Cherokee Nation Takes Up 1835 Promise To Send Delegate To Congress
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
In 1835, the Treaty of New Echota was ratified in the U.S. Senate, selling Cherokee land in Northern Georgia and providing the legal basis for one of this country's ugliest episodes, the Trail of Tears, in which the Cherokee Nation was forcibly marched to a reservation in Oklahoma. But read further into that treaty, Article Seven, and there's a provision that entitles the Cherokee Nation to a delegate in the House of Representatives, quote, "whenever Congress shall make provisions for the same" - unquote.
Well, nearly two centuries later, the Cherokee principle chief, Chuck Hoskin, Jr., is calling on Congress to make good on this promise by seating a delegate. He has nominated Kimberly Teehee for the role. Teehee is the Cherokee vice president of governmental relations and served as senior policy adviser for Native American Affairs under President Obama. She was the first to hold that position. I spoke with Kimberly Teehee from Tahlequah, Okla., the capital of the Cherokee Nation, and I asked her if she thinks this effort to get a seat in Congress will be successful.
KIMBERLY TEEHEE: That's the goal. I don't think that we necessarily believe it's going to happen next week. You know, we have other priorities as well. The Cherokee Nation is the largest tribe in the nation, and we have citizens in all 50 states. And all we're asking for is to have a seat at the table. But make no mistake - I mean, the reason for being there at all is because we have treaty rights that would allow for a delegate to sit in the House of Representatives.
MARTIN: Can you give us an example of, say, a legislative initiative that you would want to advance that would be enhanced by this position? There are four people who are members of tribal nations currently sitting, but that isn't their primary responsibility. I mean, their primary responsibility...
MARTIN: ...Is to their specific congressional districts. Is there something...
MARTIN: Could you just give us an example of something that you feel that you would like to advance that would be especially enhanced by your status as a delegate?
TEEHEE: Sure. Off the top of my head, I can think of one that would not only protect the governmental interests of the Cherokee Nation, but it would also be something that would be positive for all of Indian country, and that is mandatory funding. Right now, federal dollars that are deployed to Indian Country are probably 99% all discretionary funding. And so whenever government shutdowns occur, that means health care's in jeopardy (laughter). That means, you know, so much for the small tribes especially.
But there are programs that are mandatory - you know, SNAP program, for example. That's a mandatory funded program, so it does not get disturbed during times of shutdown. But can you imagine if Indian Country funding were mandatory? I mean, I just - it would be an incredible effort.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, I do note that you have had a very distinguished career, as you've been a legislative aide. You've worked on the Hill. You've worked in the White House. You've worked in the private sector. You're a lawyer. So you've had a very distinguished career to this point. I just want to ask, though, what you think it would mean for you to be seated in the House even as a non-voting delegate. I mean, is that something that as a little girl you ever thought about?
Do you think it would mean something to other young women like yourself who grew up as a member of a tribal nation and perhaps did not have this aspiration? I just - do you know what I mean? I'm just wondering, do you think it might have some deeper meaning apart from just the title, the position and the job itself?
TEEHEE: Sure. I think, first of all, it's not something I dreamed of being when I grew up. I've exceeded anything that I ever thought I would be or could be as a kid. And I was mentored by the late Wilma Mankiller, who was the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. She was the one that encouraged me to go to law school, and she was the one that encouraged me to go to D.C. and to gain experiences that I could ultimately bring back to the tribe. So I'm well aware that whenever, you know, you achieve something really wonderful and meaningful what that means to young people.
MARTIN: Well, thank you for speaking with us. We really appreciate it.
MARTIN: That's Kimberly Teehee. She is a vice president of special projects for the Cherokee Nation Businesses. She's the vice president of government relations. And she has been named as a potential delegate representing the Cherokee Nation to the House of Representatives.
Thank you so much for talking with us today.
TEEHEE: Thank you, Michel.
(SOUNDBITE OF SUBMOTION ORCHESTRA FEAT. CATCHING FLIES' "AO")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.