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After 187 years, the Cherokee Nation wants its seat in Congress

The 1835 treaty that led to the devastating Trail of Tears included a provision that the Cherokee should get a delegate seat in the House.

Kimberly Teehee speaks in front of the Cherokee Nation and U.S. flags after the announcement of her nomination as a delegate to the House, in Tahlequah, Okla., on Aug. 22, 2019. (Sue Ogrocki/AP)

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the number of nonvoting members of Congress who are Republican. There are six nonvoting members and two are Republican.

A few years ago, Kimberly Teehee had her family genealogy done, wanting to learn about her Native American roots “pre-removal.”

Using a memorial in North Carolina, with names of the Cherokee people who were forcibly moved west, her family discovered at least eight Teehee ancestors who were pushed out of Tennessee and Georgia before settling in Oklahoma. They were among the fortunate ones who survived the infamous Trail of Tears, in which the U.S. military forced five tribes out of their eastern lands, leading to thousands of deaths.

Now, more than 185 years later, Teehee is knocking on doors across Capitol Hill asking to reclaim a part of the 1835 treaty that the Cherokee Nation signed: a seat in Congress.

“It’s a very personal story when you consider that my family were forcibly removed,” Teehee, a former Obama administration adviser on tribal issues, said during a recent interview outside a coffee shop three blocks from the Capitol.

She would not be a fully vested member of the House of Representatives, but a nonvoting delegate similar to what other U.S. territories and the District of Columbia receive. If approved by the House, the delegate could sit on legislative committees, request meetings with Cabinet officials, push policy positions and even collect narrowly crafted funding projects called earmarks.

The 1835 treaty included unequivocal language that a delegate “shall” be included in the House for the Cherokee, a provision that was essentially forgotten as they and other tribes tried to survive and rebuild after forced removal.

In recent years, the Cherokee have decided to collect what was promised to them. And all it would take is a resolution passed by the House. The Senate approved the treaty ― by the narrowest of margins, just a single vote — and President Andrew Jackson signed it into law in early 1836.

No matter how long ago that was, many in Indian Country and their supporters in Congress believe a treaty is a binding document that must be respected.

“A very basic proposition,” said Chuck Hoskin Jr., elected as the Cherokee’s principal chief in 2019. “Should the United States keep its word?”

Hoskin prioritized getting the delegate seated soon after his 2019 election as chief, choosing Teehee because of her two decades of work in Congress and the executive branch. The delegate is then ratified by the tribal legislature.

While other tribes have somewhat similar language in their treaties, Cherokee leaders believe theirs is the most ironclad, and Teehee wants to be a voice for the millions of Natives scattered across all 50 states.

“The honor isn’t about me, it’s about the United States finally upholding an agreement, an agreement that led to so much death and despair in our history, and to give some measure of justice to the past,” she said.

This comes as tribes have unprecedented representation in Washington’s power circuit. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland made history as the first Native American Cabinet secretary, and there are six members of tribal nations in the House, including three Republicans.

The House Rules Committee, under the leadership of Reps. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a member of the Chickasaw Nation, plans to hold a hearing on the Cherokee delegate debate during the lame duck session after November’s election.

With the House majority potentially set to flip, which could require a new round of lobbying to new House leaders, the Cherokee tribe wants a vote before the end of this year.

“All that’s left to do is for the House of Representatives to do what the treaty says,” Hoskin said in a recent telephone interview.

But, according to Cole, it isn’t that simple.

He believes, like Hoskin, that treaties must be upheld. “As an Oklahoman and Native American I certainly don’t have any objection to the Cherokees getting a delegate. That’d be a good thing in a lot of ways,” Cole said.

But the implementation opens up several questions that Cole, long considered an institutionalist of the House, isn’t sure will be well-received by other lawmakers.

For instance, the House has always been allowed to determine its own representation without interference from the president or Senate.

“The House determines its own members. So that’s an interesting question,” Cole said, before noting that Hoskin has appointed Teehee, rather than a direct election of voters like every other member of the House. “The tradition here is everybody’s elected. All the delegates are elected.”

Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.), a member of the Cherokee Nation poised to receive a political promotion to the Senate, pointed out that there were three splits within the Cherokee during the 19th century.

Many members of the tribe opposed the treaty and stayed to fight, particularly in North Carolina. Mullin wants to consult with those tribes to determine whether they have any claim to the delegate seat in the House.

“I really need to know what the angle is, and who’s talking to who, what it is. I’m Cherokee, so yeah, once again, we want to try to be supportive,” Mullin said.

Cole also suggested there would be a dual representation issue that might come up, because Cherokee citizens already vote for a representative in whichever congressional district they live in.

The other House delegates, such as Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D. C.) and Stacey Plaskett (D-Virgin Islands), represent regions in which no other representative serves in Congress promoting interests of those constituents.

“We’re going to try to have a productive hearing where we get different people with different points of view that come in,” Cole said. “And I don’t know where we will come down as a body.”

Finishing this up before there’s a change in power would be key, according to supporters of tribal interests. Republicans might view Teehee, who worked for House Democrats in the early 2000s before joining the Obama administration, as a lifelong Democrat whose voice they do not want to amplify.

Just two of the six nonvoting members of Congress, Aumua Amata Radewagen of American Samoa and Jennifer González-Colón of Puerto Rico, is a Republican.

Hoskin rejected the idea that there’s a partisan tilt to the tribe’s assertion of its delegate rights, noting their long-standing ties to Republicans like Cole, Mullin and Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who is the ranking minority-party member of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee.

“Indian Country issues are unique,” he said.

Still, he understands the history: “We have to take the long view. The United States has never handed something over to us easily.”

For Hoskin and Teehee, a new Cherokee delegate would serve as a rare moment of pride from the Treaty of New Echota, which gave the Cherokee nation $5 million and land in present-day Oklahoma. Eventually thousands of U.S. soldiers forced the Cherokee west on a dangerous journey in which an estimated 10 percent to 25 percent died.

“It’s inescapable that’s where our minds go,” Hoskin said.

Teehee views this effort in the most personal of terms, claiming a long forgotten seat of power that came from an act of Congress that led to such horrors.

“I just think about the blood, sweat, and tears of my ancestors,” she said. “It would be almost like a full circle moment to, after all those years, to have a connection to that history, to be the delegate that our ancestors died for.”