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After denying care to black natives, Indian health service reverses policy

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

The shift in policy comes as the Biden administration and members of Congress are pressuring the Seminole and other native tribes in Oklahoma to desegregate their constitutions and include the freedmen, many of whom are descendants of black people. who were held as slaves by the tribes, as full and equal citizens of their tribes under treaty obligations after the Civil War.

“The IHS-operated Wewoka Indian Health Clinic provides services to members of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma, and staff at the clinic and other IHS facilities in Oklahoma have been advised to provide services to Seminole Freedmen who are present in their clinics and hospitals,” the Indian health service said in a statement.

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

The IHS system consists of 26 hospitals, 56 health centers and 32 health stations across the country that provide health care to 2.6 million Native Americans. The IHS clinic in Wewoka provides care to the Seminole Nation, whose headquarters are located there.

The Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek), Cherokee, Seminole, and Chickasaw Nations, who originally inhabited the Southeast, bought enslaved black people as laborers in the 18th and 19th centuries, and took them with them when the federal government forcibly moved the tribes to the Indian land moved, 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 remote areas where IHS clinics may be the only health care option. They can vote and hold a number of elected offices under the tribe’s constitution, but were ineligible for a number of tribal services — including housing, health care and education — many of which are funded by the federal government.

“It brings tears to my eyes,” said Reggie Knighton, the head of the Dosar-Barkus Band — one of the Freedmen tribe bands in the Seminole Nation — of the IHS’s announcement. get the rights we are entitled to.”

Mr Knighton and other senior members of the Freedmen bands, including two representatives in the tribe’s legislature, were denied Covid vaccinations by IHS clinics earlier in the year. mr. Knighton was eventually vaccinated at a nearby Walmart pharmacy, he said.

Dora Thomas, 82, a former council representative for the Seminole Nation, tried to get a vaccination from the IHS after being hospitalized with Covid-19 in January along with her husband, who died.

Ms Thomas’s son, Patrick Thomas, said he called the IHS clinic in Wewoka the following month to schedule vaccinations for him and his mother. They were refused, he said, because they were freedmen.

“When the time came I was like, ‘Man, you all hate us all so much, I don’t even trust you to give me a chance now,'” said Mr Thomas, who is also a former council representative. .

The health services denial of Freedmen came up during a hearing on their status in July, provoking an outrage from Representative Maxine Waters, a California Democrat and chair of the House Financial Services Committee.

“People died, including leaders of the Freedmen people,” said Marilyn Vann, a Cherokee citizen and president of the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes Association.

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

In a statement, IHS said the Wewoka Indian Health Center made the vaccine available to Freedmen on March 1 — two months after the center began offering it to tribesmen.

It is unclear how many Freedmen vaccinations have been refused by the IHS. The coronavirus has torn ranks of tribal elders in Oklahoma, and the pandemic has killed American Indians and Alaska Natives nearly twice as fast as white Americans.

The IHS and the Seminole Nation have blamed each other for the denial of services. The health agency said in June that the agency “plays no role” in determining whether the Freedmen were eligible for its services. In March, the head of the Seminole Nation said the tribe does not operate the IHS clinics and has “no policy oversight” over the eligibility of the Freedmen.

After the Civil War treaties in 1866 gave the formerly enslaved freedmen of the Seminole and other tribes in Oklahoma full rights of tribal citizenship. But in practice, the Freedmen are often segregated within the tribes and their political rights have been eroded over time.

The Seminole Nation voted in 2000 to strip their Freedmen of their tribal citizenship, but the nation backtracked after the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs withheld funding from the tribe in response. Now Seminole Freedmen are classified as having no “Indian blood”, separating them from blood citizens of the tribe who can be elected to higher leadership positions and eligible for financial aid.

Documents obtained by The New York Times show that The Seminole Nation of Oklahoma deliberately barred the Freedmen from receiving a one-time payment of $2,000 through a federal coronavirus aid program, the American Rescue Plan, by requiring all applicants to be a “registered member.” are of Seminole Nation of Oklahoma blood.”

The same blood requirement was also used to bar Freedmen from last year’s federal Covid-19 Emergency Assistance Program because they were not in possession of “valid” pedigree cards, according to the documents. Seminole Freedmen are given tribal membership cards stating that they have “voting benefits only”.

A bill introduced in the Seminole Nation legislature that would make the freedmen of the tribe eligible for the funds from the US bailout plan was voted down last month, 12 to 15.

Other tribes in Oklahoma — such as the Choctaw and Muscogee (Creek) Nations — have completely expelled their freedmen through changes to their tribal constitutions that added “by blood” citizenship requirements. The Chickasaw Nation, along with the Choctaw Nation, signed the Reconstruction Treaty, but never registered the Freedmen as citizens.

Freedmen and “blood” members of Native American tribes in Oklahoma were listed separately by the federal government in the Dawes Rolls of 1906; descendants of people on both lists would qualify for tribal membership under the treaties the tribes made with the federal government.

The tribes changed their constitutions over time to expel black tribesmen descended from the freedmen. Only one tribe in Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation, completely reversed this policy in February of this year and desegregated its constitution.

Now two branches of the government are putting pressure on the other tribes to fulfill their treaty obligations. In May, Deb Haaland, the first Native American Secretary of the Interior, called on the tribes in Oklahoma to follow the lead of the Cherokee Nation and voluntarily amend their constitution to remove the racial qualifications that had separated and expelled the Freedmen.

A legal provision that could be included in the House version of President Biden’s $3.5 trillion social policy bill would also penalize tribes who continue to exclude the Freedmen — empowering the Department of the Interior to grant tens of millions of dollars in withholding federal funding from tribes that do fail.

Last year, a nurse from the Indian Health Service clinic in Wewoka glanced at LeEtta Osborne-Sampson’s tribal identification card and refused her a chance, Ms. Osborne-Sampson, because it said she was a released man. Ms. Osborne-Sampson, who also serves on the Seminole Nation tribal council, demanded to know why her services were refused. The nurse called the stampede, who asked her to leave.

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

Ms Osborne-Sampson said experiences like hers were all too common for Seminole Freedmen seeking healthcare during the pandemic, contributing to deaths in the Freedmen community.

Despite the win, Mrs. Osborne-Sampson that there is still a struggle to treat the Seminole Freedmen as equal citizens.

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

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