The Cherokee Nation’s recent decision to exercise its treaty rights and send Kimberly Teehee to Washington D.C. as its first-ever delegate to the U.S. Congress marks a new strategy in the ongoing fight for the survival and sovereignty of Indigenous peoples in the United States.
“This journey is just beginning and we have a long way to go to see this through to fruition,” Teehee 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 unprecedented step came last month when Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr. delivered his 2019 State of the Nation address and asserted, “To the government of the United States, I want to say this: I’m sending a Cherokee woman to Washington, D.C.”
Drawing on the right to representation afforded in several treaties signed between the United States government and the Cherokee Nation, Hoskin’s decision to send a delegate to Congress constitutes a bold move toward affirming tribal sovereignty. He is also testing the limits of the United States to make good on promises it has made since the beginning of colonial rule.
Confirmed as a delegate by the Cherokee Nation Council on August 30, Teehee currently serves as the director of Cherokee Nation Government Relations and vice president of government relations at Cherokee Nation Businesses. Teehee grew up in Oklahoma and cut her teeth in politics in the 1980s, interning for Wilma Mankiller, the first woman to become principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. She previously worked for President Barack Obama’s administration as the first-ever senior policy adviser for Native American Affairs in the White House Domestic Policy Council, and has over a decade of experience in Washington, D.C. She has advocated for environmental justice, tribal self-determination, economic growth, health care and education — issues that impact all of Indian Country.
The appointment of this delegate is coming on the heels of several notable political victories for Native Americans. In November 2018, Sharice Davids (Ho-Chunk Nation) and Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) became the first Native American women elected to Congress. Kimberly Teehee will be the third Indigenous woman to represent Indigenous nations in Congress. Unlike Davids and Haaland, however, Teehee will not have the right to vote when the House is in open session. She will, however, be able to participate in committees as a voting member and bring legislation to the floor. This is an important distinction to make: Haaland and Davids are elected members of a congressional district, operating from within the U.S. representational system. Teehee stands as a delegate of a sovereign nation; it is the power of treaties which recognize nation-to-nation agreements that make Teehee’s presence in Congress possible.
“I think more broadly, we want affirmation that our treaties are still in full force and effect,” Chief Hoskin told Truthout. “You can say that in a theoretical sense, but to actually do it, we’re demonstrating in a real concrete way that the treaty is still alive, it’s a living and breathing document.”
The Obligation to Uphold Treaties
More than 500 treaties have been signed between Indigenous nations and the colonial United States government, considered under the U.S. Constitution to be the “supreme law of the land.” In the early days of occupation and white settlement, treaties were used to mark land boundaries as well as establish political, economic and military agreements between Indigenous peoples and growing numbers of settlers and colonial powers. Ojibwe scholar Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark reminds us that, “Indigenous nations primarily saw treaties as living relationships, diplomatic processes that enabled the expansion of intricate kin-based networks situated within a relational paradigm that saw the world as a deeply interconnected and interdependent place.” In other words, treaty documents outline responsibilities and obligations that have been agreed upon by the United States government and which it is required to honor and uphold. A treaty is not a relic of history, but an ongoing, living set of relationships.
That the Cherokee Nation has a right to representation in Congress is not in dispute. Article XII of the 1785 Treaty of Hopewell states that the Cherokee “shall have the right to send a deputy of their choice, whenever they think fit, to Congress.” Article 7 of the 1835 Treaty of New Echota outlines something similar for Cherokees: “They shall be entitled to a delegate in the House of Representatives of the United States whenever Congress shall make provision for the same.” The 1866 Treaty with the Cherokee — which provided citizenship for former slaves, the Cherokee Freedmen — also affirms all treaty rights previously established.
The decision to act on these treaty obligations has been met with excitement by many Cherokees, though some are not sure what its long-term effects will be. Historian and genealogist David Cornsilk, dually enrolled Cherokee Nation citizen and United Keetoowah Band member, told Truthout, “Even if there is a diversity of opinion among Cherokee people, we know that the treaty of 1866 is a contemporary document, because it was adjudicated recently in federal court in the case of the Cherokee Freedmen.” Cornsilk added that while the delegate is nominated by the tribal government, ultimately the position should be responsive to Cherokee people.
But why has this right to representation in Congress not been exercised until now? One possible answer is that the Cherokee Nation was simply not interested in sending a delegate to argue in vain to callous Washington bureaucrats — Native people were not fully able to vote until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1965. Another is that it had more pressing matters to attend to in the wake of horrific colonial violence, land dispossession and the dismantling of Indigenous governance systems. The Cherokee Nation has also spent decades strengthening its communities through investments in healthcare and education, and there has been a broader shift in Indian Country toward the reassertion of treaty rights — something also witnessed at Standing Rock.
