A House committee plans to consider the question of whether the Cherokee Nation, an Oklahoma-based Native American tribe with more than 400,000 members, should be granted representation in Congress under an 1835 treaty.
The hearing marks progress for the tribe, which has been seeking the delegate’s seating since 2019. Still, the issue is far from settled legally, and many thorny issues would need to be resolved.
“The House Rules Committee plans to hold a hearing on this matter soon,” a senior Democratic aide told HuffPost on Friday.
The delegate’s status, if seated, would likely resemble that of several non-voting officials who currently represent U.S. jurisdictions such as Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands and, most famously, the District of Columbia. Depending on which party holds power in the House, the delegates have sometimes been granted the right to vote in committee, but generally have not been allowed to vote on the House floor.
The Cherokees were one of several Native tribes forced from the Southeastern United States in the 1820s and 1830s as the nation expanded. Under a treaty signed in New Echota, Georgia, the Cherokees, after fighting with U.S. military forces and under pressure from American settlers, agreed to move west to the territory that would become Oklahoma, in exchange for cash and other considerations.
That forced removal west, in which a quarter of the Cherokees perished, became known as the “Trail of Tears.”
The 1835 treaty includes language that says the Cherokees “shall be entitled to a delegate in the House of Representatives of the United States whenever Congress shall make provision for the same.”
In August 2019, Chuck Hoskin Jr., the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, announced the tribe was beginning the process to have a delegate sent to Congress. Hoskin named tribal member Kim Teehee, the senior adviser for Native American affairs in the Obama White House, as his and the tribal council’s choice.
But the pandemic delayed things, and movement on the issue appeared to stall. Earlier this week, though, the Cherokees released a video calling for Teehee to be seated by the end of the year.
“The Treaty of New Echota has no expiration date,” Hoskin said in the video. “The obligation to seat a Cherokee Nation delegate is as binding today as it was in 1835.”
“I’ve looked at the treaty. I think they have a legitimate case.”
– Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.)
Part of the delay in figuring out whether to seat the delegate was due to the need to research the legal ramifications. A second senior Democratic aide told HuffPost: “Last year, the Committee on House Administration tasked the Congressional Research Service to produce a report on the legal and procedural issues related to seating a Cherokee Nation Delegate in the House. That report was completed at the end of July this year.”
The CRS report noted there could be legal issues to a delegate’s seating, including whether it would violate the principle of “one person, one vote” by giving Cherokee citizens extra representation in addition to that provided by their elected U.S. House member. But whether that question could even be decided by a court was unclear, the CRS said.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), the ranking Republican on the rules committee and a member of the Chickasaw Nation ― and therefore one of only a handful of Native Americans in Congress ― told HuffPost a lot of questions would need to be answered first, including about the House’s constitutional right to determine its own members.
Still, he said he is friends with Teehee, the proposed delegate, and he thinks the Cherokee Nation has a case to make.
“I’ve looked at the treaty. I think they have a legitimate case,” he said. “By and large, look, I believe in treaty rights being enforced, but the final arbiter of whether or not we seat somebody will be the House of Representatives.”
Senior reporter Arthur Delaney contributed to this story.