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Cherokee Nation campaigns for a U.S. House seat

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The Cherokee Nation is asking the U.S. government to keep a promise it made nearly 200 years ago. It's asking for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHUCK HOSKIN JR: For two centuries, Congress has failed to honor that promise.

SUMMERS: That was Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. In 2019, he nominated Kim Teehee to be the Cherokee Nation's first delegate designee. Delegate Teehee, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

KIM TEEHEE: Thank you for having me, Juana.

SUMMERS: This campaign traces back nearly 200 years to the Treaty of New Echota. This is the treaty that led to the forced removal of Cherokee people from their ancestral land, known as the Trail of Tears. So why is this campaign to seat you and the U.S. House of Representatives, why is it happening now?

TEEHEE: You know, the forced removal that occurred, you know, nearly 200 years ago, it didn't stop there. Congress kept passing laws that dismantled our abilities to govern ourselves, frankly, from the - all of 19th century up until the '70s. It wasn't till 1975 that Congress once again gave the Cherokee Nation the ability to even elect its own chief again. Can you imagine that?

SUMMERS: Wow.

TEEHEE: And in the mid-'70s is when federal dollars through Congress started flowing out to our nation, where we could actually start serving the needs of our citizens. And so it took all that time to rebuild a nation where we finally feel that we're in a place today where we can focus on this long-standing treaty right.

SUMMERS: As you point out, this is long-standing, so I'd love to know, what is different now? Have you been in touch with members of Congress lately, and what are they telling you?

TEEHEE: Sure. You know, since Chief Hoskin nominated me and our tribal council, which is our legislative body, unanimously confirmed me, in 2019, we did start off with excellent momentum in the fall of 2019. But guess what happened? We had a pandemic, right? And so we had to refocus our efforts on COVID response and working with Congress to address that. And so we picked the ball back up. And we've got great momentum again. And we've got bipartisan support. And we're asking for a hearing this fall to seat the delegate. We've also got mobilization efforts underway now. So if you believe that Cherokee Nation deserves to have its treaty honored by the United States, then I urge all listeners to go to cherokeedelegate.com.

SUMMERS: From a technical standpoint, what would need to happen for you to be seated in Congress?

TEEHEE: The process would be that House Rules Committee would have jurisdiction over this particular issue. So the House Rules Committee would have a hearing. And then they would vote on a resolution. And seating the delegate requires a House vote only. It doesn't require both chambers of Congress voting on this, because, you see, our Treaty of New Echota was ratified by the Senate and signed by the president, albeit so long ago. It is still valid. And so only the House needs to vote straight up and down to seat the delegate.

SUMMERS: Wow. OK. So when you are speaking with members of the Cherokee Nation, what do you hear from them about what the seat means and what they hope it would bring for the future?

TEEHEE: When we talk to our citizens, our citizens absolutely believe that the Cherokee Nations' treaty must be fulfilled by the United States. It would show that the U.S. honors its treaties. It would show that the U.S. keeps its word. It would provide the Cherokee Nation with a seat at the table when formulating laws that affect us. It would also be a voice for other tribes, too. After all, our needs are pretty similar to other tribes in this country. But it would also show some small measure of justice for those who lost their lives during the forced removal and during our efforts on rebuilding. So it would be very meaningful to our citizens.

SUMMERS: If this campaign is successful, are there are some specific things that you would hope to accomplish with a seat in the U.S. House?

TEEHEE: Oh, absolutely. I mean, we, first and foremost, we want to focus on being seated. But as I mentioned before, you know, our needs are pretty similar to other tribes in this country - appropriations is one of them. We know that Congress is in the midst of considering a continuing resolution today. Well, guess what? Continuing resolutions are very disruptive to tribal communities, to Cherokee Nation, you know, because we have to plan for it just in case and reprioritize and have plans to reprioritize those dollars. So obviously, appropriations for us is huge - and getting advanced appropriations. But in addition to that, housing, infrastructure, connectivity, revitalization of our language efforts. We have a bill pending in Congress right now named after one of our former language keepers, Durbin Feeling, that we're trying to get through as well. So those are really some of our top grass, high-level priorities.

SUMMERS: And for you, on a personal level, what does this campaign mean? What would that representation mean?

TEEHEE: Well, I'm the daughter of two Cherokee first language speakers who grew up on their land allotments - again, as a part of what Congress enacted to break up our communal landholdings and turn them into individual land allotments who went to boarding schools. I was born in Chicago, not because my parents just wanted to go to Chicago. It was because of a congressionally approved relocation program designed to get Indians out of rural communities, put them in urban settings to acculturate them. The failure of that policy was that it underestimated our connections to our communities.

So as a result, my family moved back to Oklahoma. You know, my own personal family history is so intertwined with federal policy. Of course, my family didn't realize living through all of it that they were living through federal laws and policy because they were the recipients, the victims in some instances since removal of those laws and policies. So personally, what that means for me is some measure of justice and for my family, my ancestors, but really all of our Cherokee citizens whose ancestors, you know, perished on that forced march.

SUMMERS: That was Kim Teehee, the Cherokee Nation's delegate designee. Delegate Teehee, thank you so much.

TEEHEE: Thank you so much for having me, Juana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Taylor Hutchison