WASHINGTON — The Cherokee Nation could soon have a non-voting delegate in Congress. Creating the role would fulfill a promise from a nearly 200-year-old treaty with the U.S. federal government.
“Why now?” Chuck Hoskin Jr., the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, asked rhetorically Wednesday during a U.S. House Rules Committee hearing.
“Why not now?” he answered emphatically.
“I feel duty bound to assert every single right of every single treaty we have. I know my ancestors paid a dear price for them,” he added.
The hearing explored the legal and procedural challenges of creating the seat. It would be the first designated seat in Congress for an American Indian nation in the history of the United States. It would also be a small but meaningful reparation to the bloodstained relationship between the U.S. federal government and the Cherokee Nation.
The delegate, like the six existing non-voting delegates in the U.S. House, would not be able to vote on the final passage of bills through the chamber. But they could serve on committees and join a party caucus.
From a legal and procedural perspective, there are few barriers to establishing the delegate role, according to testimony from the Congressional Research Service.
The House can act unilaterally to create the position by modifying its chamber rules via a simple majority vote, the testimony said. No action is necessary from the Senate or president, though the House would need to vote to reaffirm the seat every two years. Typically the House does not have this power, but stipulations of an 1835 treaty between the United States government and a faction of Cherokee Indians allow the chamber to act on its own.
However, committee members raised considerations that could discourage some of their colleagues from supporting the new seat.
The prospect of naming a Cherokee Nation delegate has already prompted requests for similar treatment from other tribes, including those with their own claims to Cherokee lineage. Additionally, representatives questioned whether welcoming a Cherokee Nation delegate to the chamber would give its citizens dual representation, as they already vote for congressional representatives in whichever district they reside.
Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern, chairman of the Rules Committee, said he hopes to establish the seat “as quickly as possible,” potentially by year’s end. However, no votes on the matter have been scheduled yet.
Even with the next steps uncertain, Hoskin called the hearing “historic.”
“I speak today on behalf of not only the more than 440,000 citizens of the Cherokee Nation, but millions of Cherokee citizens who have waited for this day to come since 1835,” he said.
Hoskin was alluding to the 1835 Treaty of New Echota between the U.S. government and a faction of Cherokee Indians called the Treaty Party. The agreement was contentious among Cherokees, as the Treaty Party represented a small, wealthy minority within the tribe.
In the agreement, the Treaty Party ceded their tribe’s land in the American southeast and agreed to move west into land labeled Indian territory, which makes up much of present-day Oklahoma.
When the Cherokee Indians refused to move from their homeland, the U.S. government forcibly removed them as part of the Trail of Tears, a series of forced displacements of Indian tribes in the southeast.
The Treaty Party did secure a concession in the treaty, though. Article 7 made a provision for Cherokee representation in Congress. It states: “It is stipulated that they [Cherokee Indians] shall be entitled to a delegate in the House of Representatives in the United States whenever Congress shall make provision for the same.”
That part of the treaty has remained unfulfilled, but not forgotten.
Hoskin, who was elected chief of the Cherokee Nation in June 2019, quickly made congressional representation a top priority. He used his Cherokee constitutional authority to nominate Kim Teehee to serve as the delegate in September of that year, pending approval from Congress. Teehee currently serves as the director of government relations for the Cherokee Nation.
Rep. Tom Cole, a member of the Chickasaw Nation who represents about 90,000 Indian Americans in Oklahoma’s 4th Congressional District and serves as the top Republican on the Rules Committee, said he doubts the issue will be decided along party lines. A portrait of Cole’s great aunt, Chickasaw performer Te Ata, hangs in the Rules Committee room behind his seat.
But McGovern, perhaps fearing that the incoming Republican-controlled House is less likely to establish the new delegate role, wants to move quickly.
Teehee is hopeful that action could come soon.
“I’ve seen Congress do more complicated things more quickly than that,” she said, referencing the end of the congressional session on January 3.
McGovern and Cole both said they haven’t yet gauged support within their respective caucuses. Cole himself did not even express a firm commitment to creating the seat, though he celebrated discussing the 187-year-old matter.
“It’s never too late to do the right thing,” he said.