With nearly two centuries of expectations on his back, Cherokee Nation Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. faced the House Rules Committee on Wednesday as the panel examined the path forward to seating the first-ever tribal nation delegate in Congress.
In the 1830s, lawmakers narrowly ratified a treaty promising to allow a Cherokee delegate in the House, among other things, in exchange for their land east of the Mississippi River.
This Treaty of New Echota of 1835 was a catalyst for the infamous Trail of Tears, which killed 4,000 Cherokee and threatened the survival of the tribe in present-day Oklahoma. Yet the Cherokee never got their delegate.
Now almost half a million strong, they’re back to demand Congress keep its word. They want the delegate seated as soon as possible.
“It’s a no-brainer,” Kimberly Teehee said in an interview. “It’s written not in a discretionary way, but in a way that’s a mandate. And what a way to show the rest of the world and the rest of Indian Country that the United States keeps its word and honors the commitments that it made to the Cherokee Nation so long ago.”
Teehee, a former Hill staffer and Native American affairs policy adviser for President Barack Obama, has been the Cherokee’s choice for the delegate position since 2019.
But the response has been slow. While most agree that Congress would need to act before Teehee can take her place, the hearing this week marks the first time lawmakers have publicly grappled with what to do next. According to the treaty, the Cherokee Nation “shall be entitled to a delegate in the House of Representatives of the United States whenever Congress shall make provision for the same.”
Advocates say momentum is on their side. Across the country, the American Indian and Alaska Native population has nearly doubled in the last 10 years, census data shows. And things are changing in Congress, too, with more elected Native American members than ever before.
“As a member of the Cherokee Nation, I firmly believe the federal government must honor its trust and treaty responsibilities,” Rep. Markwayne Mullin said in a statement ahead of the hearing. The Oklahoma Republican — who last week won the race to replace retiring Republican Sen. James M. Inhofe — will be the first Native American to serve in the Senate since Colorado Republican Ben Nighthorse Campbell retired in 2005.
For this growing group at the Capitol, the rise in visibility is the product of centuries of rebuilding lives and communities — and it’s only just the beginning.
“There are many examples of the government not honoring its word to tribes across the nation, and I will work tirelessly in Congress to ensure that does not happen again in the future,” Alaska Democratic Rep. Mary Peltola said in a statement. This year, she became the first Alaska Native to serve in Congress.
Questions of representation
While the Cherokee’s treaty is unique in its language about a delegate, there are two other treaties that could also be interpreted as requiring congressional representation — the 1830 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek with the Choctaw Nation and the 1778 Treaty with the Delawares. Both have not yet been capitalized upon.
Even though there won’t be a “flood” of tribes asking to have representation, Hoskin assured the panel on Wednesday that tribes across the country “understand the significance of what it would mean for the House to live up to the federal government’s promise.”
The National Congress of American Indians, the largest intertribal organization in the country, has repeatedly backed the Cherokee’s pursuit of a delegate, though it did not comment on what other tribes might do.
This particular delegate would truly be different from any other — Teehee would represent Cherokee citizens no matter where they live, not just in a certain locality. Cherokee members outnumber the combined population of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands, all of which have their own delegates in Congress.
Rules ranking member Tom Cole has signaled his strong support, but on Wednesday said lawmakers should proceed with caution in order to get this right.
“We should remember that the Cherokee Nation is not the only tribe that has or may have this right, and the process we ultimately follow for this claim may apply to others as well,” said the Oklahoma Republican and member of the Chickasaw Nation, a key ally for Teehee if control of the chamber next year flips to Republicans as expected.
Members raised other worries at the hearing, too, like whether any other treaties or Oklahoma statehood voided the original treaty and whether the treaty was self-enacting. And they posed questions about dual representation — Cherokee Nation members would be represented in the House by both their respective district representatives and the new delegate.
Hoskin said this particular concern is “unwarranted,” since all delegates in the House are so-called “nonvoting members,” which means they can vote in committees but aren’t permitted to vote in the full chamber.
The committee was curious about the Cherokee’s process for selecting the delegate, which includes an appointment by Hoskin and the approval of the tribal council rather than an election, far from the standard for other members of Congress.
‘Seat at the table’
The debate strikes at the heart of some tales as old as time for Indian Country, Teehee said — balancing sovereignty and intergovernmental collaboration, combating ambiguity and racism in old laws and pushing back against the U.S. for violating the treaties and trust of Native Americans.
It’s about “having a seat at the table whenever formulating laws about us,” Teehee said.
“Native people have too few champions in Indian Country. And we often look to the handful of people that are in Congress to carry the weight of resolving those issues on their shoulders,” Teehee added. “I think the Cherokee Nation’s seat at the table would be yet another voice.”
Of the handful of Native Americans currently serving in the House, most say they are closely following the debate, even if they have not explicitly spoken out in support of Teehee.
“The federal government owes trust and treaty obligations to federally recognized tribes, and it’s Congress’ duty to carefully review these obligations, including seating delegates to Congress,” Kansas Democrat Sharice Davids, a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, said in a statement.
New Mexico Republican Yvette Herrell, who is Cherokee, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
While it may seem like the current Congress has dragged its feet, a House Democratic leadership aide said lawmakers have sought to learn more. Last year, the House Administration Committee asked the Congressional Research Service to issue a report on the possible seating and the legal complexities that could arise, which it did in July. The next step was this week’s Rules Committee hearing.
The hearing laid out two options for the House from here: either find agreement on a bill or resolution forming the seat, or adjust its standing rules package on the first day of the 118th Congress to accommodate the delegate.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy did not respond to a request for comment. But Cole said after the hearing that Republicans are “not dealing” with the seat in the rules package they are planning so far. The possibility of legislatively creating the delegation has not yet been discussed in the conference, he added.
Hoskin said he prefers the standing rules route, since the Nation believes the Senate and the president have already acted on the delegation in the form of the treaty and all that’s left is House action. He would like to see Teehee seated by the end of this session.
Chair Jim McGovern, D-Mass., said that wading through the issues brought up on Wednesday might take longer than that, but he believes a solution is within reach.
If she doesn’t get her seat secured in some way by December adjournment, Teehee said she’ll try again next Congress with her bipartisan allies.
“I come from tough stock,” she said. “Our people survived the Trail of Tears — we will persevere.”