January 28, 2023
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National Recap: Cherokee Nation appoints first U.S. delegate

The Cherokee Nation named its first official delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. 

Kimberly Teehee, executive director of government relations for the Cherokee Nation, was approved by the Council of the Cherokee Nation as a delegate Sept. 5. Her appointment as an official representative fulfills a promise made to the Cherokee tribe by the federal government
in a centuries-old treaty.

The nation’s right to a delegate in is outlined in the 1835 Treaty of Echota, the same document that forced members of the Cherokee Nation to give up their lands around the Mississippi River and migrate to what is now Oklahoma. The migration is widely known as the “Trail of Tears.” During the journey, over 4,000 members of the Cherokee Nation died of disease, starvation and exhaustion. In return for their journey, the federal government promised the tribe compensation — including a delegate in the House of Representatives. 

Despite the promise, the position sat empty for approximately 200 years. In August, the Cherokee Nation announced its plans to fulfill this aspect of the treaty and appoint a delegate to Congress. The Oklahoma-based Cherokee Nation has over 370,000 citizens and is one of the largest tribal nations in the U.S. — a demographic that, now, will likely receive more attention from the federal government. 

As it stands, the federal government and Cherokee Nation largely operate independently from each other. The presence of a delegate in the House would fuse the Cherokee Nation into the government. 

In 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama selected Teehee to serve as the Senior Policy Advisor for Native American Affairs. As a member of the domestic policy council, she advised the Obama administration on issues that specifically impacted Native American communities. These issues include poverty, mass incarceration, police brutality and the depletion of natural resources on their land. Teehee said she is excited and grateful to represent the tribe and hopes her role will bring visibility to a group of people often invisible in today’s society. 

“This journey is just beginning, and we have a long way to go to see this through to fruition,” she said. “However, a Cherokee Nation delegate to Congress is a negotiated right that our ancestors advocated for, and, today, our tribal nation is stronger than ever and ready to defend all our constitutional and treaty rights.”

The treaty does not specify whether the tribal delegate will get voting rights within the legislature. There are currently six nonvoting members in the House, including representatives for Washington, D.C., and the U.S. Virgin Islands. While these representatives cannot vote, they have the capacity to introduce legislation, debate on the floor and vote in their respective committees.

Brontë Cook can be reached at bcook4@ithaca.edu