A Treaty Right For Cherokee Representation : Code Switch On this week's episode of Code Switch, we talk about the relevance of a 200 year old treaty — one that most Americans don't know that much about, but should. It's a treaty that led to the Trail of Tears, but also secured a tenuous promise.
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A Treaty Right For Cherokee Representation

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A Treaty Right For Cherokee Representation

A Treaty Right For Cherokee Representation

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DELANNA STUDI: I didn't know who I was exactly. I didn't know where we started.

MARY KATHRYN NAGLE: You are Cherokee. Your grandfathers fought and gave their lives to save Cherokee Nation.

KIMBERLY TEEHEE: My family history is riddled with federal policy, congressional actions. Right? I mean, I see it. It's a story that I tell.



I'm Gene Demby.


I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. And this is CODE SWITCH.


MERAJI: Gene, the idea for this week's episode started here.


MARY LOUISE KELLY: The Cherokee Nation has named a delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time ever.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: A 200-year-old treaty with the U.S. promises the Cherokee people a representative in Congress.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: The Cherokee Nation would be allowed to appoint one member to the House.

DEMBY: I remember this was big news, like, a year ago or so. Like, the fact that the Cherokee Nation was appointing, for the first time ever, a delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives - bananas.

MERAJI: Yes. And it was big news because it was a treaty right the Cherokee Nation had for more than a 180 years.

CHUCK HOSKIN JR: Americans ought to know that just because it's been 180 years doesn't mean we've sat back for 180 years. It means we have been suppressed and ripped apart during most of that time.

MERAJI: That's the chief of Cherokee Nation, Chuck Hoskin Jr.

HOSKIN JR: Now, as we gain our strength - now, as we hit our stride - now, as we look back at that document that ripped us apart, marched our people across the United States, now you better believe it's the supreme law of the land. And we're here to make sure the United States upholds its end of the bargain.

DEMBY: When he says marched our people across the United States, is he talking about the Trail of Tears there?

MERAJI: He is. The document that Chief Hoskin says ripped the Cherokee Nation apart is the same document that grants Cherokees that representative in Washington. It's called the Treaty of New Echota. And the story behind why that treaty was signed is messy and complicated and rarely discussed. So, of course, I wanted to know more.

DEMBY: (Laughter) Of course. Of course. And we're going to get into what you learned.

MERAJI: We're going to have some history. That'll ground us. And then we're going to discuss the Cherokee feud over the Treaty of New Echota. It's a feud that has lasted for almost two centuries.

STUDI: I always joke that the Ridges and (laughter) the Rosses are like the Montagues and the Capulets. We've been fighting for so long that people don't really know why. But in Cherokee, we know why.

NAGLE: When I grew up, I didn't tell anyone I was a Ridge. And when I first started telling people I was a Ridge, you know, I got a lot of shocked reactions. I mean, it was almost like people would look at me and say, wow, I thought you were a good person.

DEMBY: That's all coming up. Stay with us.


DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.


MERAJI: On this episode, we're talking about the relevance of a 200-year-old treaty, a treaty that most of us don't know that much about - but should.

DEMBY: It's the Treaty of New Echota. It grants Cherokees a delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives, but it is also the same treaty that led directly to the Trail of Tears. So you don't get that representative without this other calamity.

MERAJI: And the Treaty of New Echota pit Cherokee against Cherokee, more specifically a few powerful Cherokee who reluctantly supported removal from their ancestral home against a huge majority who were adamantly against making that move.

DEMBY: We are going to get into why that break happened and why those divides haven't healed in nearly two centuries.

MERAJI: But Julie Reed, a historian...


JULIE REED: ...At Penn State University and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation.

MERAJI: ...Told me it wasn't always like this. Most Cherokees wanted to stay on their land in the South in what's now Georgia, Tennessee, North Carolina and parts of Alabama.


REED: The bulk of Cherokee people are unified against removal, basically through 1832.

MERAJI: In 1832, the Supreme Court did something big.


REED: The Worcester v. Georgia decision comes down, which essentially maintains the rights of the Cherokee Nation and says that the Cherokee Nation can maintain itself on its lands and it has the right to govern itself.

