(CN) – A tribal council is set to confirm Thursday a woman’s nomination to become the Cherokee Nation’s first congressional delegate, but it will be up to Congress to decide whether to honor an 1835 treaty and give her a seat in the U.S. House.
Last week, Cherokee Nation principal chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. nominated Kimberly Teehee – a 53-year-old tribeswoman well acquainted with Capitol Hill – to represent the federally-recognized tribal government in Congress.
The U.S. signed a treaty with some Cherokee tribal members in 1835, forcing the tribe to move from its ancestral homeland in the southeastern U.S. to Oklahoma. Thousands of Cherokees died from exposure, disease and starvation during this move on the Trail of Tears between 1836 and 1838.
Under terms of the treaty, the federal government gave the Cherokees $5 million and the right to have a delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives – but the tribe never attempted before now to exercise this right.
Once the tribal council approves Teehee’s nomination Thursday, Congress must decide whether to give her a delegate seat. If it does, the Cherokee Nation would join Washington D.C., American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands as territories with non-voting delegates in Congress.
Hoskin told CNN he expects Teehee’s confirmation process in Congress to be a lengthy one, but he makes a compelling argument for giving her a House seat.
“I can boil this down very simply for the Congress,” he said. “Does the Congress intend to keep its word to the Cherokee people? If the answer’s yes, then Ms. Teehee will be seated.”
Born in Chicago, Teehee was a senior policy adviser on Native American affairs in President Barack Obama’s administration for three years.
Prior to that, she served for more than a decade as an adviser for a Democratic congressman from Michigan, and she was the Democratic National Committee’s first deputy director of Native American Outreach during the 1990s.
Teehee said her experience on Capitol Hill will serve her well.
“While working on Capitol Hill, I learned firsthand how to work across partisan divides to address a myriad of issues facing Indian tribes. So, this delegate appointment is a great opportunity to bring a unique perspective to the table. As a staffer on the Hill and working at the White House I also know how to work in a bureaucratic system where collaboration is necessary to achieve results,” she said in an email.
Teehee’s installment in Congress might not sit well with other tribes who were also forced off their land by the U.S. government but were not given the right to have a delegate in treaties.
Some experts say that other tribes’ wish lists for federal funding might take a backseat to the Cherokee Nation’s priorities, as Teehee could effectively become the representative of all sovereign tribal nations in Congress.
Why, after 184 years, is the Cherokee Nation only now demanding a seat in Congress?
Hoskin said the Cherokee Nation is more powerful than ever.
“The Cherokee Nation is today in a position of strength that I think is unprecedented in its history,” he told CNN.
He said the U.S. needs to honor the deal it made with the tribe’s ancestors.
“Over 184 years ago our ancestors bargained for a guarantee that we would always have a voice in the Congress,” Hoskin said in an emailed statement. “It is time for the United States to hold up its end of the bargain. The journey to getting our delegate seated in the Congress may be a long one, but it is one we are prepared to make. I have selected a nominee for delegate who has worked tirelessly as an advocate for her people.”
Hoskin may also be encouraged by Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren.
During a presidential forum hosted by Native American tribes last week, the U.S. Senator from Massachusetts apologized for her past claims of Cherokee heritage.
Last year, Warren released results from a DNA test, which, according to one geneticist, indicated that she may have had a Native American ancestor six to 10 generations ago.
If she receives her party’s nomination and is elected president, Warren said she will increase federal funding to meet obligations of past treaties between the government and tribal nations and revoke permits for oil pipelines that tribes have said threaten to pollute aquifers from which they get their drinking water.