By the time the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma began distributing vaccines to tribal citizens, LeEtta Osborne-Sampson had already witnessed nearly two dozen members of her extended family die of COVID-19. She was relieved vaccine doses had finally arrived to protect those who remained.
But when she showed up at the Indian Health Service clinic in Wewoka, the capital of the Seminole Nation, staffers refused to give her a shot. They told her that she wasn’t eligible because her tribal ID card identifies her as a Freedman, a Seminole citizen who is a descendant of enslaved Black people. When she demanded answers, staffers called over a tribal police officer.
“It’s a terrible day to find out that your own people will let you die,” said Osborne-Sampson, who sits on the Seminole Nation’s tribal council.
While tribal leaders and the Indian Health Service have been hailed for successfully rolling out COVID vaccines across the country, Osborne-Sampson is one of six Freedmen who told BuzzFeed News that the Seminole Nation has denied them vaccines, health services, and COVID financial relief based on the ancestry listed on their tribal ID cards. Freedmen make up roughly one-eighth of the Seminole Nation’s nearly 20,000 citizens and are counted in the tribal census — which the federal government used to allocate over $16 million in CARES Act funds to the tribe.
The distinction between a “Native American” and a “Freedman” relies on what Freedmen call a racist and outdated ideology of “citizenship by blood.” All Seminole Freedmen receive tribal ID cards that read “Freedman citizen, 0/0 Indian blood” on the front and “Voting benefits only” on the back. Other tribal citizens receive cards that list their blood quantum (their fraction of “Indian blood”) with no restrictions. Documents reviewed by BuzzFeed News show that the Seminole tribe has used these ID cards to deny Freedmen access to COVID health and financial services.
Indigenous communities across the country have been hit hard by the pandemic, with Native Americans and Alaska Natives dying at more than twice the rate of white people in the US — higher than any other racial or ethnic group. But for Freedmen, decades of exclusion from their local tribal health services have left them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 — the same kind of disparities experienced in Black communities across the US.
In early March, shortly after BuzzFeed News began reporting this story, the Wewoka clinic changed its policy to offer vaccines to anyone over 18, regardless of tribal status. But the IHS allocates vaccines to the clinic based on the number of active patients — and since Freedmen are not eligible for any healthcare through the Seminole Nation, they were not included in the tallies determining how many vaccines the clinic receives, the agency confirmed to BuzzFeed News.
In response to questions about why Freedman citizens of the Seminole Nation were denied vaccines at the Wewoka clinic, the IHS said it was “coordinating closely with tribes and the state of Oklahoma to ensure that vaccines reach Indian Country as quickly and equitably as possible.” Asked about Freedmen being excluded from services other than the vaccine, the IHS said it is “not involved in determining tribal enrollment of individual citizens.”
The Seminole Nation did not respond to multiple requests for comment from BuzzFeed News.
Osborne-Sampson and other Freedmen leaders have been fighting for full rights from and recognition by their tribal governments for decades. Now, they say, the stakes are even higher.
“I don’t want my name in lights,” Osborne-Sampson said. “I want my place at the table so our people can survive.”
Dora Thomas, a Freedmen elder and former member of the Seminole Nation’s tribal council, and her son, Patrick Thomas, a commercial truck driver who is fighting his recent removal from the council, applied for COVID emergency financial relief from the tribe last summer. Both were denied assistance, according to letters the Seminole Nation’s COVID-19 Emergency Assistance Committee sent them: “The review committee has determined that you are ineligible to receive funding under the Program because you do not hold a valid Tribal Membership card for the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma.”
Dora and her husband were hospitalized with COVID-19 in January, and both were placed on ventilators. He died about two weeks later while she was in a rehab facility. As a Freedman, Dora was not eligible for healthcare through the Seminole Nation, so she went to the state to receive public insurance.
The next month, Patrick called to see if he and his mother could get vaccinated through the tribe. He was told they were not eligible.
“They hate us that bad,” Patrick said. “We’re stuck in a system that doesn’t care about us.”
Until March 1, the Wewoka clinic’s vaccine policy prioritized the health of “by blood” citizens, making exceptions for Freedmen who live with “Native Americans,” according to a phone recording reviewed by BuzzFeed News.
Anthony Conley, a member of Seminole Nation’s tribal council, called the Wewoka clinic in February to see if Freedmen were eligible. A representative said the clinic did not “honor the Freedmen” — but if they shared a household with or were a caretaker for a “Native American,” they would be eligible.
Despite the policy change, because of these experiences, Conley, Patrick, Dora, and Osborne-Sampson said they no longer want to get vaccinated at the Wewoka clinic.
