OKLAHOMA CITY — The Cherokee Nation's plan to send a delegate to the U.S. House, the first such attempt by a tribal nation, will take time as well as cooperation from Congress, the tribe's newly elected chief said this week.
Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. called on Congress Thursday to recognize the right of the largest tribe in the nation to have a delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives as outlined in two separate treaties with the U.S. government and the tribe's constitution.
"This is an historic first step," Hoskin said during a press conference outside the nation's headquarters in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. "We know there is much work to be done to fully effectuate our right to a delegate, but the Cherokee Nation is a strong nation. We know our rights, and we're prepared to defend and assert our rights."
Hoskin sent a letter last week to the tribe's governing council announcing his plan to nominate Kimberly Teehee, a former adviser to President Barack Obama. The tribe's 17-member council is expected to convene a meeting later this month to consider the proposal.
Hoskin, the tribe's former secretary of state, was elected leader of the 370,000-citizen tribe in June with almost 58% of the vote.
Hoskin said the tribe's right to a congressional delegate is enshrined in both the 1785 Treaty of Hopewell and the Treaty of New Echota in 1835, the latter of which entitles the tribe to a delegate in the U.S. House "whenever Congress shall make provision for the same." The New Echota treaty also provided the legal basis for the forced removal of the Cherokee Nation from its ancestral homelands east of the Mississippi in modern-day Georgia and led to the infamous Trail of Tears during which thousands of Cherokees perished.
Hoskin said he expects the path to secure a tribal delegate will be similar to those taken by American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Washington D.C., all of whom have nonvoting members in the U.S. House. Those delegates are given offices and a budget, serve on and vote in committees and help draft legislation, but cannot vote on the floor of the House.
Hoskin said the issue is particularly important now because native issues are rising to the forefront of the national dialogue.
The U.S. Supreme Court is considering a tribal sovereignty case that could radically redefine criminal jurisdiction in Oklahoma, and the issue has been at the forefront of protests by indigenous people over the location of a pipeline in the Dakotas and a telescope in Hawaii .
It's not clear what kind of reception the Cherokee Nation's plan will receive from Congress. Most of Oklahoma's congressional delegation said they looked forward to learning more about the tribe's plan.
Republican U.S. Rep. Markwayne Mullin, himself a Cherokee Nation citizen, said that while the path to seating a delegate remains murky, he is a strong supporter of tribal sovereignty.
"Appointing a tribal member as a delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives is unprecedented and there are many unknowns ahead," Mullin said. "As a member of the Cherokee Nation, I firmly believe tribal sovereignty and treaties must be honored by the federal government."
U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, a member of the Chickasaw Nation, said that while he hasn't reviewed the Cherokee treaty language, he said he has great respect for the tribe and takes any case they make seriously.
"At this point, there are a lot of unknowns," Cole said in a statement. "But I look forward to engaging with them and learning more about this issue in the weeks and months ahead."
Some Cherokee Nation citizens voiced concern about Teehee's nomination because of her long history in Democratic politics, including her stint as President Obama's senior policy adviser for Native American Affairs.
David Walkingstick, a former tribal councilor who ran against Hoskin for chief, said he's glad to see the tribe exercise its treaty right but questioned Hoskin's nomination of Teehee.
"The Cherokee Nation is a nonpartisan tribe serving citizens of all political affiliations," Walkingstick said in a statement. "Hoskin's decision to nominate such a partisan pick as our sole delegate to the federal government will only continue to divide and silence Cherokees who aren't as far-left as he is."
Hoskin countered that Teehee, who has worked for the last several years as the tribe's vice president of government relations, has a long reputation of working with representatives on both sides of the aisle and remained confident her nomination would be approved by the tribe's governing council.
The tribe also could face an obstacle of whether such a delegate would unconstitutionally infringe upon the rights of non-Cherokees. It could give Cherokee citizens greater representation in Congress, with both a Cherokee delegate and a representative for the district where they live, according to a legal article on the topic by Ezra Rosser, a professor at American University's Washington College of Law.
Rosser, who said he's glad to see the Cherokee Nation pursue a delegate, cautioned non-Cherokees who might be inclined to think the Cherokees are getting a special benefit.
"There's a danger I think for non-Indian readers who think the Cherokees are getting something that other people aren't getting," Rosser said. "The non-Indians did get something. They got Georgia. That's important to keep in mind."