In December 1835, a minority party of the Cherokee Nation met government officials to sign the Treaty of New Echota, which laid out the terms for the removal of the Cherokee from the nation's ancestral lands in the southeastern United States. Many Cherokee people opposed the treaty, and few willingly departed. So, backed by the formal agreement, U.S. soldiers forced the Cherokee out of their homes and along a 1,200-mile march to Indian territory west of the Mississippi River. An estimated 5,000 Cherokee died during the journey, which is known as the Trail of Tears.
Among the compensation promised to the Cherokee as part of the devastating treaty was the right to send a delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. For nearly 200 years, the position remained unfilled. Then, on August 29, 2019, the Cherokee Nation council approved Kimberly Teehee as its first official representative to Congress.
As Chandelis Duster reports for CNN, Teehee is the vice president of government relations for the Cherokee Nation. She previously served as a senior policy adviser for Native American Affairs during the Obama administration. According to NPR’s Graham Lee Brewer, Teehee’s “fingerprints are on a wide variety of policy and laws affecting Indigenous people, from the Violence Against Women Act to the creation of Congress' first Native American caucus.”
Pending Congressional approval (as of July 2020, the legislative body had yet to confirm Teehee’s nomination), she will be the first delegate of a sovereign Native American government. Her role will be a non-voting one perhaps similar to positions held by representatives of Washington, D.C., and five U.S. territories: Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the United States Virgin Islands and the Northern Mariana Islands. These delegates can’t vote on the House floor but are able to introduce legislation, debate on the floor and vote within their committees.
“This journey is just beginning and we have a long way to go to see this through to fruition,” Teehee tells CNN in a statement. “However, 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.”
Based in northeastern Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation now counts approximately 400,000 enrolled members, making it the largest of the nearly 600 federally recognized Native American tribes. Two other Cherokee tribes—the United Keetoowah Band in Oklahoma and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina—are also recognized by the federal government, but it is unclear if they too have a right to appoint a delegate to Congress, according to CNN's Harmeet Kaur.
As Ezra Rosser, a law professor at American University, explains to Kaur, the U.S. government has “long made it difficult for tribes to exercise rights afforded to them in treaties,” which is in part why the Cherokee Nation went so many years without a promised delegate. Native Americans have long been working to increase their representation within the country’s political institutions. Recently, in 2018, a “record” number of indigenous candidates—specifically female Indigenous candidates—ran for public office. Last November, Deb Haaland (Pueblo of Laguna) of New Mexico and Sharice Davids (Ho-Chunk Nation) of Kansas became the first Native American women elected to Congress, where they joined two other Native members: Tom Cole (Chickasaw Nation) and Markwayne Mullin (Cherokee Nation).
Teehee was nominated to her historic position by Chuck Hoskin Jr., who began pursuing the long-standing right to a Congressional delegate just weeks after he was sworn in as the Cherokee Nation’s new chief. “These treaties are sacred,” he told Jose A. Del Real of the New York Times last week, in reference to the 1835 agreement. “They mean something. There’s no expiration date on them.”
In an interview with Samantha Leach of Glamour, Teehee said that it “just seems the right time” to move forward with the delegate role.
“I don’t look at it as ‘Why now?’ as much as I look at it as ‘Why not now?’” she explained. “We are a sovereign nation that is capable of exercising a sovereign right to move forward with appointing a delegate to honor our treaties.”
While the details of the position are still being worked out, Teehee said she hopes to advocate for Native Americans across the country.
“Even though I’d be representing the governmental interests of the Cherokee Nation,” she tells Leach, “I imagine … I wouldn’t see myself as any different than being an extra voice to not only represent the governmental interests of my tribe but also to aid in advancing Indian Country generally.”