MERAJI: This Supreme Court decision is a huge win for the Cherokee people. Like you just heard, it says they can rule themselves and live on their land, meaning they have sovereignty. They won. They beat the state of Georgia in its own court, the highest court in the United States, the Supreme Court.

Mary Kathryn Nagle, a playwright and attorney specializing in sovereign rights of tribal governments, calls this decision miraculous.


NAGLE: It's almost like I carry that moment with me still somehow in my DNA. Even Hollywood couldn't make up something more miraculous. You've got, you know, a president who just won a national campaign on a platform of obliterating your people, and somehow you find solace in the court.

DEMBY: If this Supreme Court case is such a victory for the Cherokee, then what led to these fissures in the Nation?

MERAJI: Historian Julie Reed told me that has a lot to do with who was president at the time - Andrew Jackson.


REED: He sends the signal that he has no intention of actually enforcing the Supreme Court decision. There's this famed quote of him saying...

MERAJI: Allegedly saying something like, Chief Justice John Marshall made his decision, so let him enforce it. Basically, the only way this Supreme Court ruling counts is if I back it up as the president of the United States - and I'm not going to.

So Andrew Jackson refuses to intervene. And during this time, Native Americans are being forced off their lands by white settlers. And this is happening all over. Cherokees have fertile farmland in the South. It's land abundant with gold, and it is land that the Supreme Court, as we just heard, says belongs to them. But they have no real protection.


REED: So essentially, there's a lawlessness playing out on the ground that everyday people are experiencing - that Cherokees can be robbed, they can be raped, they can be assaulted. And they have no recourse if they choose to remain in the Southern states that they're residing. And so at that point, Cherokee people are under mounting pressure. And Cherokee leaders begin to see that there's a sense of hopelessness.

MERAJI: Three big-time Cherokee leaders were on the same page against removal - John Ross, who was the chief at the time; Major Ridge, a well-respected Cherokee warrior and statesman; and John Ridge, his son. They all worked together to get that Supreme Court win. But when things begin to unravel, the Ridges start asking themselves a version of this question.


REED: Do we stay in the South - in a increasingly racialized South and become second-class citizens, or do we move west and maintain our sovereign integrity?

DEMBY: And obviously, we know what happened.


MERAJI: Right. Major Ridge and John Ridge chose to move west, and they went behind the back of Cherokee Chief John Ross and agreed to a removal treaty that President Andrew Jackson signed into law. And that is the Treaty of New Echota.

It was a moment of betrayal that is still fraught within Cherokee Nation.

DEMBY: And thousands of Cherokees died after that treaty was signed, which was a result of that betrayal.


REED: Pregnancies are not happening that should have happened. Added to that, you've lost your elders. You've lost the people who can help put your history in perspective and help mediate and remind you of times that were hard before. And those are the people that were lost in removal - your babies and your elders.

MERAJI: John Ridge and Major Ridge died, too. They were shot and stabbed to death in Oklahoma at the hands of their fellow citizens for signing that treaty, for being traitors.


REED: It's not difficult to imagine Cherokee people needing something to happen to make amends for this catastrophe. And you can't act out toward the federal government. I mean - so in many ways, this kind of internal violence is not just about being angry at each other; it's about being angry writ large but not being able to express yourself to the people that you're really angry at. Right? (Laughter). So you turn on those you love.


NAGLE: I think my generation is maybe the first that has really, truly been able to have an actual conversation about healing some of those divides within Cherokee Nation.

MERAJI: That's Mary Kathryn Nagle again. She's the lawyer and playwright who called the Worcester v. Georgia decision miraculous. And her great-great-grandmother is John Ridge's daughter. Mary Kathryn told me her great-great-grandmother watched other Cherokees kill her father. They stabbed him over and over again.


NAGLE: Forty times, when she was a little girl - so that grief, that anger, that resentment, that bitterness, that trauma doesn't go away overnight or even in a couple of generations. And I grew up with my grandmother saying things like, don't go back to Tahlequah; they'll kill you.


STUDI: My father is a full-blood Cherokee and an old speaker, which means his first language is Cherokee. I always was curious about the Trail of Tears. It was part of our history my family never talked about.

