(CNN) — 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.
It was a historic step for the Oklahoma-based Cherokee Nation and its nearly 370,000 members, 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.
Here’s what’s at stake.
Why is this happening now?
The Cherokee Nation’s right to appoint a delegate stems from the same treaty that the US government used to forcibly remove the tribe from its ancestral lands.
As a result of the 1835 Treaty of New Echota, the Cherokee were ultimately made to leave their homes in the Southeast for present-day Oklahoma in exchange for money and other compensation. Nearly 4,000 members of the tribe died of disease, starvation and exhaustion on the journey now known as the Trail of Tears.
A delegate in the House of Representatives was one of the ways the US government promised to compensate the Cherokee Nation.
So why is the tribe only taking up the offer now?
Ezra Rosser, a law professor at American University, told CNN that the US government has long made it difficult for tribes to exercise rights afforded to them in treaties. But now, tribes are asserting themselves in a way that demands the attention of non-Native Americans.
“We have to recognize that we imposed a genocide on tribes and we imposed harsh measures toward any government structure that they had,” Ezra Rosser said. “To me, it’s not surprising that it would take somewhat deep into the self-determination era for tribes to be in a position to assert some of these rights.”
Hoskin echoed that sentiment, telling CNN that “the Cherokee Nation is today in a position of strength that I think is unprecedented in its history.”
Why is this important?
Having a delegate in the House would fundamentally alter the relationship between the US government and the Cherokee Nation, Rosser wrote in a 2005 article for the Boston University Public Interest Law Journal.
Right now, the federal government and Native American tribes largely operate as two sovereign nations that interact with one another, Rosser said. Representation in the House would incorporate the Cherokee Nation into the US government itself.
The two other Cherokee tribes recognized by the federal government are the United Keetoowah Band in Oklahoma, which has about 14,000 members, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina, which has about 16,000 members. It’s unclear if they would have the same right to appoint a delegate.
What power would a delegate have?
The treaty doesn’t specify whether or not the Cherokee Nation’s delegate would be a voting member of the legislature. But Hoskin said the position might look something like the non-voting members that represent Washington, D.C., and five US territories.
“I think we have to look at the roadmaps that are laid out as a suggested path to seating our delegate, and certainly the delegates afforded the territories give us an idea of what is workable in the Congress,” he said.
There are currently six non-voting members in the House. Washington D.C. and four permanently inhabited US territories — American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and the US Virgin Islands — are represented by a delegate, who serves a two-year term. Puerto Rico is served by a resident commissioner, who is elected every four years.
Those representatives can’t vote on the House floor, but they can vote in committees that they are on, introduce legislation and engage in debate. Hoskin said he hoped the Cherokee Nation’s delegate would help advance the interests of the tribe and, more broadly, all Native Americans.
Who will be the tribe’s delegate?
Kimberly Teehee has been nominated to serve as the Cherokee delegate.
She is currently the tribe’s vice president of government relations, and previously worked as a senior policy advisor on Native American affairs for three years in President Barack Obama’s administration. For about 12 years before that, Teehee was a senior advisor to Dale Kildee, then a Democratic congressman from Michigan.
What’s the next step?
First, Teehee has to be confirmed by the tribal council of the Cherokee Nation in a special meeting on August 29.
Then Congress will need to take legislative action, Hoskin said. The tribe plans to continue its conversations with Oklahoma’s representatives in the House and begin crafting ideas about what that legislation will look like.
“It will be a process that I think will be a long one, but it’s one we’re prepared to take,” Hoskin said.
Will there be resistance to the move?
There’s reason to believe that the US might not recognize its treaty with the Cherokee Nation. In the past, the Supreme Court has upheld legislation that infringes on US treaties with tribal nations, according to Rosser.
Some organizations could mount legal challenges to the Cherokee Nation’s push for a delegate, Rosser added, potentially arguing that the move gives members of the tribe more representation in Congress than non-indigenous US citizens.
Rosser said it’s also likely that the Cherokee Nation’s appointment could face resistance from other tribes, particularly those who were also forced from their lands but weren’t granted their own delegate through a treaty.
Other tribes might argue that a delegate for the Cherokee Nation threatens their own relationships with the US government, according to Rosser. The Cherokee Nation’s delegate could end up becoming the de facto voice in Congress for all tribal nations, raising fears that the representative might favor the Cherokee Nation at the expense of other tribes.
Despite the potential hurdles, Hoskin said he is optimistic.
“I can boil this down very simply for the Congress,” he said. “Does the Congress intend to keep its word to the Cherokee people? If the answer’s yes, then Ms. Teehee will be seated.”