Cherokee Nation One Step Closer to Having Congressional Delegate
WASHINGTON — The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma is a step closer to having a delegate from the tribe seated in Congress, fulfilling a provision of a treaty signed nearly 200 years ago.
On Wednesday, the House Rules Committee held the first of what will no doubt be an extended series of hearings on the Hill examining the prospect of seating a Cherokee as a non-voting delegate in the chamber.
The tribe’s right to a delegate is detailed in the Treaty of New Echota signed in 1835, which provided the legal basis for the forced removal of the Cherokee Nation from its ancestral homelands east of the Mississippi River to what was then defined as “Indian Territory” west of the river.
It states that the Cherokee Nation “shall be entitled to a delegate in the House of Representatives … whenever Congress shall make provision for the same.”
For decades afterward, members of the so-called “five civilized tribes” — the Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw and Choctaw nations — were forcibly removed from their homelands in an exodus that became known as the Trail of Tears.
Over time, the geography of Indian Territory was reduced to what is now the state of Oklahoma, but the Cherokee came no closer to having a representative in Congress.
“America’s history with the indigenous people that are native to this land is atrocious,” said Rules Committee Chairman, Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., at the beginning of the hearing.
“There is no other way to put it. It’s appalling. But simply acknowledging this truth is not enough,” he continued.
“I personally believe we need to find a way to honor our treaty obligations with the Cherokee Nation, even though it will be a potentially challenging road to get there,” McGovern said. “We need to honor those treaty obligations, and Congress should find a way to make this happen.”
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., the ranking member of the Rules Committee and also a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, also reflected on the nation’s history with Native Americans.
“For far too long in our nation’s history, the federal government has accumulated a sorry record of making promises to tribes, only to break those promises as soon as it was expedient to do so,” he said.
“With today’s hearing, we begin an examination of a specific promise. … I’m hopeful the discussions we have today will lay the groundwork for committees of jurisdiction to examine this issue in more detail.”
Among those testifying before the committee was Chuck Hoskin Jr., principal chief of the 440,000-member Cherokee Nation.
It was Hoskin who set the current effort to fulfill the treaty in motion when in 2019 he nominated Kimberly Teehee, an adviser to former President Barack Obama, to be the tribe’s delegate.
The tribe’s governing council unanimously approved her a short time later, but her nomination languished.
“The Cherokee Nation has in fact adhered to our obligations under these treaties. I’m here to ask the United States to do the same,” Hoskin told the panel.
He also suggested Teehee could be seated as early as this year by way of either a resolution or change in statute.
McGovern, Cole and other members of the Rules Committee, on both sides of the aisle, appeared to support the spirit of Hoskin’s remarks.
But they also acknowledged there are a number of questions and issues, some of them potentially thorny, that needed to be resolved first.
“It seems clear from the language of the treaty that this right [to representation in the House] is not self-executing, and would require action by Congress to implement it,” Cole said.
“Right now, as we consider this, members of the House have some real questions about this issue,” he continued.
“In addition to basic procedural questions, these questions include: Do other tribes have this right? Why did the tribe choose to select its delegate by council vote rather than by vote of the tribe? Are there concerns about double representation resulting from constituents being represented both by their geographic member of Congress, and by a delegate from the tribe? Then there’s the question of whether this arrangement is constitutional?”
Beyond that, Cole said there are more esoteric questions to consider, including “whether seating the delegate would change the character of the House, and if it did, how so?”
McGovern said he has already been contacted by officials with the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and the Delaware Nation, both of which have separate treaties with the United States government that call for some form of representation in Congress.
McGovern also noted there were also two other federally recognized bands of Cherokee who argue they should be considered successors to the 1835 treaty — the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians based in North Carolina.
“This is a complicated issue,” McGovern said.
“That’s why, though the conversation we’re having today is focusing solely on the Cherokee Nation, we know that more work will have to be done to examine this issue further,” he said.
Cole also acknowledged that reality as the hearing proceeded.
“While the rights contained in the treaty may be clear, the resolution of those rights and how they may be applied requires great examination and consideration,” he said.
“If the House ultimately decides to move forward, it will only do so after a bipartisan recognition of the claim and a bipartisan process for going forward,” he said.
“And we should remember that the process we follow for this claim may apply to other [tribes] as well,” Cole added.
The Oklahoma Republican also noted that a hearing is just a hearing.
“There’s not going to be a vote on the issue today. Indeed, at present, no legislation has been introduced on this issue,” he said. “Today’s a good first step, but we have a long way to go.”
The one area the members of the committee did appear to be in agreement on was that any delegate from the Cherokee Nation or any other tribe would be similar to five other delegates from the District of Columbia, Guam, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, American Samoa and the Virgin Islands.
These delegates are assigned to committees and can submit amendments to bills, but cannot vote on the floor for final passage of bills.
Puerto Rico is represented by a non-voting resident commissioner who is elected every four years.
In a statement released after the hearing, outgoing Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said the House Democratic Caucus would continue to explore “a path toward welcoming a delegate from the Cherokee Nation into the people’s house.”
“Our caucus has drawn great strength from the leadership of our Native American colleagues and the Congressional Native American Caucus,” Pelosi said.
“As we celebrate National Native American Heritage Month, the Democratic House remains committed to correcting the profound injustices of the past, living up to the federal government’s treaty obligations, fully embracing our trust responsibility and building a brighter, fairer future for the Cherokee Nation and all indigenous peoples.”
Also commenting on the hearing after its conclusion was Hoskin.
“We made history today, but we must keep advocating for America to keep its treaty promise to the Cherokee Nation to provide it with a delegate to Congress,” he said via Twitter.
“Today’s hearing was powerful and a basis for real action,” he said.