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Freedmen descendants seeking Muscogee citizenship cry foul at special tribal court appointments

From left to right: State Rep. Ronald Stewart, attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons, freedmen descendants Rhonda Grayson, Jeffrey Kennedy, and Sharon Lenzy-Scott gather at The Root Coworking on Tuesday, July 9, 2024.
Elizabeth Caldwell
From left to right: State Rep. Ronald Stewart, attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons, freedmen descendants Rhonda Grayson, Jeffrey Kennedy, and Sharon Lenzy-Scott gather at The Root Coworking on Tuesday, July 9, 2024.

This story was updated to include a statement from the Muscogee Nation.

Two descendants of enslaved people owned by the Muscogee Nation are accusing the tribe of illegally appointing special justices to its highest court in a bid to rout citizenship claims.

Rhonda Grayson and Jeffrey Kennedy sued the tribe’s citizenship board after it denied their applications. In September of last year, District Judge Denette Mouser ruled in favor of the pair, potentially paving the way for hundreds of claims from other freedmen descendants.

The Muscogee Nation appealed to the tribe’s Supreme Court. Now, with a hearing set for July 26, attorneys for the descendants say the tribe’s legislative branch has sought to “pack the court” by secretly appointing two judges, one who’s gone on record saying he thinks claims from freedmen descendants are not in line with tribal directives.

In a press conference in the downtown area of Tulsa on Tuesday, attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons said he filed a petition to nullify measures allowing for the appointments of James Jennings and Samuel Deere by the Muscogee National Council.

“They literally did this under the cover of darkness,” said Solomon-Simmons.

A report from Mvsoke Media says Jennings and Deere were appointed to the Supreme Court on June 10 in an emergency session held via teleconference. In the same meeting, the panel unanimously passed a resolution allowing such "special justices" to be appointed when recusals occur.

Solomon-Simmons said the passing of the law and the appointment of the justices in the same emergency session could not be legal, since the law requires approval from the tribe's chief.

Justices Amos McNac and Leah Harjo-Ware both previously recused themselves from the descendants' case, according to court filings. McNac recused at the request of the descendants.

Pointing to what appeared to be a snippet of a recorded Zoom call, Solomon-Simmons said the Muscogee Nation deliberately chose justices who would sink the descendants' claims.

In the call, Jennings said he supported the 1979 constitution adopted by Muscogee Nation voters saying tribal citizenship is available only to those who are “Indian by blood.”

The Muscogee Nation said in a statement from Press Secretary Jason Salsman that it does not limit citizenship to those connected by blood to the tribe.

Here's the Nation's full statement:

"The brazenness with which this group lies is appalling. First, Individuals of African descent who are also Creek are more than welcome as citizens. Indeed, many already are citizens. The issue here is that the individuals seeking citizenship are not Creek at all, and our Constitution does not allow citizenship for anyone who is not a Creek descendant by blood.

Second, the video they point to is no bombshell. It’s nothing more than a candidate committing to do what every other government official in America is obligated to do—uphold the Constitution they swore an oath to uphold. The notion that any official of any government should pick and choose when to follow the law is dangerous and nonsensical. As a US military veteran and longtime MCN Council representative this is something Mr Jennings would understand well.

Lastly, the attacks on the appointment of special justices are a distraction. Every issue that comes before the court deserves the consideration of a full panel of justices and the appointment of special justices follows the same process as every other judge. Judges are nominated by the executive branch and confirmed by the legislative branch."

Before joining Public Radio Tulsa, Elizabeth Caldwell was a freelance reporter and a teacher. She holds a master's from Hollins University. Her audio work has appeared at KCRW, CBC's The World This Weekend, and The Missouri Review. She is a south Florida native.