Things That Matter

The Cherokee Nation Was Promised Congressional Representation Nearly 200 Years Ago And Now They’re Demanding It

Fact: the US was built on stolen land. Plain and simple.

When European colonists arrived in what is today the United States, there were already an estimated 10 million Native Americans living across the continent. They formed their own independent nations and were rich in customs, culture, and identity. 

As the US expanded its territory, it engaged in the wholesale slaughter of entire tribes. For those tribes that negotiated or worked with the US in some capacity, the government often signed treaties. These treaties basically promised the tribe would avoid slaughter if they relocated to new lands completely separate from their ancestral home. With at least one tribe, the Cherokee, their treaty also promised them representation in the US Congress.

It’s been almost 200 years since the US signed a treaty with the Cherokee people and the tribe is demanding the US fulfill one of its promises.

The Cherokee Nation announced Thursday that it intends to appoint a delegate to the US House of Representatives, asserting for the first time a right promised to the tribe in a nearly 200-year-old treaty with the federal government.

In a press release, Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said, “As Native issues continue to rise to the forefront of the national dialogue, now is the time for Cherokee Nation to execute a provision in our treaties,” Chief Hoskin said.

“It’s a right negotiated by our ancestors in two treaties with the federal government and reaffirmed in the Treaty of 1866, and reflected in our Constitution. At Cherokee Nation, we are exercising our treaty rights and strengthening our sovereignty.” He added: ““The Cherokee Nation honors its treaties with the United States. Whether the United States will likewise honor its promises to the Cherokee Nation is a question that only its elected leaders can answer.” 

It was a historic step for the Oklahoma-based Cherokee Nation and its nearly 370,000 citizens, coming about a week after Chuck Hoskin Jr. was sworn in as principal chief of the tribe. The Cherokee Nation says it’s the largest tribal nation in the US and one of three federally recognized Cherokee tribes.

The move raises questions about what that representation in Congress would look like and whether the US will honor an agreement it made almost two centuries ago.

The Tribal Council has already sworn in it’s new delegates, including their representative to Congress.

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr.’s cabinet and Congressional delegate nominations were unanimously confirmed by the Council of the Cherokee Nation during a special meeting Thursday.

The council confirmed governmental cabinet positions including the Secretaries of State and Veterans Affairs, along with the Attorney General and Treasurer.

So who is their nominee to represent the tribe in Congress?

Before she became the Cherokee Nation’s vice president of government relations in 2014, Kim Teehee served as senior policy adviser for Native American affairs in President Barack Obama’s White House. Before that, she was already working in Congress as an adviser on indigenous issues.

“Kim Teehee will be a tremendous asset to our team as we work to strengthen and build on the Nation-to-Nation relationship between the United States and tribal nations,” Obama said in a 2009 statement that announced her appointment at the time. “She is rightly recognized as an outstanding advocate for Indian Country, and she will provide a direct interface at the highest level of my administration, assuring a voice for Native Americans during policy-making decisions.”

“This is a historic moment for Cherokee Nation and our citizens. I am truly humbled Chief Hoskin has nominated me for this extraordinary responsibility,” said Teehee, the tribe’s nominee for the position. “I remain supportive of his vision for the future of our tribal government and grateful for the opportunity to serve the great Cherokee Nation.”

Although the tribe is moving to get what’s owed to them, no one is quite sure what the representation in Congress might look like.

Hoskin told CNN that the position might look similar to the nonvoting representatives from the District of Columbia or U.S. territories like Puerto Rico. Currently, the Cherokee Nation comprises 370,000 people worldwide, according to its website, and Hoskin said the tribe is in an “unprecedented” position of strength.

The Treaty of Hopewell laid out the congressional provision in Article XII, stating, “That the Indians may have full confidence in the justice of the United States, respecting their interests, they shall have the right to send a deputy of their choice, whenever they think fit, to Congress.”

The tribe said that a third treaty from 1866 “reaffirms all previous treaties between the Cherokee Nation and the United States.”

For too long, US treaties with native tribes meant death, erasure, and lies. 

The history of treaties between the U.S. government and indigenous nations is a troubled one, often marked by breaches on the government’s side. 

Even when the treaties have been honored, they often resulted in tribal displacement.

According to Smithsonian magazine, the 1835 Treaty of New Echota (which the Cherokee Nation referenced in its announcement on Thursday) was used as grounds to remove the Cherokee from their lands along what became known as the Trail of Tears, a grueling journey that killed thousands. But the tribal leadership says that treaty and the 1785 Treaty of Hopewell granted the right to representation in Congress, a guarantee they now want to make good on.

Many on Twitter applauded the tribe’s decision to hold the US to it’s commitment.

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