A House committee on Wednesday held a historic hearing exploring how and whether the House could seat a nonvoting delegate from the Cherokee Nation, a crucial first step toward fulfilling an overlooked provision in a nearly 200-year-old treaty that led to the nation’s forced removal from their ancestral lands.
The session at the House Rules Committee marked the first substantive legislative move toward seating a delegate since Kim Teehee, a Cherokee Nation official with years of experience in Washington, was named to the post in 2019, and could pave the way for a vote in the coming months to seat her.
Delayed by the pandemic and mindful that a new Congress in January may force them to restart the process, tribal leaders have accelerated their campaign to have a vote on the House floor to approve her seat.
Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, the chairman of the committee, said he believed there was “a strong case here” for seating a delegate from the Cherokee Nation, though he conceded he had heard several questions and concerns from colleagues and other tribal nations.
“I’m glad to see tribes advocating for their treaty rights with such conviction,” said Representative Tom Cole, Republican of Oklahoma and a member of the Chickasaw Nation. He called the hearing “a good first step, but we have a long way to go in the process.”
In granting Ms. Teehee, 54, and the Cherokee Nation a position in its ranks, the House would fulfill a once-overlooked stipulation in the Treaty of New Echota, which forced the nation to relinquish its ancestral lands in the South. It prompted the United States government to force 16,000 members of the Cherokee Nation on the Trail of Tears, a deadly trek to land in what is now Oklahoma. A quarter of those forced to leave — about 4,000 — died before they arrived, as a result of harsh conditions, starvation and disease.
But the treaty, ratified by just a single vote in the Senate and signed by President Andrew Jackson in 1836, also declared that the Cherokee Nation would be “entitled to a delegate in the House of Representatives of the United States whenever Congress shall make provision for the same.”
Should Ms. Teehee join the ranks of the House, she would join a half-dozen delegates who are able to sit on committees and introduce legislation, but cannot vote on the House floor for final passage. Part of the hearing’s purpose is to determine the easiest legislative path forward for approving the delegate position, with the Cherokee Nation pushing for a House resolution that would go into effect with a simple majority.
Lawmakers have expressed support for fulfilling the American obligation to the treaty. But a number of questions remain before the House agrees to hold a vote on establishing the delegate position, including whether it would spark constitutional challenges, whether other tribes could pursue similar representation and the easiest legislative path for seating a delegate.