The Cherokee Nation, nearly a half-million strong, is holding the U.S. government to a 188-year-old promise for congressional representation for the tribe.
In 1835, then-President Andrew Jackson signed the New Echota Treaty into law and with it an article that provides for a nonvoting delegate in the U.S. House to represent the Cherokee. It has never been put in place.
According to Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr., the House left its job undone for almost two centuries, and tribal leaders will keep pressing the government to fulfill its promise now as lawmakers convened in January in the 118th Congress take up the session's work.
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"In the modern context of a delegate to the House of Representatives, we know what the authority is and what the limits are, but the authority is substantial," Hoskin said Thursday in a phone interview. "We made historic progress last year, and we are going to continue doing everything we can to seat our delegate in Congress."
The effort to get the delegate into the House started in June 2019 after the Cherokee Nation elected Hoskin, formerly the tribe's secretary of state, as its principal chief. Hoskin nominated Kimberly Teehee for the post Aug. 19, 2019. She was confirmed designate-delegate a week later by the Nation's Tribal Council. Teehee is currently director of government relations for Cherokee Nation and senior vice president of government relations for Cherokee Nation businesses.
Cherokee Nation officials then began a discussion with congressional leaders in September 2019 that gained momentum, according to a timeline provided by Cherokee Nation spokesman Rich Luchette. In November 2022, Hoskin testified before the U.S. House Rules Committee in a first-ever hearing on the tribe's delegate, prompting a promise from then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to seek a congressional path for the delegate.
Pelosi described the hearing as a "key first step toward identifying what actions must be taken to honor this long-standing promise," The Associated Press reported.
"The House Democratic Caucus will continue to explore a path toward welcoming a delegate from the Cherokee Nation into the people's House," Pelosi said in a statement released after the hearing.
The 47-year-old Hoskin, from Vinita, Oklahoma, said Thursday that a delegate in Congress would be a voice for all Native Americans despite being unable to cast votes for the passage of laws on the House floor.
A delegate's voice is heard as law is formed, he said.
"Let's just use as an example Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia," Hoskin said. "She serves on committees, she has the ability to introduce legislation in committee, debate in committee, vote in committee and debate up until the final and most significant act for a member of Congress, which is a vote on final passage."
The lack of a final vote doesn't mean the delegate has no influence, he said.
"So much of the work of Congress happens at the committee level, introducing legislation, advocating for or against it, so it is a substantial power and authority possessed by a delegate," he said. "Kim would possess that authority and leverage to do so much good for Indian Country. We need champions in Congress and we need the ability to advocate for and, in some cases, advocate against legislation and she would be in a position to do that."
Cherokee seek congressional delegate
Hoskin contends the 444,000-member Cherokee Nation -- originally made up of those who traveled the Trail of Tears -- is the only one of the three federally recognized tribes of the Cherokee who are party to the treaty, yet he sees the House post as important to all Native Americans.
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But the issue of which Cherokee tribe is subject to the treaty is disputed.
The Cherokee who hid in the Appalachian Mountains during the removal ordered by the treaty regrouped later in the western North Carolina mountains to become the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, who believe the treaty applies to all Cherokee, regardless of where they call home.
Eastern Band Principal Chief Richard Sneed in December called for each of the three federally recognized Cherokee tribes to be represented by a delegate or delegates, according to the Cherokee One Feather newspaper in Cherokee, North Carolina.
Sneed said references in the 1835 document to the Cherokee used the lowercase "nation," which he said should be taken to mean the Cherokee people, not just one branch, according to the One Feather article.
Prior to the treaty and Trail of Tears, many Cherokee moved west to get away from European settlers and part ways with fellow Cherokee who were adopting some of their ways. Those Cherokee would become the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians in Oklahoma.
The Keetoowah Band has also put forward a congressional delegate, Victoria "Tori" Holland, an attorney who has worked with several tribes in Oklahoma.
The Keetoowah Band's view paints the Cherokee more as one people in different places with equal claims.
"In 1785, the Treaty of Hopewell was signed by the Cherokee people, ensuring the Cherokee a Congressional delegate," states information on the delegate on the Keetoowah Band's website. "It was reinforced in the 1835 Treaty of New Echota. Since that time, however, the Cherokee have become three separate tribes. The UKB has proposed a delegate to Congress, so has the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma – both with equal claim to a delegate seat."
According to the Keetoowah Band, if a delegate is seated for the Cherokee Nation, one also must be seated for the Keetoowah Band and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in the interest of fairness.
"Kim Teehee and the Cherokee Nation are not incorrect in that today's Cherokee tribes are entitled to a long-promised Congressional delegate," the Keetoowah Band states. "But assuming that the delegate would be chosen only from today's Cherokee Nation, and not from all three branches of the tribe that signed the treaty in 1785 and 1835, is where they're incorrect. The 1785 and 1835 treaties must be respected; all three current Cherokee branches must be offered a delegate seat to Congress."
OWED A VOICE
Despite the differences among the three federally recognized Cherokee tribes, they clearly agree Congress owes the Cherokee a voice in Congress.
"While the Cherokee Nation has upheld its end of the treaty, the United States has yet to fulfill its obligations," Hoskin said in the statement. "Article 7 of the treaty is clear, 'Cherokee nation ... shall be entitled to a delegate in the House of Representatives.' We, as the Cherokee Nation have been bound by the treaty for nearly 200 years and we are asking that the United States uphold the promise made to seat our delegate."
