TULSA, Okla. — The descendants of former slaves of Muscogee (Creek) Nation members have petitioned the U.S. government to be recognized as their own tribe - a move that could set a legal precedent for thousands of Indian freedmen descendants around the country.
The petition meets the requirements set by the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and should be accepted, the freedmen group's leader told the Tulsa World.
If accepted, the petition could make the Creek freedmen descendants the first such group to become their own separate tribe.
The group's leaders are now waiting for BIA officials to confirm that they have accepted the petition and have begun reviewing it.
Ron Graham, the 47-year-old president of the Muscogee Creek Indian Freedman Band, was raised as a Creek Indian until he was 15.
But he and other Creek freedmen descendants were kicked out of the Creek Nation in 1979 by a vote of the nation's members.
Graham's father, Theodore "Blue" Graham, practiced the traditions of his Indian heritage, including his participation in stomp dances, in his hometown of Okmulgee, which is also the headquarters of the Creek Nation, Graham said.
"That's why this is so dear to me," he said. "I was born and raised in the Creek Nation right there in Okmulgee. ... We just want to be federally recognized, because that's who we are."
Edwin Marshall, Creek Nation chief of staff, said the tribe has no comment because the freedmen descendants now have no affiliation with the Creek Nation.
Marshall said the tribe properly conducted a referendum to remove the freedmen descendants from the Creek Nation rolls and that the descendants are starting a new entity.
Freedmen were the former slaves of Indians and were guaranteed full rights and privileges to the tribes to which they had belonged in the U.S. Treaty of 1866.
"We're Creek Indians. We are also of African descent. It's hard for people to believe, but ... we're both, though, That's how it is," Graham said.
The descendants have since become a central part of tribal sovereignty issues, as several tribes, including the Cherokee Nation, have also voted to expel freedmen descendants from their ranks.
Tribal leaders often attribute a resentment of the treaty to the U.S. government's repeated violation of it while forcing tribes to adhere to it.
The votes to expel freedmen descendants are the result of tribes' seeking to allow enrollment only of Indians with traceable bloodlines to the tribe.
However, Graham and other Creek freedmen descendants can show bloodlines tracing back to nonfreedmen Indians, unlike other groups of freedmen.
Additionally, the criteria for becoming a federally recognized tribe doesn't require proof of Indian blood, Graham said. The standards just require proof that the tribe's members have ancestors on the original Indian rolls, which the Creek freedmen descendants have, he said.
They were just designated freedmen descendants along the way because they also had African lineage, Graham said.
Based on those and other arguments, Graham said the Muscogee Creek Indian Freedmen Band should be federally recognized.
"This is precedent. They haven't dealt with anyone in our position right now," he said. "We're not sure what to expect. If they go by facts and documents, we believe we will be federally recognized. ... It will be shocking to me if they do deny us. But I strongly believe that we have our documents well in hand."