Politics

House weighs historic bid to add Cherokee Nation delegate

A 200-year-old treaty that forced the nation to relinquish its ancestral lands in the South stipulates that the nation would be entitled to a delegate in the House.

Kimberly Teehee, the Cherokee Nations nominated delegate for a nonvoting seat in Congress, at the tribes headquarters in Tahlequah in eastern Oklahoma Oct. 25. (Joseph Rushmore/The New York Times)


WASHINGTON — A House committee on Wednesday weighed a proposal to seat a delegate from the Cherokee Nation in Congress, holding a historic hearing that grappled with how to uphold a promise made in a nearly 200-year-old treaty that has yet to be fulfilled.

The hearing, held by the House Rules Committee, was part of a push to allow Kim Teehee, a veteran policy aide and a longtime Cherokee Nation official, to be seated in the coming months as a nonvoting delegate in the House, which would add the first delegate from a tribal nation ever to serve there.

The effort has prompted members of Congress to publicly confront some of the darkest moments in American history and the string of broken promises to Indigenous people across the nation.

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If it granted the position to Teehee, 54, the House would fulfill a once-overlooked stipulation in the Treaty of New Echota, which forced the nation to relinquish its ancestral lands in the South. The treaty led the U.S. government to force 16,000 members of the Cherokee Nation on the Trail of Tears, a deadly trek to land in what is now Oklahoma. A quarter of those forced to leave — about 4,000 — died before they arrived, as a result of harsh conditions, starvation and disease.

But the treaty, ratified by just a single vote in the Senate and signed by President Andrew Jackson in 1836, also declared that the Cherokee Nation would be “entitled to a delegate in the House of Representatives of the United States whenever Congress shall make provision for the same.”

Congress has never done so.

Teehee, whose ancestors survived that treacherous march, was on hand in the committee room Wednesday to listen to a series of questions about the complexity of establishing another delegate position.

“It can be pretty overwhelming to think about, when I think about what was what was bargained for and what was lost as a result of that particular treaty right,” Teehee said in an interview before the hearing. “I think about my family’s history — the poverty, the loss of life, all the struggles that occurred as a result of that forced removal.”

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“The final outcome being the seating of the actual delegate in the House would give some small measure of justice for those, including my own ancestors, who lost their lives during that forced march,” she added.

Delayed by the pandemic and mindful that a new Congress in January may force them to restart the process, tribal leaders have accelerated their campaign to have a vote on the House floor to approve her seat. Indigenous people across the United States have emerged as an increasingly powerful voting bloc with notable influence, with representatives in the highest levels of the federal government, and lawmakers on Wednesday were receptive to taking up legislation in the coming weeks.

“As I study this issue, I believe is the right thing to do — it’s the moral thing to do,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., chair of the House Rules Committee. He said he believed there was bipartisan support to allow for the seating of the delegate, even with Republicans set to take control of the House in January.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said that Democrats would “continue to explore a path toward welcoming a delegate from the Cherokee Nation into the People’s House,” adding that her members were “committed to correcting the profound injustices of the past.”

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Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who reflected on his own Chickasaw ancestors and their tumultuous relationship with the federal government, said he was “glad to see tribes advocating for their treaties with such conviction.”

“It’s never too late to do the right thing,” he said, adding that the hearing had been “extraordinarily helpful and clarifying.”

Should Teehee be seated, she would join the ranks of a half-dozen delegates, including from the District of Columbia, Guam, and the Virgin Islands, who are able to introduce legislation and sit on committees, but cannot vote on the House floor. Teehee said she would not pursue the right to a floor vote, in part because of concerns about dual representation for Cherokee citizens already represented by the lawmaker in whose district they reside.

Unlike those delegates, however, Teehee was named to the post by Chuck Hoskin Jr., the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, in August 2019 and was confirmed unanimously by the Cherokee Nation Tribal Council.

During the hearing, lawmakers questioned experts in Indigenous and congressional law about the precedent for seating a delegate who has not been elected, as well as the mechanics for establishing such a position. Both McGovern and Cole, as well as other lawmakers on the panel, signaled a preference for taking a vote to seat a delegate. Among the options, experts said, was including creation of the position in the House rules package that governs the chamber proceedings, although that would require a new vote every two years.

Hoskin, who was among those brought to testify before the panel, said he would be open to such a step, especially if lawmakers continued to pursue more permanent legislation.

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“It’d be breathtaking for the next Congress to say we’re going to then break this promise,” Hoskin told the panel. “Now, I’m a tribal leader — I know my history and the United States has broken a promise or two.”

“But I think in the 21st century, when this House of Representatives seats Kim Teehee, there won’t be another Congress that will dare break that promise to the Cherokee Nation,” he added.

Lawmakers also raised questions about whether seating a delegate from the Cherokee Nation would open opportunities for other tribes to pursue similar representation. The Delaware Nation, which signed a treaty with the United States in 1778, and the Choctaw Nation, which signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek of 1830, may have similar rights to a delegate in the House and have already reached out to lawmakers, McGovern said.

But it appeared that the House would first focus on the right raised by the Cherokee Nation. After Teehee was named as a delegate in 2019, she went to Washington for a series of meetings on Capitol Hill to begin educating lawmakers about the position.

Those meetings, however, were cut short by the pandemic, during which Teehee and Cherokee leaders turned their focus to lobbying for resources to protect their members as the coronavirus spread. With the end of the current Congress approaching, however, the Cherokee Nation has revamped its efforts to see Teehee seated, dropping advertisements in at least one political newsletter on Capitol Hill and rallying lawmakers and voters to support the issue.

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Teehee grew up in Claremore, Oklahoma, with parents who still speak the Cherokee language. She still collects American currency issued between 1915 and 1919, all signed by Houston Benge Teehee, a distant relative and the first Native American to serve as registrar for the Treasury.

While Teehee studied law and political science, she said it was her experience as an intern for Wilma Mankiller, the first woman to serve as principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, that led her to work on tribal policy in Washington.

She worked as a senior adviser to Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., when he helped lead the bipartisan House Native American Caucus, before becoming the first senior policy adviser for Native American affairs under President Barack Obama. In that role, she helped craft a series of tribal initiatives, including policies intended to reduce violence against Indigenous women and ensure that offenders were prosecuted.

“However effective I might have been in my career, it can’t be fully realized until you have a seat at the table,” Teehee said. She added, “We just want the treaty right honored.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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