Jan 23, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Cherokee Nation's long-awaited delegate faces a tribal challenge

The American Legion Steve Young Deer Post 143, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, presents the nation's colors and the EBCI tribal colors during the 2021 World Series.

The American Legion Steve Young Deer Post 143, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, presents the nation's colors and tribal colors during the 2021 World Series between the Houston Astros and the Atlanta Braves. Proto: Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images.

Two more Cherokee tribes say they are entitled to a non-voting member of Congress, countering claims by the Cherokee Nation they are the only ones who were promised a seat.

Why it matters: The dispute over a congressional delegate, outlined in a treaty that forcibly removed Cherokees from ancestral homelands, shows how complicated matters evolve when promises aren't kept to Indigenous people for nearly two centuries.

Details: The United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians of North Carolina challenge the notion that the 1835 Treaty of New Echota applies exclusively to the Cherokee Nation, one of the largest tribal nations in the U.S.

  • They say that treaty was signed by the Cherokee people — not the Cherokee Nation — and President Andrew Jackson, then ratified by the Senate.
  • The treaty promised a nonvoting House delegate to represent the Cherokees.

Catch up quickly: Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. named Kim Teehee, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, as the tribe's first delegate to the U.S. House in 2019 after he took office.

  • The appointment came after years of research by the Cherokee Nation scholars, who concluded they were promised a congressional delegate in the treaty.
  • That treaty forced the Cherokee Nation to move from ancestral homelands in Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee to present-day Oklahoma. Around 4,000 died along what is known as the "Trail of Tears."
  • Despite promises by former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for a "path toward welcoming a Delegate from the Cherokee Nation into the People's House," Democrats failed to seat her last year.

What they're saying: "All three of those federally recognized tribes have all of the treaty rights that the United States signed with the Cherokee people," Victoria Holland, the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians appointed delegate, told Axios.

  • "Oftentimes, there's only one story that's told, and people still think that there is only one Cherokee Nation, but that's not historically accurate."
  • Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Principal Chief Richard Sneed said in a statement the tribe also believes they are afforded a delegate and vowed to make it happen.

The intrigue: The tribes could come together and agree on a single delegate or each appointed their own delegates, Holland said.

Yes, but: The Cherokee Nation said the treaty only applied to them and dismissed the claims by the other two Cherokee tribes as false.

  • "The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians did not agree to the treaty, nor were they removed from its homeland. In fact, they were not federally recognized until the late 19th century," Hoskin told Axios.
  • "Tribes like the United Keetoowah Band, which didn't even exist until the 1950s, also cannot claim (the treaty). It is ours alone." 

Sara Hill, Cherokee Nation Attorney General, said the other Cherokee tribes have no evidence to support their claims to the treaty and falsely argue that the original Cherokee Nation died.

  • She said the Cherokee Nation has no intention of working with them to decide on a delegate. "That would be like the U.S. government giving up its seat on the (United Nation's) Security Council to another friendly government."
  • "They are Cherokee people by language and culture, but they are not the Cherokee Nation."

What to watch: Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has not indicated if he plans to explore seating the Cherokee Nation delegate.

  • The Republican-controlled Rules Committee also has not said anything.

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