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Establishing a Claim

     Another question that had to be decided by the Commission was the kind and amount of evidence necessary to establish the claim of a Mississippi Choctaw.  In making proof of Indian blood the physical features of the claimant were considered, sometimes to the practical exclusion of all other evidence.  Coal-black negroes were sometimes dismissed by the Commission with the remark that the law was intended for Indians and not for negroes. 

     But evidence other than physical features was usually required to establish Indian blood. This evidence was furnished by the affidavits of one or more persons who knew the claimant, and could testify to his Indian ancestry. The most difficult matter, however, to make proof of was the fact that the claimant or his ancestor had conformed to the 14th article of the treaty of 1830. 

     A few old Choctaws remembered Judge Ward, the Indian Agent, and remembered going before him to make application for their Mississippi homes in 1830 and 1831, but in most instances the making of this application was purely a matter of tradition, and in some families the tradition had died out: In many instances the imagination was doubtless exercised more than the memory in furnishing evidence on this point.  The Commission was liberal with the claimants in admitting evidence of this fact, and permitted parol, heresay, custom, tradition, or even evidence of an opportunity for making such application, or position wherein such application was probable. The Supplemental Treaty in 1902 almost entirely eliminated this requisite to enrollment as Mississippi Choctaws.

The Case of Riddle, et al vs. Choctaw and Chickasaw Tribes 

The proceedings of the Commission were in their nature like the proceedings of a regular civil court. Each claimant was regarded as a party plaintiff, and the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations as parties defendant. Upon the filing of a claim, legal notice had to be given the defendant tribes, and one of the assignments of error made by the “Citizenship Court” in the test case of Riddle et al. vs. Choctaw and Chickasaw Tribes of Indians was the failure of the claimants to give the proper notice of the institution of de novo proceedings in the United States Court to the Chickasaw Tribe of Indians, one of the joint defendants.

     Reference has already been made to the many complications arising from the conflicting claims of the persistent Court Claimants. To undo this mischief and to cure the defects, to bring order out of chaos, Congress created in 1902 what is known as the “Citizenship Court.” This court consisted of three judges whose duty it should be to settle the legality of the conflicting Indian claims. This court organized in January, 1903, at South McAlester, Indian Territory, and began its work at once. The test case above referred to consumed its time for the first few months, and was intended to determine the status of the many court claimants who after having been turned down by the Commission had been reinstated by the United States Court. The decision of the Citizenship Court in this case invalidated all that had been done by the United States Court, holding that said court had no jurisdiction over citizenship claims instituted de novo, and that its jurisdiction was limited in these matters merely to a review of the action of the Commission. There were other assignments of error in the opinion, chief of which was the lack of proper process or notice already referred to.

     The effect of this decision was to open up anew all the old claims turned down by the Commission that had been carried to the United States Courts. This new court was granted jurisdiction to hear these claims and to determine the justice of them, its determination to be final. Great dissatisfaction was felt because of the court’s opinion—those who had been reinstated by the United States Court had the greatest grievance, but there was general dissatisfaction that these old matters were to be reopened. Some of the best lawyers questioned the constitutionality of the law creating the court, and others thought that the court had exceeded its jurisdiction in its decision. These lawyers preferred to ignore this court completely, fearing that to appear with their causes in this court would Waive their rights to question either the regularity of the court or its decision in the test case. Nevertheless, this court kept grinding away, day after day, establishing the claims of some, dismissing the claims of others. The court claimant found himself in an awkward dilemma. If he filed his claim with this court and lost, its decision was final and he was precluded from questioning the court or its decision in any tribunal; but there was no other tribunal to consider his claims, and this court was created for only twelve months, and if his claim was not decided within that time no further provision was made for its consideration. 

     But the “Citizenship Court” won. Its actions were ratified by Congress and a further lease of time given it in which to complete its work. 

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Ellen Pack