The Cherokee Nation says it has a right to a congressional delegate. Now it wants Congress to fulfill its promise.

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Kimberly Teehee, a Cherokee Nation official and former Obama adviser, could soon be the first Cherokee Nation delegate to serve in Congress. | Sue Ogrocki/AP

To honor a 184-year-old treaty, the tribal nation wants Kimberly Teehee seated as its official representative.

For generations, the US government’s attitude toward Native American communities has been marked by mistreatment, indifference, and a lack of respect for tribal sovereignty. And while that relationship has improved somewhat in recent decades, the Cherokee Nation wants to change things further by calling for Congress to honor a nearly 200-year-old promise to seat one of its members in the House of Representatives.

On August 17, Chuck Hoskin Jr., the recently elected principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, announced that the tribe would name a delegate to Congress. Twelve days later, the tribe’s council approved Kimberly Teehee, currently the Cherokee Nation’s vice president of governmental relations and a former senior policy adviser for Native American Affairs under President Obama, as its nominee for the position.

Hoskin says Teehee’s nomination is made possible by the 1835 Treaty of New Echota, an agreement that allowed for the relocation of the Cherokee from the southeastern US in exchange for compensation and land. The treaty was opposed by the majority of the Cherokee people and helped pave the way for the Trail of Tears, with President Andrew Jackson overseeing the forced removal and relocation of more than 15,000 Cherokee to Oklahoma. Four thousand Cherokee are estimated to have died during the journey.

In an overlooked part of the treaty, it was also written that the Cherokee “shall be entitled to a delegate in the House of Representatives of the United States whenever Congress shall make provision for the same.” The Cherokee’s right to some form of political representation in the government is also included in the Hopewell Treaty of 1785, which says that the nation “shall have the right to send a deputy of their choice, whenever they think fit, to Congress.”

Hoskin, citing the increased power of Native communities and a changed political climate, says that now is the time for the nation to act on a promise that was never fulfilled. “Over 184 years ago, our ancestors bargained for a guarantee that we would always have a voice in the Congress,” Hoskin said at a news conference in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the capital of the Cherokee Nation. “It is time for the United States to uphold its end of the bargain.”

Teehee’s recent nomination does not necessarily mean that she will immediately be seated. Congress still needs to determine if she will be allowed to join and if she will serve as a voting or non-voting representative of the Cherokee Nation (she is expected to be seated as a non-voting member similar to representatives from Washington, DC, Puerto Rico, and other US territories). If Congress does decline to seat her for some reason, it would likely spark an extensive legal battle.

However, since US treaties have been upheld as being legally binding, it is expected that Teehee will be seated at some point, joining four other Native Americans who currently serve in the House as state representatives. Teehee would specifically serve as a representative of the Cherokee Nation, but it’s likely that given the prominence of the position and the historical lack of attention to the needs of Native communities as a whole, she will also speak on issues important to American Indians at large.

The delegation announcement is historic, but it also serves as one part of a larger political shift. The needs of indigenous peoples have seen increased attention in national politics, in part due to the recent historic victories of politicians New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland and Kansas Rep. Sharice Davids, the first two Native American women to serve in Congress.

But focus on Native issues has also increased due to the growing political activity of these communities. In the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, presidential candidates have released platforms aimed at the needs of Native communities, attended a presidential forum specifically on Indigenous issues, and are openly discussing how their potential administrations will support tribal rights. Collectively, it suggests that Native Americans are becoming a growing force in American politics after being overlooked for generations.

The needs of indigenous communities have long been overlooked. In 2019, that may be changing.

Attention to Native American communities has increased considerably in recent months. Several presidential candidates — including Julián Castro, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren (who apologized to the Cherokee Nation in February after taking a heavily criticized DNA test to prove Native American heritage) — have introduced platforms aimed at supporting tribal sovereignty and closing disparities in areas like housing, health care, education, and voting rights.

Castro’s plan, for example, would create a White House Council on Indigenous Communities, calls for honoring treaty commitments, and would pass congressional bills aimed at protecting tribal objects and cultural property and promoting the education and preservation of Native languages. Warren, who has released the most sweeping plan of any candidate so far, would make the Obama administration’s White House Council on Native American Affairs permanent, and would work to ensure mandatory or multi-year funding for issues affecting tribal nations.

In August, several presidential candidates appeared at the Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum, where they spoke directly to voters. The forum was largely seen as yet another indication that politicians are trying to prove they take issues affecting Indian Country seriously and see the rising Native American electorate as one that matters.

But not everyone believes the candidates are truly engaged in the issues. In August, Dina Gilio-Whitaker, a lecturer of American Indian Studies at California State University San Marco, told Vox’s Li Zhou that she has not seen any revolutionary policies proposed by the candidates. “The structure of the relationship between the federal government and tribes is not being challenged by any of these people,” she said.

Others have asked whether the current attention to Native Americans is a reflection of a permanent shift, or if politicians are simply looking to shore up political support and win an election. “Each of the non-Native candidates are courting the Native vote because of the stakes in the primary race and in the general election, not necessarily because of a genuine interest,” Simon Moya-Smith, an Oglala Lakota and Chicano journalist, recently wrote in an NBC News op-ed. “These are desperate times and we, apparently, are among their desperate measures.”

Politicians looking to make inroads with Native voters and communities will need to show that they are seriously invested in their needs beyond election years. And this is where something like Teehee’s recent nomination matters, giving the US government an opportunity to prove that it is willing to work to honor treaties made with tribal nations.

“It’s a testament of the rebuilding of native nations in the 20th and 21st centuries,” Maggie Blackhawk, a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe and a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, said of the Cherokee Nation’s effort to seat Teehee in an interview with the New York Times in August. “In the last 30 years, what you have are native nations being able to exercise the things that were promised in treaties in the 19th and 18th century. It’s a wonderful showing of good governance and could bring additional power and visibility to native nations.”

Teehee, who has said she wants to focus on things like ensuring mandatory federal funding to Indian Country, says her nomination as a delegate is just one part of a larger story about the political power of Native people. “A Cherokee Nation delegate to Congress is a negotiated right that our ancestors advocated for,” she said in a statement to CNN this week. “Today, our tribal nation is stronger than ever and ready to defend all our constitutional and treaty rights.”