The US promised the Cherokee Nation a seat in Congress in a treaty that fueled the Trail of Tears. 188 years later, the Cherokee say lawmakers may finally fulfill that promise.
The Cherokee Nation was promised a seat in Congress in the 1835 Treaty of New Echota.
A recent congressional hearing suggested the tribe could be close to seating a delegate.
Kim Teehee, the proposed delegate, told Insider it would show the US can keep its promises to tribes.
In the state of Georgia in 1835, the US government and the Cherokee signed the Treaty of New Echota, which required the tribe give up millions of acres of its ancestral homeland in the Southeast and move to Indian territory west of the Mississippi.
In return, the tribe was also supposed to receive representation in Congress. But most of the Cherokee did not support the treaty, which was signed as other Native tribes were already being forcibly removed from their lands. Two years after the treaty was signed, only a small portion of Cherokee had actually moved voluntarily.
Federal officials sent thousands of soldiers to forcibly remove the tribe and send them on the 1,200-mile migration in which 4,000 people died, largely due to disease and starvation. Altogether, the forced removal of Native people during this time resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and came to be known as the Trail of Tears.
Despite the US government's insistence on enforcing part of the Treaty of New Echota, nearly two centuries later a promise made to the Cherokee Nation remains unfulfilled — that it receive its own delegate in the US House of Representatives.
"This delegate position would give some small measure of justice for those who lost their lives on that forced march during the Trail of Tears," Kim Teehee, a Cherokee Nation citizen and longtime official who has been proposed to serve as the tribe's delegate, told Insider. "I think it would also show that the United States is capable of keeping its word in the treaties between the United States and Indian tribes."
Seating a Cherokee delegate would also give a voice to Native nations in the halls of Congress, where they could serve on committees as well as introduce and lobby for bills that would support tribes.
The Cherokee Nation appears closer than ever to finally seating a delegate. A hearing held by a congressional committee on the issue in November was "historic," according to Teehee, and could lead to Congress' first member representing a tribal nation.
Treaties are the 'supreme Law of the Land'
The case for the Cherokee to seat a nonvoting member in Congress hinges upon the legitimacy of the treaty signed 188 years ago. Article 6 of the US Constitution plainly states that all laws and treaties of the US "shall be the supreme Law of the Land."
"Just because the document is old, doesn't mean that it's less valid," Teehee said. "Just look to the US Constitution and know that it's still a living, breathing, valid document, just like treaties."
US courts have also acknowledged the validity of Indian treaties, said James Meggesto, a member of the Onondaga Nation and an attorney who specializes in Native American law. In the 2020 McGirt v. Oklahoma decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the treaty establishing the Muscogee (Creek) Nation's reservation land was never disbanded, and thus much of eastern Oklahoma was still Indian country. Even with a conservative majority, the court upheld a treaty right from 1832.
"A treaty is the supreme law of the land whether it was made five years ago or hundreds of years ago," Meggesto previously told Insider.
A 'historic' hearing on a tribe's treaty right
In 2019, the Cherokee Nation took a step toward seating a delegate in the House of Representatives when Chuck Hoskin Jr., the Cherokee's principal chief, nominated Teehee in one of his first major actions after being elected.
Teehee, who currently serves as the Cherokee's director of government relations, previously spent 12 years in Congress as a senior advisor to the House's bipartisan Native American Caucus. She also served in the White House as a senior policy advisor for Native American affairs under former President Barack Obama.
In Congress, Teehee's job was to educate lawmakers on Indian issues and the relationship between tribes and the US government. "While that was an effective position to have, nothing beats having member-level engagement, member to member," she said.
The Cherokee delegate would be a nonvoting member, like those from Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico, meaning they would not be able to cast a final chamber-wide vote on whether or not to pass a bill. But Teehee said there's a "very important deliberative process that takes place before a bill ever gets to that point." As nonvoting members, delegates can still serve on committees, introduce and promote bills, and speak on legislation from the House floor.
In November, the US House Rules Committee held a hearing on the possibility of seating a Cherokee delegate. Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the hearing was a "key first step toward identifying what actions must be taken to honor this long-standing promise."
Teehee said she was "blown away" by the "historic" nature of the hearing, adding: "It's the first time in my lifetime that I recall ever seeing a congressional committee hold a hearing on a particular tribe's treaty right." She said lawmakers asked tough questions, but she felt "very optimistic" the Cherokee delegate was something the committee ultimately supported.
A matter of 'how the promise is kept'
There are some questions to work through, including whether or not other tribal nations would be granted similar rights. There are also other tribes with treaties that called for representation in Congress, as well as other bands of Cherokee that say they, too, are successors of the tribe that entered into the treaty in 1835.
Still, Rep. James McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, then the committee's chairman, suggested at the hearing that the Cherokee Nation delegate "can and should" be seated "as quickly as possible."
Rep. Tom Cole, an Oklahoma Republican who is a member of the Chickasaw Nation, also signaled openness to seating a Cherokee delegate and said he supported the US honoring its treaty obligations, though he acknowledged there were legal and procedural questions to address. With the new GOP majority, Cole was appointed chairman of the committee earlier this month.
Hoskin Jr. told Insider the tribe is closer than ever to seating a delegate, calling the hearing a "great success" and noting there was bipartisan support. "When the questions are more oriented to how the promise is kept, not whether the promise should be kept, that I think is great progress," he said.
Hoskin wrote a letter this week to House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, calling on them to work toward seating a delegate. He said the tribe believes there is a sound legal argument for the House to be able to seat the delegate on its own. However, if lawmakers determine it would be more appropriate to pass legislation in order to add the delegate, the Cherokee would work toward accomplishing it that way as well.
Support for tribes and representation for Native people
Having a delegate in Congress would give the Cherokee Nation a chance to formulate and support laws and policies that impact their tribe, but also other Native nations, according to Teehee.
"We know that we have issues that are similar to other tribes in the country, although there are differences," she said. "I think that's why we've been able to galvanize support from across the country from Indian tribes."
If given the chance to serve in Congress, Teehee said she would advocate for tribes to receive the funding they need for public safety, education, infrastructure, internet connectivity, and cultural preservation of traditions and languages.
The Cherokee Nation is continuing to galvanize support and encourages US citizens to reach out to their representatives in Congress and tell them to fulfill the treaty promise.
Teehee said she also thinks an increase in Native representation in Congress would be inspiring to young people, who could "see themselves reflected in the people who are holding these positions," adding "that didn't exist in my day."
"I think the stars are aligned for a Cherokee Nation delegate to be seated," she said. "Let's keep adding to the historic moments. Let's keep breaking the ceiling and shattering it."
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