sampson mentioned they now not need to get vaccinated on the Wewoka clinic.
Blocking vaccine entry is the newest chapter in a protracted combat over Freedmen disenfranchisement. The Seminole Freedmen are descendants of previously enslaved Black individuals who escaped to what’s now Florida. After combating collectively within the Seminole Wars within the nineteenth century, each Freedmen and Seminole Native Individuals had been pressured to maneuver to Indian Territory in modern-day Oklahoma. In the 1866 treaty the Seminole Nation signed with the US, Freedmen and their descendants had been acknowledged as equal residents inside the tribe.
However a sequence of authorized fights since then have pitted the tribe — whose leaders assert their sovereign proper to find out their very own membership — towards the Freedmen. Regardless of heavy fines from the federal authorities and a sequence of lawsuits, which established that Freedmen had been thought-about full tribal residents, many say they’re nonetheless being denied companies and handled as second class.
The tensions between the Seminole Nation and the Freedmen reveal the difficult and sometimes neglected racial dynamics inside many tribes. Cherokee Freedmen, after a sequence of court docket instances, had been affirmed as full residents in 2017 and now obtain full well being and monetary companies. In February, the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court docket eliminated the time period “by blood” from its structure and legal guidelines. Freedmen of the Chickasaw, Creek, and Choctaw tribes are usually not thought-about residents and are usually not eligible for any tribal companies. Seminole Freedmen, in the meantime, sit within the center: Although they’re tribal residents who can vote in elections and have representatives on the council, they nonetheless don’t have entry to well being or monetary companies.
The Freedmen controversy gained renewed consideration final yr after Gary Batton, chief of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, wrote Home Speaker Nancy Pelosi a letter resisting a provision in a housing invoice that might compel tribes to grant Freedmen full citizenship. In the letter, Batton wrote that the supply would “subjugate the sovereignty” of the Choctaw Nation. “Congress shouldn’t be permitted to abuse its energy by forcing the Choctaw Nation to repair America’s longstanding issues of systemic racism rooted in America’s enslavement of African Individuals,” Batton wrote, although the Choctaw Tribe additionally beforehand enslaved Black individuals.
Osborne-Sampson thinks anti-Freedmen tribal leaders conceal behind sovereignty as an excuse for their very own racism.
“I assumed sovereignty was increase the nation, not tearing it down,” she mentioned.
After listening to tales of different Freedmen being denied the vaccine, many Seminole Freedmen aren’t bothering to attempt to get entry by the tribe.
Sache Primeaux-Shaw wasn’t keen to place her 85-year-old grandmother by the humiliating technique of being denied healthcare by her personal tribe, she mentioned. As a substitute, after some looking out, she was capable of finding a vaccine appointment for her grandmother at a Black-owned clinic in Oklahoma Metropolis.
Primeaux-Shaw, a Freedmen genealogist and historian, was enrolled as a Seminole Freedman at beginning. In grade faculty, nonetheless, she switched her enrollment to her mom’s tribe, the Ponca Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma, which gives full tribal advantages and companies to all its residents. Which means she will now entry healthcare advantages that her grandmother, a citizen of the Seminole Nation, can’t.
“I don’t need her to die being a second-class citizen,” mentioned Primeaux-Shaw, who believes that anti-Blackness inside the 5 tribes has gotten worse during the last decade in response to Freedmen’s elevated advocacy efforts.
Marilyn Vann, the president of the Descendants of Freedmen of the 5 Civilized Tribes, has been organizing for years. Her group has been spreading consciousness of Freedmen historical past and advocating for them to be granted equal citizenship of their respective tribes. Vann, a retired engineer on the US Division of Treasury, can also be a candidate for Cherokee Nation Tribal Council.
“When Jim Crow ended, the sky didn’t fall down. It’s not falling down now,” Vann mentioned, referencing when Cherokee Freedmen had been granted full citizenship. She believes it’s time for the opposite 4 tribes to comply with go well with, particularly because the pandemic devastates the Freedmen group. “So long as individuals are oppressed, the entire group is weaker.”
In the meantime, Freedmen teams throughout Oklahoma are organizing to get their elders vaccinated. Sylvia Davis, a Seminole Freedmen and former tribal council member, mentioned that attempting to work with tribal leaders has gotten them nowhere. So Davis, Osborne-Sampson, and the Seminole Freedmen say they’re elevating cash to combat the exclusions in court docket. Osborne-Sampson was reluctant to go exterior the tribe with their affairs however mentioned the disaster has left them with no selection.
Whereas they elevate cash for authorized prices, Freedmen leaders are organizing rallies and dealing to teach others on their historical past within the hopes of galvanizing the group. In addition they plan to make Freedmen exclusion a problem within the upcoming Seminole elections this summer season.
Regardless of their losses, Freedmen leaders are hopeful that the pandemic would be the spark that lastly will get them their rights. However as instances proceed to unfold, Osborne-Sampson mentioned she worries that can come at too steep of a price: “How many people shall be left in one other six months?” ●
Joseph Lee is an Aquinnah Wampanoag author primarily based in New York Metropolis.
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