Is this overt racism? Can it be, under current (biased) definitions, if there are no white people involved?
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The distinction between a “Native American” and a “Freedman” relies on what Freedmen call a racist and outdated ideology of “citizenship by blood.”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.
Part of what I get from the above is that as far as Native Americans go, here we are in the 21st century and we're still using the one drop rule. George Wallace would be so proud.