When LeEtta Osborne-Sampson was scrolling through her Facebook feed, she noticed a post shared on the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma’s page. The Wewoka Indian Health Service, the local, rural healthcare center, was at the phase in their COVID-19 vaccine rollout where only Seminole Nation Tribal patients who were 18 years or older with active or inactive charts could schedule appointments. To her, this news was the latest example of Black Seminoles’ health and livelihood being deprioritized.
Osborne-Sampson is both Black and Indigenous, a multi-racial identity that has been highly scrutinized both among the five Southeastern nations (Seminole, Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole) as well as the United States at large. She has represented the Caesar Bruner Band on the Seminole Nation’s General Council for 11 years, following the service of her grandfather and great-grandfather. This band is one of the Seminole Nation’s two Freedmen bands (i.e. descendants of the Freedman Roll, or freed slaves).
Like approximately 40% of the population in the Seminole Official Tribal State Area, Osborne-Sampson relies on public health insurance coverage provided via the Affordable Care Act. As a member of a Freedman Roll, she isn’t eligible to have an active chart created at a local IHS center. Her closest center is the Wewoka Service Unit, which has received 4,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses as of Feb. 23, 2021. The next closest IHS facility to Wewoka that is distributing vaccines is roughly 29 miles away.
Freedman citizens are largely ineligible for the additional healthcare benefits to which American Indians are entitled. American Indians don’t have to pay out-of-pocket costs for services from Indian healthcare providers or Tribal health programs. There are no premiums or out-of-pocket costs for Medicaid coverage, and they can enroll in Marketplace health insurance plans at any time, including outside of the open enrollment period.
In an act of frustration with her local IHS center, Osborne-Sampson attempted to have a chart created in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, under the health services contracted to the Cherokee Nation. After a number of other Freedman citizens of the Seminole Nation followed suit, the Nation was contacted. Shortly thereafter, her appointment was canceled, stating that she had the “wrong card.” For context, Tribal membership cards for Freedman citizens have different colors and state “voting benefits only” on the back.
If Osborne-Sampson wants to be vaccinated now at Wewoka IHS, she can only do so as a non-Native, as Freedman citizens aren’t eligible for the same vaccination benefits extended to Native Americans. Otherwise, she can make an appointment at one of Oklahoma state’s distribution sites, where her Indigenous identity will only be recorded as demographic data.
Another descendent of Seminoles on the Freedman Rolls, Leestra Robinson, died after contracting COVID-19. She worked at a day care center with insufficient PPE, and her local IHS center had yet to make vaccination appointments to non-Natives. During her lifetime, she never formally applied to become an official Freedman citizen, believing that the minimal available benefits didn’t justify the application process.
The history of Black Seminoles
Black members of Oklahoma’s Seminole Nation can be traced back to a group of Africans living autonomously in Florida. Over time, these communities began establishing strong relationships with Indigenous peoples, namely the Guale.
When the Spanish regained control of Florida from the British, new settlements were established near the emerging Seminole Tribe in exchange for agricultural produce. Over the course of the coming decades, the two communities began to intermarry and form mutual alliances, and that’s when Black Seminoles came into being.
Throughout history, Black Seminoles have held positions of influence and power, including John Horse who led Black Seminoles to Mexico to escape slavery in the U.S. and Abraham who traveled to and from the Capitol to speak on the tribe’s behalf.
In the early 1800s when the first two Seminole Wars were launched to defend their Tribal land, the United States government sought to disrupt this racial alliance by encouraging Black Seminoles’ enslavement.
After these wars concluded in the 1840s, approximately 3,000 members of the Seminole Tribe were removed to “Indian territory” and forced to live under the rule of the Creek Nation. Many Black Seminoles became the property of members of their own tribe, as well as the Creek Nation. In 1856, the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma was established.
At the end of the Civil War, Seminoles were forced to enter into a treaty with the federal government, which included a requirement to end slavery and adopt freed slaves, also known as “freed men,” as citizens. However, they have never enjoyed the same rights as non-Black Seminoles.