The Government’s History of Violent Suppression
The historical relationship between the United States and the Cherokee Nation — like its relationship with so many other Indigenous nations — is one of betrayal, characterized by illegal land seizures, forced removal and the termination of tribal governance. But from the perspective of Cherokees, it is also a story of survivance and adaptation. These two historical narratives converge in the current moment, when the exercise of Cherokee sovereignty will test the willingness of the federal government to uphold its treaty obligations. Sending Teehee to Congress is not just about advocating on behalf of the Cherokee Nation; it sends a clear message to Washington: Indigenous sovereignty still stands.
Cherokees have reason to be suspicious of the United States government. Of all the North American tribes to experience forced removal from their homelands, the case of the Cherokees and the Trail of Tears has been so indelibly marked, and yet constantly glossed over in U.S. history. The removal of the Cherokees was orchestrated by Andrew Jackson. By refusing to enforce the Supreme Court’s 1832 ruling that affirmed the sovereign rights of the Cherokee Nation, Jackson paved the way for the state of Georgia to continue its illegal annexation of Cherokee territory. With the impending threat of violence and intractable stance of land-hungry Jackson, a small group of Cherokees signed the 1835 Treaty of New Echota, a controversial decision which sanctioned the removal of the Cherokees beyond the limits of the United States. In 1838, Jackson’s successor, Martin Van Buren, sent the Army to forcibly remove every Cherokee from the state of Georgia.
Summarizing Cherokee accounts of the Trail of Tears, anthropologist James Mooney describes men, women and children being ripped from their homes at bayonet point, placed in shackles and marched off to stockade forts. Many were arrested in corn fields or in church with only the clothes on their backs. Others turned for one last glance of home, only to witness their cabins looted and set ablaze by white squatters. In all, about 17,000 Cherokee were forced into concentration camps and subsequently marched West. Demographers estimate that 8,000 people — nearly half of the Cherokee population — died on the Trail of Tears.
After the forced removal of the Cherokee to Indian Country, the federal government then insisted on breaking up communally held land into individual plots. This was carried out by the passage of the Dawes Act of 1887, which assigned allotments of private property to tribal members, without tribal approval, and the Curtis Act of 1898, which abolished tribal laws and courts. These laws opened up land to white settlers, and paved the way for Oklahoma statehood in 1907.
In the 1950s, the U.S. government abolished federal recognition of Native tribes and their structures of self-governance, a period known as the termination era. The effects of this policy were disastrous and led to widespread poverty and insecurity. It was not until 1976 that the Cherokee Nation was able to ratify its first modern constitution. Since then, the Cherokee Nation has made significant investments in health care, education, housing and community development. Hoskins recently announced a proposal to quadruple the size of the Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program and to double the size of its career training initiatives. These investments speak to the Cherokee people’s commitment to halt the devastating loss of language, kinship and culture that was the product of the termination era.
All of this history carries into the present.
Resisting Colonial Governance
What does the Cherokee Nation want out of Teehee’s representation? How will the presence of this delegate shift relations of power between the Cherokee Nation and the colonial government? Is there a risk that this appointment will result in a further entrenchment of the Cherokee Nation within U.S. political power structures?
Teehee’s nomination is not happening in a vacuum, and it raises a fundamental question about how Indigenous communities engage with electoral politics and participation within a colonial system that is actively determined to ensure their erasure and elimination. On the one hand, sending a delegate to Congress means acknowledging the political structure imposed by the United States and actively taking part in it. On the other hand, a delegate can bring forward real changes not just by proposing legislation, but also by reframing legislative agendas to better serve Indigenous people.
This appointment is also deeply complicated by the current business dealings between the Cherokee Nation and the U.S. federal government. Part of the reason the tribe has been able to bolster its economic position is because of defense contracts it has made with the U.S. Army and the U.S. Air Force. Cherokee Nation Businesses, in particular its Red Wing division, has significant investments in military armaments, guidance systems and surveillance technologies — all of which directly support ongoing colonial governance domestically and imperialist projects abroad. In other words, while Teehee’s nomination to Congress is predicated on the assertion of treaty rights, the Cherokee Nation is also actively expanding its role in supporting U.S. militarism. Herein lies an inherent contradiction: The enactment of this treaty right seems to be a concrete assertion of tribal political authority that recognizes and upholds Indigenous governance. But at the same time, the Cherokee Nation has become part of the military machinery that, in fact, enables the reproduction and expansion of U.S. colonial power. Is it possible to advance Indigenous self-determination while simultaneously working in the interests of the colonial power that is responsible for holding that sovereignty captive in the first place?
It may also be argued that a Cherokee delegate is a largely symbolic gesture, a small move toward inclusion that has been offered to other occupied territories. Currently, the House has six non-voting members: a resident commissioner from Puerto Rico, and five individual delegates from the District of Columbia, Guam, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Critical questions need to be asked about what this congressional appointment actually means in terms of negotiating power and influence, especially within the context of a nation that is already acting in the political interests of a colonial settler state.
Note: This article was updated on September 8, 2019, to contain additional analysis about the investments that Cherokee Nation Businesses holds in military armaments.