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Cherokee Nation Is Coming to Congress

The largest Native nation to share borders with the United States is finally claiming its right to representation.

Sue Ogrocki/AP Photo

On Thursday, Cherokee Nation (CN) Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. held a press conference to officially announce his intention to exercise the tribe’s treaty right to appoint a delegate to the United States House of Representatives. Alongside Hoskin was his proposed candidate, Kimberly Teehee, a former adviser to President Barack Obama and, by all accounts, a natural fit for the position.

For Natives across the country, the scene was almost unbelievable—the prospect of a tribal nation being able to boast a sitting congressional representative is as historic as it is exciting.

But as Hoskin pointed out in a phone call with The New Republic shortly after the press conference, an age-old inquiry remains unanswered, even as the Cherokee Nation steps forward to stake their rightful claim to the seat.

“The basic question members of Congress will have to ask is whether the United States will live up to its word,” Hoskin said. “There are certainly times in history when posing that question, you wouldn’t be certain of the answer.”

The Cherokee Nation has technically maintained the right to a delegate since it signed the Treaty of Hopewell in 1785 and the Treaty of New Echota in 1835. But due to a centuries of destructive and genocidal actions by the United States government—forced removal, the allotment era, the ongoing incursions by non-Natives seeking to steal from and profit off their sovereign status—it is only now that the nation has obtained the necessary political capital to move forward with the plan.

The idea of sending a delegate to Congress has been broached by the nation on numerous prior occasions, most recently in early 2017. At the time, journalist Tristan Ahtone, a member of the Kiowa Tribe and current tribal affairs desk editor for High Country News, laid out for Yes! the reasons why CN had not yet taken steps to appoint the delegate. Hoskin, then serving as the CN secretary of state, hinted at his desire to appoint the delegate but noted that the process to clear the way for the appointee was long and daunting; it didn’t help any that the country was in the midst of the shift in presidential administrations, from President Barack Obama to President Donald Trump.

However, two years later—and one week into his term as principal chief—Hoskin said that moving forward with the appointment made sense, owing to the accrued economic and political power of the Cherokee Nation.

“As we came to conclusion of Chief Bill John Baker’s administration [in 2019], my predecessor, we were in a position of strength that rivals any time in Cherokee history,” Hoskin told TNR. “It seemed to me that I was duty-bound—in addition to thinking it was the right thing to do policy-wise—to make sure we implemented our entire constitution and asserted our treaty rights.”

And in Kimberly Teehee, Hoskin found his impeccable candidate. After a decade working with the House’s bipartisan Native American Caucus, Teehee ascended to the Obama White House, where she served three years as the country’s first-ever policy adviser for Native affairs. There, she advised the president on Indian Country issues, helped to craft policy, and organized the White House Tribal Nations Conferences. Following her time in the White House and a brief stint in lobbying, Teehee accepted a position as vice president of special projects of Cherokee Nation Businesses.

Teehee told TNR she accepted the appointment with the goal of being an unabashed champion for the Cherokee Nation and Indian Country, beginning with defending both the treaties and the sovereign status of the tribal nations that signed them. While she will lack a chamber vote, Teehee’s presence in D.C., as well as her ability to sit on and vote in House committees—she rattled off Appropriations, Judiciary, Natural Resources, and Ways and Means as the committees on which she’d prefer to be placed—will provide Natives with a direct connection to the members of Congress who do possess voting power.

“It’s imperative that we elect people to Congress who have at least some foundational knowledge of Indian tribes and have a willingness to fall on the sword to protect the legal relationship that the tribes have with the United States,” Teehee said. “When we don’t have those champions in Congress, then we see bad policies. And the victims at the end of the day are the people in our communities.”

As the chief cannot unilaterally appoint the delegate, Teehee will go before the Cherokee Nation Tribal Council Rules Committee next Thursday before being vetted by the full council. Hoskin said he has “no doubt” that the council will confirm her nomination when they conduct a full vote in September.

What comes after that, and how congenially Congress handles the appointment, is still to be determined.

The initial reaction to the decision in Washington vaguely split down party lines. The Democratic National Committee’s Native American Caucus, headed by Rion Ramirez, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, sent TNR a statement praising the move and encouraging Congress to make Teehee’s transition a smooth one.

“The Cherokee Nation has identified a federal treaty commitment for the Nation to appoint a delegate to the Congress of the United States and we wholeheartedly support the Nation’s effort,” Ramirez wrote on behalf of the caucus. “We call on the US Congress to accept with dispatch the appointment of Ms. Kimberly Teehee, who has proven herself to be an effective advocate for Indian Country generally and the Cherokee Nation specifically.”

Democratic Representative Deb Haaland, the co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus, similarly supported the nation’s push to hold the government accountable to the agreed upon treaty terms.

“The government must always uphold its treaty obligations, and the United States government promised the Cherokee Nation’s right to a delegate when it entered into the Treaty of New Echota,” Haaland wrote in a statement to TNR. “Rights granted through treaties do not expire. I understand that Chief Hoskin has taken an important first step in this process by naming a delegate, and I look forward to learning more as this issue comes to Congress.”

On the right side of the aisle, the move hasn’t been greeted with the same unabashed support. Representative Markwayne Mullin, a Republican and the only enrolled citizen of the Cherokee Nation in Congress, provided a statement to TNR that called for a general upholding of treaties but noted that the following steps are unclear.

“Appointing a tribal member as a delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives is unprecedented and there are many unknowns ahead,” Mullin wrote. “As a member of the Cherokee Nation, I firmly believe tribal sovereignty and treaties must be honored by the federal government.”

Mullin’s communications director did not clarify whether the representative supports the tribe’s claim to a delegate. The only other Native congressman, Oklahoma Representative Tom Cole—a Chickasaw Nation citizen and fellow Republicanseemed opposed to the notion at the outset, publicly questioning the validity of the New Echota treaty. “There’s a lot of questions that have to be answered,” said Cole at a town hall meeting last week, according to The Oklahoman. “Number one, I don’t know that the treaty still is valid. They’re basing it on something that is 185 years ago.”

Setting aside the fact that the majority of this country’s laws are based off a document that’s 45 years older than the Treaty of New Echota, the appointment, while unprecedented among this land’s tribal governments, is not new to Congress. Puerto Rico, Guam, and Washington, D.C., among others, all have nonvoting delegates that participate in the congressional sessions, all of whom must be seated by Congress.

Hoskin pointed out that the Treaty of New Echota even explicitly states that the entitlement to Cherokee Nation’s delegate is to occur “when Congress shall make provision for the same.” Hoskin was unequivocal in his rejection of Cole’s questioning the validity of the 1835 treaty.

“I do take issue with his suggestion that the treaty provision may be invalid,” Hoskin said. “You can go back to further to the Treaty of Hopewell to see similar language. But you really only have to look at the Treaty of 1866, which has provisions that were new to the relationship between the Cherokee Nation and United States, but it also specifically, expressly, explicitly reaffirmed all provisions of previous treaties between the Cherokee Nation and the federal government. Those aren’t my words. Those are the words of the government of the United States and the Cherokee representatives.”

Hoskin is nevertheless confident that Cole, who he called a great friend to Indian Country, will come around once he has an opportunity to review the relevant treaty material.

Cole’s comments are emblematic of the significant hurdles that remain between Teehee and taking her seat in Congress. But Teehee and Hoskin are both more than prepared to hit the ground running when she is finally ensconced on Capitol Hill. For Cherokee Nation and the rest of the Native nations hoping to increase their presence on Capitol Hill, it can’t come soon enough.