MERAJI: DeLanna Studi is an actor and also a playwright whose ancestor was one of Chief John Ross' right hands. She says, growing up, she wasn't told the entire Trail of Tears story.


STUDI: I didn't know who I was exactly. I didn't know where we started. You know, you grow up in Oklahoma, and you hear all these stories about our creation. But none of our creation sites are in Oklahoma. They're in North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama, which is where the Cherokee Nation was before the removal.

DEMBY: When did DeLanna learn that there was more to the story?

MERAJI: In high school. She went to a small country school in Oklahoma.

STUDI: And we were very lucky that Coach Parkins (ph) was also our history teacher, and he was also Cherokee. He was the first person that opened my eyes that something had gone down. You know, we knew how we had gotten to Oklahoma. We knew about President Jackson. But we didn't really know about the treaty party and that ultimate betrayal and deceit. And so when I learned this, I was just - I was floored, honestly. It was one of those moments where I felt so betrayed.

MERAJI: She told me she felt betrayed and lost.


STUDI: And so to be able to go back and find out where we were and who we were before we got to Oklahoma, it was something that I felt I needed to do in order to understand myself and my father.

DEMBY: So she went back to the South?

MERAJI: Yeah. DeLanna and her dad traveled for a month and a half from where their family was originally from in what's now Murphy, N.C., along the Trail of Tears to where they ended up in Oklahoma. And they walked most of it.

DEMBY: That's, like, hundreds of miles, though, Shereen - and a bunch of huge states away. Like, it's probably not easy to make that trek even now.

MERAJI: Yeah. And she ended up writing a one-woman show about the experience because it was such a formative experience for her. And the show was called "And So We Walked." And I had her read part of the play where they make friends with this guy named Sam (ph). Sam's Cherokee, but he's not enrolled. And he's trying to learn more about who he is and where he's from. He's been studying in Tennessee, and he offers to give DeLanna and her dad a tour of Red Clay, which is where Cherokee leaders were going back and forth with the U.S. government to try and stop removal.


STUDI: (As Sam) So the U.S. government secretly moved the negotiations from Red Clay to New Echota, and they didn't notify Chief Ross. Now, after Ross discovered this treachery, oh, he went home to home, traveling thousands of miles, collecting signatures for a petition denouncing the fraudulent treaty. Ross collected 15,565 signatures. The whole tribe rejected the Treaty of New Echota, but the U.S. government was determined to remove our people.

(As self) This is the first time my father's hearing the Cherokee version of history, not alternative facts, from a young person of Cherokee descent in an official capacity. When my father was Sam's age, he had just graduated from boarding school and enlisted in the Army, where there were only two boxes for ethnicity - white or Black. The government rendered him invisible and told him he had no voice. Survival meant not talking about anything that happened. And watching my dad light up as Sam speaks, I understand now why this trip is not about academic research or petty tribal politics. It's not about my insecurities either. It's about blood memory.

MERAJI: Gene, DeLanna told me that trip made her rethink what it meant to be Cherokee.


STUDI: To see my father go to North Carolina and sit with the elders and have a conversation in his first language, I got to see him as he truly is and in what's been denied him all these years. And I always joked that along the trail, my father found home and I lost home. My father was able to reconnect with everything that he had lost, and I was able to recognize what was lost.

NAGLE: It would start something like this - Mary Kathryn, it's very important for you to remember that you are Cherokee. Your grandfathers fought and gave their lives to save Cherokee Nation.

MERAJI: Mary Kathryn Nagle is retelling one of the many stories her grandma would share about their ancestors John Ridge and Major Ridge.

DEMBY: And remember - the Ridges were the people who supposedly betrayed the Cherokees.

MERAJI: Right.


NAGLE: And this may not have been her exact words 'cause I'm - you know, I'm an attorney now, so (laughter) I put things in attorney speak. But even if these weren't her exact words, as a kid, I learned to respect and revere the Supreme Court because she would talk about how they took a case to the Supreme Court and they won. And then she would always talk about how Andrew Jackson refused to enforce it and that's why the Trail of Tears happened.

DEMBY: So from a young age, Mary Kathryn Nagle had been hearing a very different version of this story. She heard that her ancestors, you know, the Ridges were the ones who saved the Cherokees, not the ones who sold them out.