Hoskin said the treaty-mandated delegate is unique to the Cherokee Nation in that there were only two parties to the 1835 Treaty of New Echota: the United States and the Cherokee Nation -- which he contends is the party to which the treaty speaks -- and both are accountable for delivering on their commitments, Hoskin said.
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Hoskin said the effort has allies in Congress who voiced support at the November House Rules Committee hearing.
Then-House Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, D-Maine, acknowledged the presence of representatives of other Native American tribes who also believe they should have a congressional voice, but he narrowed the focus of the November hearing to the Cherokee Nation and the 1835 treaty while recognizing the need for future discussions with other tribes.
"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 during the hearing. "And Congress should find a way to make this happen."
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who was selected chairman this month, noted the hearing marks an important first step. Cole is a member of the Chickasaw Nation and is co-chairman of the House Native American Caucus.
"For far too long, the federal government accumulated a sorry record of making promises to tribes, then breaking those promises as soon as it was expedient to do so," Cole said. "Only in recent years has the record improved."
Cole said he believes the language in the treaty indicates the delegate promised in 1835 is not a self-executing right and would require House action to execute. He said House members have many valid concerns and questions about the issue that will have to be vetted, including what claims exist from other tribes, why the Cherokee Nation selected its nominee by council vote rather than a tribal vote, whether there is a concern about double-representation in having a geographical House representative and a tribal representative and how such a delegate seat might change the character of the House.
"The right contained in the treaty may be clear, but the resolution of the rights and how they may be applied still requires great examination and consideration," he said.
In December, Cole and McGovern committed to working on the delegate issue in the 2023 session.
Another effort to keep a promise was passed by the house multiple times but never made it further in recent years.
U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Ooltewah, introduced legislation in September 2015 seeking to return 76 acres of Cherokee homeland in Monroe County, Tennessee, to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians -- one of the three federally-recognized tribes now based in Southwest North Carolina. The bill has passed the House each year it has been introduced. Each year, though, the House bill also failed to get a single Senate sponsor from either side of the aisle. Fleischmann said the bill keeps a promise the Tennessee Valley Authority made to the Cherokee to return their land inundated when the Tellico Dam was completed in 1979.
Fleischmann did not respond when contacted Thursday and Friday for comment on the Cherokee delegate.
Hoskin said ultimately all Native Americans benefit from the delegate the tribe is seeking to seat.
"This really is about lifting up the voices of all Native Americans at the highest levels of our government where policies are crafted and decisions made that impact all of us. Our entire country is stronger when more communities have a seat at the table and an opportunity to shape the direction we're headed," Hoskin said in the statement emailed Thursday.
"When the Cherokee Nation's delegate is seated in the House, she will be a voice for all native communities on the issues that are uniquely important to us -- tribal sovereignty, federal funding and equality of opportunity. That's why there's already widespread support for this effort, not just from the Cherokee Nation, but from tribal voices across the country like the United Tribes of Michigan, the All Pueblo Council of Governors and the National Council of American Indians. We are united in this effort."
He said the tribe will keep pressing for the U.S. government to honor its promises.
"I'm convinced Kim Teehee will be seated," he said Thursday.
THREE PATHS, ONE PEOPLE
The three Cherokee tribes arose from decisions by different tribal leaders beginning in the late 1700s and early 1800s when those who would become the Keetoowah people first decided to leave their ancestral home in what is now Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina and South Carolina.
While many Cherokee embraced the European settlers’ ways as a means to keep the peace, the more conservative Keetoowah Cherokee, sometimes called Kituwah, were not among them. They migrated to a new home in Arkansas by the late 1790s. In 1808, a delegation of Cherokee went to Washington to inform the president of the United States that not all Cherokee wanted to pursue a “civilized” life, according to the United Keetoowah Band website. In 1817, the United States ceded lands on the Arkansas and White rivers to the Keetoowah people. In 1828, they entered a treaty to move to the Indian Territory in Oklahoma.
The Cherokee Nation group identifies itself as the people subjected to the removal in 1838 and 1839 after gold was discovered in the Georgia hills. The group re-established itself with communities, churches, schools and newspapers in Indian Territory. The people reconstructed their society from the remnants of their culture from Georgia, leading to what is considered the Cherokee’s golden age between the 1840s and 1860s. That ended with the Civil War when loyalties divided the tribe, triggering a federal backlash against those who sided with the Confederacy. In the late 1890s, Cherokee tribal land was divided and split up among Cherokee listed in the census compiled by the federal government, making up today’s Cherokee Nation tribe.
The only Cherokee who remained in their homeland were those who were excluded through North Carolina’s Reservation Act of 1819 or who dodged the federal army sent to root them out of the hills. Historical accounts of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians say an adopted Cherokee named Will Thomas used Cherokee money to purchase land he held in his name for Cherokee who were fleeing the removal. Those Cherokee were able to stay and work the land until after the Civil War ended when, with some legal maneuvering, the Cherokee in North Carolina were able to form a corporation, which can hold land.
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians obtained a corporate charter from North Carolina in 1870 and adopted a constitution under which the band continues to operate today in western North Carolina near the city of Cherokee.
The three tribes have met annually since 2012, each taking its turn as host.
Contact Ben Benton at email@example.com or 423-757-6569.