The House Rules Committee on Wednesday heard testimony on whether to grant the Cherokee Nation a nonvoting seat that was promised in a treaty nearly 200 years ago.
“Today, I come before you to remind you of the promise the federal government made to our ancestors,” Cherokee Nation principal chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said in his opening statement. “I ask the House of Representatives to honor this treaty right, fulfill its obligation under the treaty, and seat our delegate.”
Hoskin was referring to the Treaty of New Echota, which was signed in 1835 to offer the Cherokee tribes $5 million and territory in what would become Oklahoma in exchange of their ancestral homeland east of the Mississippi River. Ratified and signed into law by President Andrew Jackson in 1836, the treaty gave the Cherokees two years to relocate.
Those who insisted to stay were eventually rounded up by federal troops and escorted out through a deadly march known as the “Trail of Tears.”
A lesser known part of the treaty stated that the Cherokees should have a delegate in the House, “whenever Congress shall make provision for the same.” Hoskin argued that this means his tribal nation has a “clear legal right” to delegate in the House, as long as the 1835 treaty remains valid.
“Its meaning is perfectly clear—as a condition of this treaty, which conveyed all Cherokee land east of the Mississippi River to the United States, Cherokee Nation shall be granted the right to a delegate,” the chief said.
Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a member of the Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma, questioned why it took so long for the Cherokees to bring up this matter.
“If this was there, and it was a treaty, why wasn’t it done immediately?” he asked Hoskin. “Why didn’t the Cherokee Nation—maybe they did—advance the claim at the time?”
“We seem to be in rebuilding mode for the last two centuries,” Hoskin replied, noting that the tribal nation had been struggling at the brink of destruction until the 1970s, when it regained some economic strength. “We are now in a position where we can, as a practical matter, assert this right. Whereas my predecessor in the queue centuries before, frankly, we were just trying to hang on to our way of life.”
The House currently has six non-voting members, representing the District of Columbia as well as five territories that have permanent residents: American Samoa, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. They’re not allowed to cast votes on the House floor, but may vote and make speeches in committees.
The Cherokee Nation describes itself as the largest tribal government in the United States with more than 430,000 citizens, including 141,000 living inside the tribe’s reservation boundaries in northeastern Oklahoma.
In 2019, the Cherokee Nation Tribal Council designated Kimberly Teehee, a Democrat and former Obama advisor, as its first delegate to the House. Teehee’s proposed delegation has bipartisan support, including from Cole and Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Okla.), who is also a member of the Cherokee Nation.