MERAJI: Yeah. She heard stories about how they were heroes, not traitors, and how the real villain was President Andrew Jackson. And on family road trips to Georgia and Tennessee, her family would make a pit stop at his grave.


NAGLE: Yeah. I think everyone in my family has (laughter) spit or done some other gesture towards that grave except me - you know, maybe just because I have chosen to write a play that says who he is instead of that sort of a gesture. And I don't judge anyone who does that, and I know plenty of Cherokees who have.

DEMBY: Wait. Hold up a second. So she also wrote a play about the Trail of Tears?

MERAJI: Mary Kathryn Nagle's play is a little bit more focused on Worcester v. Georgia. It's called "Sovereignty." So it's not exactly about the Trail of Tears. It's about an attorney who is a Ridge descendant who goes to Oklahoma and ends up working for a Ross descendant. So in that way, it's about the Trail of Tears.

DEMBY: Gotcha. So both of these women are playwrights. They're both writing about Cherokee identity and Cherokee history. I'm imagining (laughter) that Spider-Man meme where they're, like, pointing each other (laughter) - the two Spider-Mans are pointing at each other. Do these two women - do they know each other?

DEMBY: Very astute observation, Gene - they do know each other. In fact, Mary Kathryn has even asked DeLanna to act in one of her plays.


STUDI: She apologized to me for being a Ridge descendant. She was very upfront that this is who I am, and I can understand if you don't work with me and I'm sorry. And I think that first impression of her made me understand that we can't keep holding grudges.


NAGLE: A lot of Ridge descendants would say - and my grandma would certainly say - never apologize; you know, we didn't do anything wrong. But - right? - at the end of the day, the reality is is the treaty was signed and the Trail of Tears happened. And I think there are a lot of people to blame for that, but my grandfather signed that treaty. And for the descendants of the folks who walked that trail, that trauma is immeasurable. So when I apologize, it's in recognition of what happened.

STUDI: I'm glad I didn't have to make that decision. It's easy for me to judge it, but I'm very grateful that I wasn't in that place to make that decision 'cause I don't know what I would've done. You know, that was our land, but it's also our people. And we always have to think about - at what cost?


NAGLE: At the end of the day, whether or not you agree with what the Ridges did - let's just put that aside for a second focus on the fact that we have a document that was signed by the president, ratified by the Senate. Again, I know Chief Ross tried to fight it, but it was ratified in the Senate. And that means it's the supreme law of the land. And in that treaty, we're guaranteed things like a delegate in Congress. My grandfathers negotiated that provision. They were visionary and saw a day when Cherokee Nation would be sending a delegate to Congress.

STUDI: It's about time. It's about time. We need this.


DEMBY: So after almost 200 years, Cherokees on different sides of this feud over this treaty - the Treaty of New Echota - are talking about it and trying to work past it.

MERAJI: Plus, you've got the chief of the Cherokee Nation asking the U.S. government to fulfill a promise made in that treaty, the promise of representation. So there is an opening right now for Cherokees to reexamine this history and, in some cases, to rethink these stories they've heard about who they are. And we're going to talk more about what's happening with that Cherokee delegate to Congress after the break.


MERAJI: Chuck Hoskin Jr. took his oath of office in August of 2019 as the 18th elected principal chief of Cherokee Nation.


TEEHEE: One of the very first actions that he wanted to take was to appoint a delegate to the House and then to rely on me as government relations director to move that forward.

MERAJI: That's Kimberly Teehee. She's the executive director of government relations for Cherokee Nation.


TEEHEE: And so I'm jotting notes down and such and thinking about all that he's saying and what it would take to get this accomplished. And then he says, and I want to point you to be the delegate.

DEMBY: So the person who's supposed to work all this out with Congress is also the person he's basically tapping to be the delegate?


MERAJI: Did you say, hold on, Chief, I have to think this over a little bit? Or...


MERAJI: ...Were you - OK.

DEMBY: She's like, I got this; I'm good.