Blocking vaccine access is the latest chapter in a long fight over Freedmen disenfranchisement. The Seminole Freedmen are descendants of formerly enslaved Black people who escaped to what is now Florida. After fighting together in the Seminole Wars in the 19th century, both Freedmen and Seminole Native Americans were forced to move to Indian Territory in modern-day Oklahoma. In the 1866 treaty the Seminole Nation signed with the US, Freedmen and their descendants were recognized as equal citizens within the tribe.
But a series of legal fights since then have pitted the tribe — whose leaders assert their sovereign right to determine their own membership — against the Freedmen. Despite heavy fines from the federal government and a series of lawsuits, which established that Freedmen were considered full tribal citizens, many say they are still being denied services and treated as second class.
The tensions between the Seminole Nation and the Freedmen reveal the complicated and often overlooked racial dynamics within many tribes. Cherokee Freedmen, after a series of court cases, were affirmed as full citizens in 2017 and now receive full health and financial services. In February, the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court removed the term “by blood” from its constitution and laws. Freedmen of the Chickasaw, Creek, and Choctaw tribes are not considered citizens and are not eligible for any tribal services. Seminole Freedmen, meanwhile, sit in the middle: Though they are tribal citizens who can vote in elections and have representatives on the council, they still don’t have access to health or financial services.
The Freedmen controversy gained renewed attention last year after Gary Batton, chief of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, wrote House Speaker Nancy Pelosi a letter resisting a provision in a housing bill that would compel tribes to grant Freedmen full citizenship. In the letter, Batton wrote that the provision would “subjugate the sovereignty” of the Choctaw Nation. “Congress should not be permitted to abuse its power by forcing the Choctaw Nation to fix America’s longstanding problems of systemic racism rooted in America’s enslavement of African Americans,” Batton wrote, though the Choctaw Tribe also previously enslaved Black people.
Osborne-Sampson thinks anti-Freedmen tribal leaders hide behind sovereignty as an excuse for their own racism.
“I thought sovereignty was building up the nation, not tearing it down,” she said.
After hearing stories of other Freedmen being denied the vaccine, many Seminole Freedmen aren’t bothering to try to get access through the tribe.
Sache Primeaux-Shaw wasn’t willing to put her 85-year-old grandmother through the humiliating process of being denied healthcare by her own tribe, she said. Instead, after some searching, she was able to find a vaccine appointment for her grandmother at a Black-owned clinic in Oklahoma City.
Primeaux-Shaw, a Freedmen genealogist and historian, was enrolled as a Seminole Freedman at birth. In grade school, however, she switched her enrollment to her mother’s tribe, the Ponca Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma, which provides full tribal benefits and services to all its citizens. That means she can now access healthcare benefits that her grandmother, a citizen of the Seminole Nation, cannot.
“I don’t want her to die being a second-class citizen,” said Primeaux-Shaw, who believes that anti-Blackness within the five tribes has gotten worse over the last decade in response to Freedmen’s increased advocacy efforts.
Marilyn Vann, the president of the Descendants of Freedmen of the Five Civilized Tribes, has been organizing for years. Her group has been spreading awareness of Freedmen history and advocating for them to be granted equal citizenship in their respective tribes. Vann, a retired engineer at the US Department of Treasury, is also a candidate for Cherokee Nation Tribal Council.
“When Jim Crow ended, the sky didn’t fall down. It’s not falling down now,” Vann said, referencing when Cherokee Freedmen were granted full citizenship. She believes it is time for the other four tribes to follow suit, especially as the pandemic devastates the Freedmen community. “As long as people are oppressed, the whole community is weaker.”
Meanwhile, Freedmen groups across Oklahoma are organizing to get their elders vaccinated. Sylvia Davis, a Seminole Freedmen and former tribal council member, said that trying to work with tribal leaders has gotten them nowhere. So Davis, Osborne-Sampson, and the Seminole Freedmen say they are raising money to fight the exclusions in court. Osborne-Sampson was reluctant to go outside the tribe with their affairs but said the crisis has left them with no choice.
While they raise money for legal costs, Freedmen leaders are organizing rallies and working to educate others on their history in the hopes of galvanizing the community. They also plan to make Freedmen exclusion an issue in the upcoming Seminole elections this summer.
Despite their losses, Freedmen leaders are hopeful that the pandemic will be the spark that finally gets them their rights. But as cases continue to spread, Osborne-Sampson said she worries that will come at too steep of a cost: “How many of us will be left in another six months?” ●
Joseph Lee is an Aquinnah Wampanoag writer based in New York City.