Image Source: Washington Post
Elevating Indigenous Peoples in the United States Congress
By: Ellie Stanton
In 1835 a minority party of Cherokees agreed to a series of compromises that lead to the Treaty of New Echota. Not unlike modern day politics, the decision stood against the tribal majority and their elected government. The document ceded all Cherokee lands east of the Mississippi River in exchange for five million dollars and new territory. The Treaty was later used to justify the Trail of Tears - the forced removal and subsequent death of thousands of Cherokee people.
Strategically hidden in this treaty, under Article 7, was a measure that entitles the Cherokee Nation to a delegate in the United States Congress. Two hundred years and countless broken agreements later, Cherokee Principal Chief, Chuck Hoskin Jr. has nominated Kimberly Teehee for the position — assuming Congress will keep their promise.
The Cherokee Nation is a sovereign indigenous government that oversees 370,000 citizens – easily making it the largest tribe in the country. Cherokee citizens reside in all 50 states and generate over $2.6 billion in Oklahoma alone. Yet, they have consistently been excluded from the Congressional arena and are historically underrepresented. Currently, there are four members of tribal nations sitting in Congress. However, these delegates represent the interests of their congressional district, not their tribe.
A tribal representative will not only promote aboriginal demands, but ensure their issues and ideas are brought to the floor and subsequently passed. This implies there could be a new proponent for key issues like environmental protection, native women’s rights, and federal funding for Indian Country. This possibility, however, is dependent on the support of the House, Senate, and President – all of which have historically coerced and invariably broken their agreements with the Cherokee Nation.
The systemic annihilation of American Indians and their culture have caused them to become one of the country’s most vulnerable populations. The community suffers a suicide rate 62% higher than the national average, in addition to a disturbingly high recurrence of rape and sexual assault. In fact, according to a recent study, 1 in 3 indigenous women will be raped and over half will experience sexual violence. Despite these harrowing statistics, the US government provides little funding towards mental health programs or tribal law enforcement. These are the symptoms of a perfidious relationship, in which the US government is quick to abandon its legal bond to aboriginal peoples for new, more attractive economic prospects.
Proponents contest that a delegate for the Cherokee Nation is a major step to help cure these epidemics. Although the Treaty of Echota entitles a congressional delegate for just the Cherokee Nation, appointed representative Kimberley Teehee asserts that their needs and desires are aligned with that of other tribes.
Kimberly Teehee was appointed by Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. for her bipartisan connections. She has held important positions on the Democratic National Committee and works closely with House Republicans like Tom Cole and Mark Mullin to promote indigenous issues. While her cross-party relationships are her greatest ally, President Trump may be her biggest threat.
Since assuming office, the Trump administration has superseded a myriad of policies that protect the rights of indigenous peoples. In January 2017, Trump commenced his presidency with an executive order to overturn an Obama legislation and advance construction on the highly contentious Dakota Access pipeline. While this order was overturned due to Trump’s violation of federal environmental law, it betokened the administration’s commitment to the fossil fuel industry and subordination of tribal rights and sovereignty.
Today, the administration continues to fight to open 85% of the sacred Bears Ears National Monument to oil and gas bidding. This battle continues as indigenous peoples and children are interned on their ancestral land in Trump’s detention centers – prompting pushback from tribal communities against the administration’s immigration plan.
Though Kimberly Teehee has not publicly spoken out against Trump, the priorities of his administration threaten the interests of the Cherokee Nation. That being said, her appointment, although bipartisan, is a risk to Trump’s agenda. It remains to the President whether he is willing to contest it.
Political Science Outlook
If confirmed, Kimberley Teehee will be the seventh non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives. The other six represent the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the United States Virgin Islands. While they lack the right to vote on proposed legislation in the full House, delegates may vote and introduce measures in a committee that they are a member of.
For Kimberley Teehee, her first legislative initiative will focus on transitioning federal funding for Indian Country from discretionary to mandatory. Currently, about 99% of federal dollars allocated to Indian Country are discretionary. Therefore, when government shutdowns occur, it puts indigenous health care and other necessities in jeopardy – especially for smaller tribes. A transition from discretionary to mandatory funding will add a layer of security and critical protection for vulnerable indigenous programs.
The power of a non-voting delegate, however, lies in their symbolism. If appointed, Kimberly Teehee will expand both descriptive (when a member of government shares the same ethnicity, race, or gender) and substantive (actions of the legislator on behalf of their constituents) indigenous representation in Congress. One study found that based on the minority empowerment thesis, minority representation “strengthens representational links, fosters more positive attitudes toward government, and encourages political participation.” That being said, Congressional approval of a Cherokee Nation delegate will encourage a rise in indigenous political participation and testify to a recovering bond between the United States and the aboriginal people they have unremittingly wronged.
Questions for Consideration:
1. What has a greater influence on minority rights - substantive or descriptive representation?
2. Should the Cherokee Nation advocate for a voting, rather than non-voting delegate?