MERAJI: Exactly. That was, like, the fastest answer to a question ever in my time as a journalist. And she's very qualified. Kim Teehee was a staffer on the very first desk the Democrats created to reach out to Native Americans. She was the first senior adviser to the Congressional Native American Caucus, a senior policy adviser on Native issues for President Obama.

DEMBY: All right. So she has all the bona fides, yeah.

MERAJI: All the bona fides - but a high school guidance counselor in Oklahoma advised her not to go to college because, quote, "Indians don't finish." She obviously didn't take that advice and went on to be the first Native American in a lot of high-profile positions in Washington, D.C. She told me her parents are incredibly proud of her.


TEEHEE: We don't really know what she does, but we're proud of her (laughter). You know, it's hard to explain policy work to people who just live their lives. Right? I mean, I see it.

My family history is riddled with federal policy, congressional actions, from removal to the land allotment that my dad grew up on as part of the federal government's way of breaking up communal landholdings of tribes. And that was part of a policy. And then boarding school that my mom - where my mom and dad went to school, that's part of a policy to assimilate, acculturate, to discourage the speaking of the native language. Both my parents are Cherokee first-language speakers.

DEMBY: So on this topic of federal policy, what does she want to do as representative in the House?

MERAJI: She told me she wants to make sure the federal government meets its obligations to Cherokee Nation. And a lot of that involves federal funding that has been set aside. It's been negotiated through treaties and agreements. And this money is really important in times of crisis like the one we're in right now - a global pandemic. Appropriations is the dull policy term for all this, but Chief Hoskin told me this is anything but dull.


HOSKIN JR: Cherokee people deserve a tribal government that believes that is a high priority and that we ought to make efforts to reach the goal of accountability on the part of the federal government.

MERAJI: Now, to be clear, Gene, Kim Teehee will most likely not have a vote in Congress.

DEMBY: So she's like all the other nonvoting members of Congress, you know, from American Samoa and Guam and the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico - oh, even D.C., where I live...

MERAJI: Mmm hmm.

DEMBY: ...You know, all these place with a whole lot of brown people with representatives in Congress. None of those representatives can actually vote. That's just really curious, I'm just saying.

MERAJI: It is very curious - except all those other places full of brown people that you just named, they're elected. And Kim Teehee has been appointed, which is something Chief Hoskin told me concerned House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.


HOSKIN JR: She made the point that, look - all of our members are elected. Now, the treaty is, as I explained to Madam Speaker, is an agreement between two sovereigns. We, as a sovereign, ought to be able to choose the manner and method in which we seat our delegate. It's a unique seat. It's not even completely comparable with other delegates to Congress who are elected by individual voters.


DEMBY: All right. So it's been like a year since Chief Hoskin appointed Kim Teehee to be the Cherokee representative to the U.S. Congress. So when is this all going to be, like, done and official?

MERAJI: Well, nobody wanted to give me a timeline, but they were hoping after the dust settled from the election that they'd have Kim seated. But, you know, this was before the global pandemic, which has set things back quite a bit. So it may take way longer than that if it happens. And that's still a big if.

Kim Teehee told me it would be a historic move and the right move for the U.S. government to make this happen and honor a promise made to Cherokees in that fraught document that we've been talking about, the Treaty of New Echota.


TEEHEE: We had so many citizens perish and a forced march from the east to the west. And to have the United States step up and to fulfill its end of that agreement would be a small measure of justice.


DEMBY: All right, y'all. That's our show. But before we go, we're going to ask you to holla at us. You can follow us on Twitter @NPRCodeSwitch. Subscribe to our newsletter by going to npr.org/newsletters.

MERAJI: This episode was produced by Jess Kung and Leah Donnella with a little help from me. It was edited by Leah and Steve Drummond. Some of the music you heard in this episode was provided by Laura Ortman. You can find her work on Bandcamp.

Thanks to Graham Lee Brewer for his notes and feedback on this episode. It was so helpful. Also, a big thank you to Stacy Leeds, Simon Moya-Smith, Rebecca Nagle, Raymond Orr (ph) and Ezra Rosser for background help.

And a shout-out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Karen Grigsby Bates, Kumari Devarajan, Natalie Escobar, Alyssa Jeong Perry and LA Johnson. Our intern is Alyssa Baheza.

DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

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