WASHINGTON — A House committee weighed a proposal for a Cherokee Nation delegate seat in Congress on Wednesday, holding a landmark hearing that considered how to fulfill a promise made in a nearly 200-year-old treaty. years that has not yet been held.
The hearing, held by the House Rules Committee, was part of an effort to allow political aid veteran and longtime Cherokee Nation official Kim Teehee to be seated within months of come as a non-voting delegate to the House, which would add the first delegate from a tribal nation to serve there.
This effort has prompted members of Congress to publicly confront some of the darkest moments in American history and the series of broken promises to Indigenous peoples across the country.
If it grants the job to Teehee, 54, the House would be fulfilling a once-ignored stipulation of the Treaty of New Echota, which required the nation to relinquish its ancestral lands in the South. The treaty led to the US government forcing 16,000 members of the Cherokee Nation on the Trail of Tears, a deadly trek to land in what is now Oklahoma. A quarter of those forced to leave – around 4,000 – died before they arrived, due to harsh conditions, starvation and disease.
But the treaty, ratified by a single vote in the Senate and signed by President Andrew Jackson in 1836, also declared that the Cherokee Nation would be “entitled to one delegate to the House of Representatives of the United States whenever Congress provides the same .”
Congress never did.
Teehee, whose ancestors survived that treacherous march, was present in the committee room on Wednesday to listen to a series of questions about the complexity of establishing another delegate position.
“It can be quite overwhelming to think about, when I think about what was negotiated and what was lost as a result of this particular treaty right,” Teehee said in a pre-hearing interview. “I think of my family’s story – the poverty, the loss of life, all the struggles that took place as a result of this forced removal.”
“The end result being the actual delegate seat in the House would provide a small measure of justice for those, including my own ancestors, who lost their lives during this forced march,” she added.
Delayed by the pandemic and aware that a new Congress in January could force them to restart the process, tribal leaders have accelerated their campaign to organize a vote in the House to approve his seat. Indigenous peoples across the United States have emerged as an increasingly powerful electoral bloc with notable influence, with representatives at the highest levels of the federal government, and lawmakers on Wednesday were receptive to passing legislation in the coming weeks.
“As I study this matter, I believe it’s the right thing to do — it’s the moral thing to do,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., chairman of the House Rules Committee. He said he believed there was bipartisan support for allowing the delegate seat, even with Republicans set to take control of the House in January.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said Democrats “will continue to explore a path toward welcoming a delegate from the Cherokee Nation to the People’s House,” adding that its members are “committed to correcting the deep injustices of the past”.
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who reflected on his own Chickasaw ancestry and their tumultuous relationship with the federal government, said he was “pleased to see tribes defending their treaties with such conviction.”
“It’s never too late to do the right thing,” he said, adding that the hearing had been “extraordinarily helpful and clarifying.”
If Teehee were seated, she would join the ranks of half a dozen delegates, including from the District of Columbia, Guam and the Virgin Islands, who are able to introduce legislation and serve on committees but cannot. not vote in the House. Teehee said she would not pursue the right to a floor vote, in part because of concerns about dual representation of Cherokee citizens already represented by the legislature in whose district they reside.
Unlike those delegates, however, Teehee was nominated to the position by Chuck Hoskin Jr., the primary Chief of the Cherokee Nation, in August 2019 and was unanimously confirmed by the Cherokee Nation Tribal Council.
During the hearing, lawmakers questioned Indigenous law and congressional experts about the precedent for sitting a delegate who was not elected, as well as the mechanics of creating such a position. McGovern and Cole, along with other lawmakers on the panel, signaled a preference for a vote to seat a delegate. Among the options, experts said, was creating the post in the House rules package that governs the business of the chamber, although that would require a new vote every two years.
Hoskin, who was among those called to testify before the panel, said he would be open to such a move, especially if lawmakers continue to pursue more permanent legislation.
“It would be mind blowing for the next Congress to say we’re going to break that promise then,” Hoskin told the panel. “Now I’m a tribal leader – I know my history and the United States has broken a promise or two.”
“But I think in the 21st century, when this House of Representatives sits on Kim Teehee, there won’t be another Congress that dares to break that promise to the Cherokee nation,” he added.
Lawmakers have also raised questions about whether a Cherokee Nation delegate seat would open up opportunities for other tribes to pursue similar representation. The Delaware Nation, which signed a treaty with the United States in 1778, and the Choctaw Nation, which signed the Dancing Rabbit Creek Treaty of 1830, may have similar rights to a delegate in the House and have already contacted the lawmakers, McGovern said.
But it appeared the House would focus first on the right raised by the Cherokee Nation. After Teehee was named a delegate in 2019, she traveled to Washington for a series of meetings on Capitol Hill to begin briefing lawmakers on the job.
Those meetings, however, were cut short by the pandemic, during which Teehee and Cherokee leaders focused on lobbying for resources to protect their members as the coronavirus spread. However, as the end of the current Congress neared, the Cherokee Nation revamped its efforts to see Teehee seated, dropping ads in at least one political bulletin on Capitol Hill and rallying lawmakers and voters to support the issue.
Teehee grew up in Claremore, Oklahoma, with parents who still speak the Cherokee language. She still collects U.S. currency issued between 1915 and 1919, all signed by Houston Benge Teehee, a distant relative and the first Native American to serve as a registrar at the Treasury.
While Teehee was studying law and political science, she said it was her experience as an intern for Wilma Mankiller, the first woman to serve as the Cherokee Nation’s senior chief, that brought her to work. on tribal politics in Washington.
She worked as a senior adviser to Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., when he helped lead the bipartisan House Native American Caucus, before becoming the first senior policy adviser for Native American affairs under President Barack Obama. In this role, she helped develop a series of tribal initiatives, including policies aimed at reducing violence against Native women and ensuring that offenders were prosecuted.
“As effective as I’ve been in my career, that can’t be fully realized until you have a seat at the table,” Teehee said. She added: “We just want the treaty to be respected.”
circa 2022 The New York Times Society