Indian Health Service reverses policy on black natives

The Indian Health Service announced this week that black Americans in the Seminole nation, known as freedmen, will now be eligible for health care through the federal agency, which previously denied them coronavirus vaccinations and other care.

The change in policy comes as the Biden administration and members of Congress are pressuring the Seminoles and other native tribes in Oklahoma to set aside their constitutions and include the Freedman, many of whom are descendants of black people who were enslaved by the tribes. as full and equal citizens of their tribes under treaty obligations after the Civil War.

“The Vevoca Indian Health Clinic, operated by IHS, provides services to members of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, and personnel at the clinic and other IHS facilities in Oklahoma have been informed that they should provide services to Seminole Freemen who are in their clinics and hospitals. are present,” the Indian Health Service said in a statement.

The Seminole Nation did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the declaration.

Cherokee Nation Chief Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. announced Friday that his tribe will also begin allowing Seminole Freedmen to visit their tribal-run IHS hospital near Wewoka.

The IHS system includes 26 hospitals, 56 health centers, and 32 health centers across the country that provide health care to 2.6 million Native Americans. The IHS clinic in Wewoka looks after the Seminole Nation, which is headquartered there.

The Choctaw, Muskogee (Creek), Cherokee, Seminole, and Chickasaw Nations, which originally settled in the Southeast, bought enslaved black people as laborers in the 18th and 19th centuries, and took them along when federal The government forcibly relocated the tribes to the Indian country. Now the state of Oklahoma. Thousands of freedmen currently live there.

The Seminole Nation currently grants only limited citizenship to 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 elected offices under the tribe’s constitution, but are not eligible for many tribal services – including housing, health care and education – many of them funded by the federal government.

“It brings tears to my eyes,” Reggie Knighton, head of the Dosser-Barcus Band – one of the Freedmen tribal bands in Seminole Nation – said of the announcement by IHS. Get the rights we deserve.”

Mr Knighton and other senior members of the Freedmen’s band, including two representatives from the tribe’s legislature, were denied a COVID vaccination at the start of the year by IHS clinics. He said Mr Knighton got the vaccine at a nearby Walmart pharmacy.

82-year-old Dora Thomas, a former representative of the Seminole Nation’s council, tried to get vaccinated from IHS after being hospitalized with COVID-19 with her husband, who died in January.

Ms Thomas’ son, Patrick Thomas, said she called the IHS clinic in Wewoka the following month to schedule vaccinations for her and her mother. He refused, he said, because he was a freedman.

“When it got to that point, I was like, ‘Man, you all hate us that bad, I can’t even trust you to give me a shot anymore,'” said Mr. Thomas, who was a former There are also council representatives. .

The issue of denial of health services to Friedman came to the fore during a hearing on his position in July, prompting sharp backlash from Representative Maxine Waters, a Democrat from California and chair of the House Financial Services Committee.

“People were killed, including leaders of the Friedman people,” said Marilyn Van, Cherokee citizens and president of the Freedman’s Descendants of the Five Civilized Tribes Association.

“I don’t know what else to say,” replied Ms Waters after a stunned silence.

In a statement, IHS said the Wevoca 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 clear how many Friedmans were denied vaccinations by the IHS. The coronavirus has torn the ranks of Aboriginal elders in Oklahoma, and the pandemic killed American Indians and Alaska Natives at nearly twice the rate of white Americans. Is.

IHS and the Seminole Nation have blamed each other for the denial of services. The health agency said in June that the agency had “no role” in determining whether Friedman was eligible for its services. In March, the head of the Seminole Nation said the tribe does not operate IHS clinics and that there is “no policy oversight” on the eligibility of freedmen.

In 1866, post-Civil War treaties gave full rights of tribal citizenship to former slaves of Seminoles and other tribes in Oklahoma. But in practice, freedmen have often been segregated within tribes, and their political rights have eroded over time.

The Seminole Nation voted to strip its Freedmen of tribal citizenship in 2000, but the nation reversed itself after the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs withdrew funds from the tribe in response. Now, Seminole Freedmen are classified as not having “Indian blood”, separating them from tribe blood citizens who can be elected to senior leadership positions and eligible for financial assistance.

Documents obtained by The New York Times show that Oklahoma’s Seminole Nation intentionally excluded freedmen from receiving a $2,000 lump sum payment through American Rescue Plan, a federal coronavirus relief program that requires all applicants to be “enrolled members.” was required. The blood of the Seminole nation of Oklahoma.”

According to the documents, last year’s federal COVID-19 emergency assistance program used the same blood requirement to deny Friedman access because he didn’t have “valid” tribal cards. Seminole Freedmen are given tribal membership cards, stating that they have “only voting benefits”.

A bill introduced in the Seminole Nation legislature that would make tribe freemen eligible for US rescue plan funding was voted 12 to 15 last month.

Other tribes in Oklahoma – such as the Choctaw and Muskogee (Creek) nations – have expelled their freedmen altogether by making changes to their tribal constitutions that add “by blood” requirements to citizenship. The Chickasaw Nation jointly signed its Reconstruction Treaty with the Choctaw Nation, but never enrolled its freedmen as citizens.

Freedmen and “by blood” members of native tribes in Oklahoma were listed separately by the federal government in the Dow’s Rolls of 1906; According to the tribes’ treaties signed with the federal government, the descendants of people from both lists are considered eligible for tribal membership.

The tribes changed their formation over time in order to expel black tribal members from the Freedmen’s Roll. Only one tribe in Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation, has completely reversed those policies and scrapped its constitution in February of this year.

Now two branches of government are pressuring other tribes to comply with their treaty obligations. In May, the first Native American secretary of the interior, Deb Haaland, called on tribes in Oklahoma to follow the example of the Cherokee Nation and voluntarily amend its constitution to remove the racial qualifications that separated and expel freedmen. Had given.

A legislative provision that could be included in the House version of President Biden’s $3.5 trillion social policy bill would also penalize tribesmen who continue to oust freedmen — tens of millions of dollars in federal funding from tribes to the Interior Department. right to withdraw. not comply.

Last year, a nurse at the Indian Health Service Clinic in Wewoka glanced at LeEtta Osborne-Sampson’s tribal identity card and refused to shoot her, Ms Osborne-Sampson said, because she said she was a freedman. Ms Osborne-Sampson, who also sits on the Seminole Nation’s tribal council, sought to know why she was being denied services. The nurse called the tribal police, who asked her to leave.

IHS said it was “not aware of such an incident.”

Ms Osborne-Sampson said experiences like hers were very common for Seminole Friedman seeking health care during the pandemic, and they contributed to deaths in the Friedman community.

Despite the victory, Ms Osborne-Sampson said a fight remains to treat Seminole freemen as equal Aboriginal citizens.

“We should be treated equally in this country,” Ms Osborne-Sampson said. “We are already victims in this country and are not treated equally. Why should we be treated as second-class citizens in our tribe?”

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