The Cherokee Nation is citing treaties signed with the U.S. government in the 18th and 19th centuries in a fresh bid to push for their own representative in Congress.
Under the Treaty of New Echota in 1835, the federal government promised the Cherokee Nation a delegate in Congress as one form of compensation for forcing the Native American tribe off their ancestral lands in the southeastern U.S. and into Oklahoma in what is known as the Trail of Tears. The forced relocation of the Cherokees – along with members of the Muscogee Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw tribes – led to the deaths of 4,000 Cherokee Nation members and thousands of other Native Americans.
A “deputy” to Congress for the Cherokee Nation was first referenced in the Treaty of Hopewell from 1785, while a “delegate” to Congress was promised in the Treaty of New Echota and reaffirmed in the Treaty of 1866.
“It’s a right negotiated by our ancestors in two treaties with the federal government and reaffirmed in the Treaty of 1866, and reflected in our Constitution,” Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said in a statement last week. “At Cherokee Nation, we are exercising our treaty rights and strengthening our sovereignty.”
Hoskin added: “We know this is just the beginning and there is much work ahead, but we are being thorough in terms of implementation and ask our leaders in Washington to work with us through this process and on legislation that provides the Cherokee Nation with the delegate to which we are lawfully entitled.”
The tribe is hoping to send a non-voting delegate to Congress, just like other U.S. territories.
For now, Hoskin has nominated Kim Teehee, the tribe’s current vice president of government relations, to serve as the delegate. Teehee, who previously served as President Barack Obama’s senior policy advisor for Native American affairs in the White House Domestic Policy Council and as senior adviser to Native American Caucus Co-Chair Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., must be confirmed by the Council of the Cherokee Nation at a special meeting to be held on Aug. 29.
“I am truly humbled Chief Hoskin has nominated me for this extraordinary responsibility,” Teehee said in a statement. “This journey is just beginning and we have a long way to go to see this through to fruition.
She added: “[A] Cherokee Nation delegate to Congress is a negotiated right that our ancestors advocated for, and today, our tribal nation is stronger than ever and ready to defend all our constitutional and treaty rights. It’s just as important in 2019 as it was in our three treaties.”
According to the process used for other non-voting delegates, however, the House must vote to formally admit Teehee. It is unclear what the sentiment in the halls of Congress is toward allowing a Cherokee Nation representative into the House.
The U.S. government has historically put in place hurdles to prevent Native American tribes from claiming what was promised to them in the treaties they signed with Washington, but experts say that the Cherokee Nation has recently found itself in a position where it can begin to exercise its rights.
"To me, it's not surprising that it would take somewhat deep into the self-determination era for tribes to be in a position to assert some of these rights,” said American University law professor Ezra Rosser, according to the Hill.
The Cherokee Nation is by far the largest of the nearly 600 federally recognized Native American tribes in the U.S., with almost 400,000 enrolled members. There are also two other smaller Cherokee tribes recognized by the U.S. government – one in Oklahoma and the other in North Carolina.
The effort to send a delegate to Washington comes as part of a larger push by Native Americans for better representation within the federal government. Democrats Deb Haaland, of the Pueblo of Laguna tribe in New Mexico, and Sharice Davids, of the Ho-Chunk Nation in Kansas, became the first two Native American women to be elected to Congress last fall – bringing the total number of Native American lawmakers in the House up to four, alongside Oklahoma Reps. Tom Cole, of the Chickasaw Nation, and Markwayne Mullin, of the Cherokee Nation.
The push to have a delegate in Congress would fulfill a longtime wish by many members of the Cherokee Nation, who have wondered why such an effort has not been made before despite the promises from the federal government.
“We’ve talked about it, yes, but we hadn’t done anything about it because there were other things that had to be done to get to this point,” Charles Gourd, the director of the Cherokee National Historical Society, told The New York Times. “In a real sense there was not a fully functioning government and there have been some growing pains. I think this is a measure of the maturity of our tribal government.”
If the Cherokee Nation sends a delegate to Congress, it would join Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands and the United States Virgin Islands in having a non-voting delegate. While these delegates do not get a vote on the House floor, they do have the power to introduce bills and vote in committees.