Under the Dawes Commission, Seminoles, along with Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Creek, gave up their tribal land ownership and agreed to individual ownership of a portion of its size. Indigenous people were then forced to submit an application, which determined their eligibility to be enrolled in one of the five tribes and be allotted land.
Under the advisement and consent of Seminole leaders, tribal membership was segregated depending on the degree of Indigenous blood which was also noted on enrollment cards. The primary roll, also known as the “Blood Roll,” was intended for non-Black Seminoles who had been certified “Indian by blood” according to matrilineal descent. The secondary roll, i.e. the “Freedman Roll,” was designated for former slaves adopted by the Nation, in addition to a number of those with Black mothers and non-Black fathers. For this group, their quantum of Indian blood was not recorded.
Navigating aid as a Black Seminole
The Indian Bureau of Affairs still uses the blood quantum rule for evaluating eligibility to receive a Certificate Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB cards). These cards allow people to enjoy the services provided by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) to federally recognized tribes.
Seminoles on the Freedman Rolls exist in a liminal space, where they can claim tribal voting rights, but not CDIB cards or any other benefits afforded to American Indians “by blood,” which include a student loan repayment program for up to $40,000 and a Housing Improvement Program.
“Freedmen definitely deserve reparations, just as much as Native Americans do … because we need to be repaired for the trauma that was suffered … whether it be physical, mental, generational, [or] emotional,” said Lamar Williams Jr., a member of the Dosar Barkus Band.
Today, the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma has 18,636 Tribal members and 2,607 Freedman citizens.
According to the Code of Federal Regulations, an Indian is defined as “any person who is a member of an Indian tribe.” Only those who fit this definition pass the first eligibility requirement for the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ financial assistance and social services programs.
However, Article XII, Section 1 of the Seminole Nation’s Constitution states, “All members shall be guaranteed equal economic opportunities and freedom of association and assembly.” Article II qualifies membership as “all Seminole citizens whose names appear on the final rolls of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma approved pursuant to Section 2 of the Act of April 26, 1906 (34 Stat. 137) and their descendants.”
“If you’re on the [Freedman] Roll [but not the Blood Roll, then] they say [you’re] not actually Native [and ]they won’t let you get the benefits,” said Williams Jr., who is engaged to a Freedman member of the Cherokee Nation. Williams will only be eligible for American Indian benefits as a non-Native spouse.
In 2003, Osborne-Sampson had been unable to qualify for financial assistance via the Nation’s social services programs. Her application for the Seminole Nation’s COVID-19 Emergency Assistance Program was also rejected last year. In the latter instance, the COVID-19 Emergency Assistance Committee said her membership card was not valid.
This program consists of funds that the Seminole Nation received from the CARES Act, which reserved $8 billion to be allocated in payments to tribal governments. These payments are calculated using “population data, employment data, and expenditure data.” Sixty percent of the funds were distributed immediately based on the tribal government’s population data and 40% based on employment and expenditure data. All of these numbers are derived from the U.S. census, where Black and non-Black members are counted with equal standing.
The CARES Supplemental Appropriations Act included an additional $1 billion to be awarded to the IHS, $210 million of this fund was for COVID-19 vaccine distribution and coverage.
Chief Greg P. Chilcoat has publicly stated that the Seminole Nation received $16 million from the federal government as part of the CARES Act. The sum of those funds would undoubtedly be much smaller without the presence of Black Seminoles.
This is not the first instance where funds federally allocated to the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma were not paid to members of Freedmen bands. In 1990, Congress passed an act approving a financial award to the Nation as compensation for land taken by the United States in 1823. Descendants of the Freedman Rolls were deemed ineligible for this program since Black Seminoles were not federally recognized as part of the Nation until 1866.
Osborne-Sampson is currently raising funds for future legal fees required to file another lawsuit in federal court in response to the racial inequities existing within the tribe and ensure those on Freedmen Rolls get the same benefits as those on the Blood Roll.
In 2017, U.S. District Court for Washington, D.C. ruled in a similar case that the Cherokee Nation must grant its Freedman members full tribal benefits. Based on precedent, Black Seminoles may find justice after all.
This past year, the Nation’s Supreme Court ruled that the phrase “by blood” be removed from its constitution.