Nearly 200 years ago, a pact was signed between the federal government and the Cherokee people they displaced. Now one woman is set to fulfil that promise, as the first delegate of a sovereign Native American government in Congress.
In 1835, the Treaty of New Echota was signed, forcing the Cherokee people off their ancestral land in the southeast United States and along a 1,200-mile march that became known as the Trail of Tears.
A long-forgotten part of this devastating pact was a promise to the Cherokee that they could send a delegate to the House of Representatives; with a view that they could have a say in the government that had displaced their homes, leading to the loss of thousands of lives.
Last month, the council for the Cherokee Nation – now based in Oklahoma – made good on the centuries-old offer by appointing Kimberly Teehee as its first official representative to Congress.
Teehee, who worked as a senior policy advisor for Native American affairs in the Obama White House, says she’s optimistic that the federal government is now more aware and receptive of the issues facing her 380,000-strong community and others like it – making the right time to enact the treaty provision.
“I feel we are in an environment now where Congress is more educated about Native American issues,” Teehee tells the Guardian in a new interview.
“We have four members of Congress, people who are citizens of federally recognised tribes, who take on our issues and champion our issues. There is a bipartisan Congressional Native American caucus, whose job is to educate, on a bipartisan basis, members of Congress about Native American issues.”
Teehee’s policies have helped to create that caucus, along with other key legislation around representation, government grants and social issues such as domestic violence. Assuming her new role is recognised by the House, in keeping with the 1835 agreement, she will become the first delegate of a sovereign Native American government.
Chuck Hoskin, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, says that although Teehee will be representing the Cherokee people first and foremost, he hopes she will also be able to use her position to advocate for Native American communities across the States.
“In 2019, I think tribal leaders recognize the benefit of solidarity: that we get more done together than we do separately,” he tells the Guardian.
“And so I have been very careful to tell tribal leaders and to express in interviews that my expectation is that Kim Teehee will be somebody with an open door to leaders across Indian country.”
Teehee’s appointment now awaits Congressional approval; and the fulfillment of the pact made between federal government and the Cherokee so long ago.
“A Cherokee Nation delegate to Congress is a negotiated right that our ancestors advocated for,” Teehee previously said. “Today, our tribal nation is stronger than ever and ready to defend all our constitutional and treaty rights.”
Image: Native Contractors