n 2016, LeEtta Osborne-Sampson, a council representative of the Seminole Nation who is Black, approached some colleagues about a disturbing picture hung on the wall of the Mekusukey Mission, which is used as the Seminole Nation council house and courthouse.
“It was a Black man sitting under a tree,” Osborne-Sampson said. “This Black man had a cloak over his head, a noose around his neck and his hands bound and his feet bound.”
Osborne-Sampson went to the Seminole Nation chief at the time, Leonard Harjo, and asked for the painting to be removed.
“You can’t get that removed,” she says Harjo told her. “It’s history.”
Osborne-Sampson is one of four members of the Seminole Nation General Council who are Freedmen — descendants of enslaved people brought to Oklahoma by tribal nations that were forcibly relocated here in the 19th century. The Seminole Nation grants Freedmen only limited citizenship rights, and three of the other five largest Oklahoma tribes don’t recognize their Freedmen as citizens at all.
Though Freedmen were guaranteed tribal citizenship by treaties signed in 1866, many of those rights have been chipped away or revoked entirely over the years. But Freedmen in all five tribes have been fighting to reclaim their status as tribal citizens, with mixed success. Despite setbacks, their efforts have gained momentum and are even the subject of a bill currently before Congress.
The history of disenfranchisement still surfaces today, Osborne-Sampson said, recalling incidents in which racist slurs and other insults were hurled at her and the other Freedmen council members. She also recalled stories of discrimination that her grandfather, Sam Osborne, who also served on the Seminole Nation General Council, used to tell her.