Kimberly Teehee wants her place in the House and for the United States to honor its 187-year treaty with her tribe

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The political career of Kimberly Teehee is to be envied.

Since stepping into the field in the 1980s after graduating from the University of Iowa Law School, the power of the Cherokee Nation has reached heights rarely seen by a Native American woman in U.S. government. .

In the 1990s, she was the first deputy director of the Democratic National Committee’s Native American Outreach, then held a similar position on President Bill Clinton’s second nominating committee. After the DNC and Clinton transition team, Teehee then served as senior adviser to longtime Michigan Democratic congressman Dale Kildee, who served as co-chair of the Native American caucus in the House.

A year into President Barack Obama’s administration in 2009, Teehee will serve on the White House Domestic Policy Council, advising the president on Indian County issues as a senior policy adviser for Native American affairs.

But in 2019, Teehee was nominated for a position that no Native American — male or female — had ever held in U.S. history. She was presented as a non-voting delegate to the House of Representatives on behalf of the Cherokee Nation.

The position is one that has been in the making for 187 years, dating back to the Treaty of New Echota.

Signed by the US government and the Eastern Cherokee Nation of Georgia in 1835, the treaty started the Trail of Tears, which saw some 16,000 members of the Cherokee Nation and their slaves march west to Oklahoma from their homes. ancestral in the eastern and southern United States. It is estimated that over 4,000 Cherokee and an unknown number of slaves died during the three-year migration between 1836 and 1839.

Along with ceding their tribal lands to make the brutal journey west, the tribe was guaranteed a non-voting seat in the House of Representatives.

In the role, the delegate would act the same as other non-voting delegates from other U.S. territories like American Samoa, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, District of Columbia, and Northern Mariana Islands, and could participate in committees and vote on bills therein, but cannot vote on bills presented to the full House.

Until 2019, Congress had failed to act on the delegated portion of the nearly two-century-old treaty.

That is, until Cherokee Senior Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. named Teehee as the Cherokee Nation delegate in 2019.

“It would be [a] small measure of justice for those who lost their lives in a forced march,” Teehee said in a recent interview with the Kentucky Outlet, The Sentinel Echo.

She was poised to make history that year or early 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic hit, pushing back House approval. 2021 then became the target year, particularly with Teehee advising President Joe Biden to say he would push for greater tribal representation on the campaign trail. But 2021 has come and gone.

As the end of 2022 neared, the Cherokee Nation reinforced its desire to have Teehee confirmed via a vote in the House. He even opened a form for Americans to call on their representatives to push for action.

In preparation for the decision, the Congressional Research Service compiled a report (published in July) detailing a modern interpretation of the 1835 treaty to guide the decision-making. There are also concerns about giving members of the Cherokee Nation dual representation in the House.

“There are a lot of people who will say, ‘Well, this delegate is chosen by a council, not by a general election,'” Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole was quoted by The New York Times as saying earlier. this year about the effort of the delegates. “And the Cherokees then get two votes: your vote for council member and their vote for their own district’s congressman, so they kind of get two bites of the apple.”

However, the Congressional Research Service report recommended that where there are “ambiguities regarding tribal interests” they “should be interpreted to benefit the tribes.” In other words, the tribes should get what they want in case dated treaty wording gets in the way.

On that front, Teehee and the Cherokee Nation could open the door for more tribes across the country to have more say in Congress.

In addition to the Treaty of New Echota granting a delegate to the Cherokee Nation, the Choctaw Nation may also be eligible for a delegate under the 1830 Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek. An even earlier 1778 treaty with the nation of Delaware might also grant him a delegate.

At a time when the Supreme Court is slowly stripping sovereignty from Indigenous tribes, delegates like Teehee could stand on the front lines and in as important a place as ever.

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Raymond I. Langston