The United States promised the Cherokee Nation a seat in Congress in a treaty that fueled the trail of tears. 188 years later, the Cherokee say lawmakers could finally deliver on that promise.

Kim Teehee has been nominated to serve as the Cherokee Nation’s first delegate to Congress.iStock; Sue Ogrocki/AP Images; Rebecca Zisser/Insider

  • The Cherokee Nation was granted a seat in Congress in the 1835 Treaty of New Echota.

  • A recent congressional hearing suggested the tribe may be close to placing a delegate.

  • Kim Teehee, the proposed delegate, told Insider it would show the United States can deliver on its promises to the tribes.

In the state of Georgia, the U.S. government and the Cherokee signed the Treaty of New Echota in 1835, which required the tribe to give up millions of acres of their ancestral home in the Southeast and move to Indian Territory. west of the Mississippi River.

In return, the tribe should also be represented in Congress. But most of the Cherokee did not support the treaty that was signed, as other native tribes were already forcibly removed from their lands. Two years after the treaty was signed, only a small portion of the Cherokee Indians had actually moved voluntarily.

Federal authorities sent thousands of soldiers to forcibly evict the tribe and send them on the 1,200-mile migration that claimed 4,000 lives, mostly from disease and starvation. Collectively, the forced displacement of Indigenous peoples during this period resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and became known as the Trail of Tears.

Despite the US government’s insistence on enforcing part of the New Echota Treaty, nearly two centuries later, a promise made to the Cherokee nation remains unfulfilled – that it would have its own delegate to the United States House of Representatives. United.

“This delegate position would bring some justice to those who lost their lives during this forced march during the Trail of Tears,” said Kim Teehee, a Cherokee Nation citizen and longtime public servant who was nominated for serve as a delegate of the tribe as initiates. “I think it would also show that the United States is capable of keeping its word in treaties between the United States and Native American tribes.”

The appointment of a Cherokee delegate would also give Native people a voice in the halls of Congress, where they could serve on committees and introduce and campaign for tribal support bills.

The Cherokee Nation seems closer than ever to finally seating a delegate. A congressional committee hearing on the issue in November, Teehee said, was “historic” and could result in the first member of Congress representing a tribal nation.

Contracts are the ‘highest law in the land’

Whether the Cherokee put a nonvoting member in Congress hinges on the legitimacy of the treaty signed 188 years ago. Section 6 of the US Constitution clearly states that all US laws and treaties “shall be the supreme law of the land”.

“Just because the document is old doesn’t mean it’s less valid,” Teehee said. “Just look at the US Constitution and know that it is still a living, breathing, valid document, just like treaties.”

US courts have also recognized the validity of Indian treaties, said James Meggesto, a member of the Onondaga Nation and a lawyer specializing in Native American law. In the 2020 case of McGirt v. Oklahoma, the Supreme Court ruled that the treaty establishing the Muscogee (Creek) Nation reservation lands had never been dissolved and that much of eastern Oklahoma was therefore still Indian land. Even with a conservative majority, the court upheld a treaty law dating back to 1832.

“A treaty is the highest law in the land, whether it was made five years ago or hundreds of years ago,” Meggesto previously told Insider.

Hoskin Jr., left, and Teehee in Tahlequah, Oklahoma in August 2019. Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

A “historic” hearing on tribal contract law

In 2019, the Cherokee Nation took a step toward a House delegate seat when Chuck Hoskin Jr., the Chief Chief of the Cherokee, nominated Teehee in one of his first major actions after his election.

Teehee, who currently serves as Cherokee director of government relations, previously spent 12 years in Congress as a senior adviser to the bipartisan Native American Caucus in the House of Representatives. She also served in the White House as a senior policy adviser on Native American affairs under former President Barack Obama.

In Congress, Teehee’s job was to educate lawmakers about Native American affairs and the relationship between the tribes and the U.S. government. “While this is an effective position, nothing beats member-level, member-to-member engagement,” she said.

The Cherokee delegate would be a nonvoting member, like those in Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico, meaning they wouldn’t be able to vote housewide on whether or not to pass. legislation. But Teehee said there was “a very important deliberative process that takes place before a bill gets to that point.” As non-voting members, delegates can continue to serve on committees, introduce and promote bills, and speak on House bills.

In November, the United States House Rules Committee held a hearing on the possibility of using a Cherokee delegate. Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the hearing was “an important first step in determining what steps need to be taken to deliver on that long-standing promise.”

Teehee said she was “overwhelmed” by the “historic” nature of the hearing, adding, “I remember this being the first time in my life that a congressional committee held a hearing on the rights of treaties of a particular tribe”. She said lawmakers raised some tough questions, but she was “very optimistic” that the Cherokee delegate was something the committee ultimately backed.

A question about “how the promise is kept”

Some questions remain to be resolved, including whether or not other tribal nations would be granted similar rights. There are other tribes with treaties requiring congressional representation, as well as other groups of Cherokee who say they are also successors to the tribe that signed the 1835 treaty.

Still, Rep. James McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat who was then committee chair, suggested during the hearing that the Cherokee Nation delegate could and should take his seat “as soon as possible.”

Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma who is a member of the Chickasaw Nation, also expressed openness to adding a Cherokee delegate, saying he supports the United States in meeting its treaty obligations. , although he acknowledged that legal and procedural issues needed to be clarified. With the new GOP majority, Cole was named chairman of the committee earlier this month.

Hoskin Jr., left, and Congressional Research Services attorney Mainon Schwartz during a House Rules Committee hearing in Washington, DC on November 16, 2022. Mariam Zuhaib/Associated Press

Hoskin Jr. told Insider the tribe is closer than ever to placing a delegate, calling the hearing a “huge success” and noting that there is bipartisan support. “If the questions focus more on how the promise is kept and not whether the promise should be kept, I think that’s a big step forward,” he said.

Hoskin wrote a letter this week to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, urging them to work to secure a seat for a delegate. He said the tribe believed there was a strong legal argument that the House could elect the delegate on its own. However, if the legislature determined that it would be more appropriate to legislate to add the delegate, the Cherokee would also endeavor to accomplish it that way.

Tribal support and representation of indigenous peoples

According to Teehee, having a delegate to Congress would give the Cherokee Nation the ability to formulate and support laws and policies that affect their tribe as well as other Indigenous nations.

“We know we have similar issues to other tribes in the country, although there are differences,” she said. “I think that’s why we were able to get support from Native American tribes all over the country.”

If given the opportunity to serve in Congress, Teehee said she would work to ensure tribes receive the funds they need for public safety, education, infrastructure, internet connectivity and cultural preservation. traditions and languages.

The Cherokee Nation continues to campaign for support and encourages American citizens to contact their representatives in Congress and urge them to keep the treaty promise.

Teehee said she also thinks greater representation of Native Americans in Congress would inspire young people who “might be able to reflect in the people in those positions,” adding, “That didn’t exist in my day. “.

“I think the stars are right for a Cherokee Nation delegate to be seated,” she said. “Let’s keep adding to the historic moments. Let’s keep knocking down the ceiling and shaking it.

Do you have any current advice? Contact this reporter at [email protected].

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