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The Cherokee Nation is exercising its treaty rights by fighting for its own delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives.

On Nov. 16, the House Committee on Rules held a hearing on legal and procedural factors in seating a Cherokee Nation Delegate.

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The 1835 New Echota Treaty treaty signed by the United States and the Cherokee Tribe that led up to the Trail of Tears, states 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.”

Committee of Rules Chairman James McGovern (D-MA) said the hearing was aimed at giving Congress an opportunity to understand legal and procedural questions in seating a Cherokee Nation delegate. No legislation on the issue has yet been introduced, but McGovern described today’s hearing as “a good first step.”

“I personally believe we need to find a way to honor our treaty obligation to the Cherokee Nation,” McGovern said. “Even though it will be a potentially challenging road to get there, we need to … find a way to make this happen.”

Witnesses on Wednesday included Principal Chief of Cherokee Nation, Chuck Hoskin; Chickasaw Nation Endowed Chair in Native American Law, Lindsay Robertson, who gave committee members an overview of federal Indian law; and legislative attorney for the Congressional Research Service, Mainon Schwartz. Schwartz gave a “non-partisan” overview of legal and procedural factors in seating a Cherokee Nation delegate. 

Hoskin said that the Nation’s more than 441,000 citizens have been waiting for today’s hearing for 187 years.

“This was the agreement that directly led to the deaths of thousands of Cherokees on the Trail of Tears,” Hoskin said. “In this treaty, the Cherokee Nation conveyed the entirety of our lands east of the Mississippi, about 7 million acres, to the United States. In exchange, the government of the United States made certain promises. One of those promises was that it ‘stipulates 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."

On Aug. 29, 2019, the Council of the Cherokee Nation unanimously approved Chief Hoskin’s nomination of Kimberly Teehee to serve as the Cherokee Delegate. Teehee is Director of Government Relations for Cherokee Nation and Senior Vice President of Government Relations for Cherokee Nation Businesses.

If seated, the Cherokee Delegate could not be a full voting participant in the House based on stipulations in the Constitution, which sets forth requirements for the composition of the House and qualifications of its members, including the requirement that “Members [be] chosen every second Year by the People of the several States” — a requirement not met by the Cherokee Delegate, according to Schwartz. Accordingly, the Cherokee Delegate could not vote on the House floor to pass legislation but could vote in committee and to address members from the floor, similar to the current role of delegates for the District of Columbia. 

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Committee of Rules Chairman McGovern asked Chief Hoskin why the Nation chose to select its delegate candidate by council vote rather than a vote from the entire Nation. 

Hoskin said that the Constitution of the Cherokee Nation prescribes the manner in which the delegate is selected— through an appointment by the principal chief and confirmation by the council. 

“This is where the United States could show deference to the Cherokee Nation as a sovereign Indian Nation,” Hoskin said. “In terms of the treaty itself, it say[s] that the Cherokee Nation shall have a delegate. It doesn’t prescribe the manner in which it’s selected.”

McGovern shared that the committee has received letters from four other tribes asking that Congress consider seating their delegates. Each of those tribes referenced specific language from their treaty with the U.S. government that alluded to a delegate.

“We’re here today to discuss the Cherokee Nation’s request to see the delegate,” McGovern said. “But as we continue to work to honor our treaty obligations, I think it is important that Congress also look into these other requests.” 

Schwartz said that while the Congressional Research Service has looked into other treaties, the language of the New Echota Treaty “is the clearest of the treaties between the United States and various tribes.” 

Congressman Tom Cole (R-OK) asked why the Cherokee Nation did not press for a delegate sooner.

Hoskin said he loved the question because it gave him an opportunity to talk about Cherokee history.

“The history since 1835 with the Cherokee Nation has been one of rebuilding and then being suppressed again, being dispossessed,” Hoskin said. “The Trail of Tears—which came after the Treaty of New Echota— nearly destroyed the Cherokee Nation. [We] lost a quarter of our population, [it] ripped apart our institutions. It was the near destruction of the Cherokee Nation. We rebuilt. Decades go by, and the Civil War visits the Cherokee Nation and brings even more destruction and division than the Trail of Tears if you can imagine that. We go into another period of rebuilding in the post-Civil War era and late in the 19th century. But in the 1970s, we start to rebuild, and we’ve been on a trajectory, as other tribes in Oklahoma and across this country, of building economic strength and prosperity back home. And so we are now in a position where we can assert this right, whereas my predecessors and the two centuries before, frankly, we were just trying to hang on to our way of life and rebuild.” 

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About The Author
Jenna Kunze
Author: Jenna KunzeEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Senior Reporter
Jenna Kunze is a staff reporter covering Indian health, the environment and breaking news for Native News Online. She is also the lead reporter on stories related to Indian boarding schools and repatriation. Her bylines have appeared in The Arctic Sounder, High Country News, Indian Country Today, Tribal Business News, Smithsonian Magazine, Elle and Anchorage Daily News. Kunze is based in New York.