Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. reiterated his intention Thursday to assert treaty provisions with the United States that allow the tribe to appoint a delegate to Congress.
At the new Cherokee National History Museum, the tribe held a press conference during which Hoskin vowed to defend treaty rights outlined in the 1785 Treaty of Hopewell and 1835 Treaty of New Echota.
Those state the Cherokee Nation may appoint a delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, a pledge that is also reflected in the tribe's 1999 Constitution.
"I believe firmly in the proposition that the Cherokee Nation and the government of the United States have a mutual obligation to exercise the rights and meet the obligations set forth in our treaties," said Hoskin. "That proposition is as true today as it has been for the last two centuries."
Hoskin called for the CN Tribal Council to hold a special session next week to confirm Kim Teehee as the delegate.
Should the council confirm, it could still be a long process before the tribe has a seat in Congress. U.S. territories and the District of Columbia have non-voting delegates already, and Teehee said that should the tribe go through a similar process, it would require Congress to act. She also said the tribe would explore alternative paths to acquiring the seat.
The forced removal of the Cherokees was byproduct of the Treaty of New Echota, signed in 1835. It provided a legal basis for the federal government to relocate Cherokees to Indian Country, but it also outlined the Cherokee Nation's right to a delegate in the House. The 1785 Treaty of Hopewell includes a provision that the tribe may "send a deputy of their choice" to Congress.
Although it was signed over 184 years ago, the tribe still believes it is valid and that the U.S. government should uphold its promises.
"There are no statute of limitations on our treaties just because it's an old document," said Teehee. "It continues to live, much like the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights."
According to the tribe and the treaties, the Cherokee Nation has had the right to send a delegate to Congress for years. The Choctaw Nation also has that right, but has not exercised it.
"This is a provision that we have not enforced, but just because we haven't enforced it doesn't mean that it's not valid and enforceable now," said Hoskin.
While the tribe is firm on its stance, there are some who are not sure if the treaty is still lawful and provisions within it are enforceable. U.S. Rep. Tom Cole told the Tulsa World recently that he doesn't know if the treaty is still valid and that there are many questions to be answered.
"There's no expiration date on those rights," said Hoskin. "We're asserting them now and I would expect that Congressmen Cole and other members of Congress would reflect on two things: One is that treaties matter, promises by the United States matter; they [can] also reflect on and they can educate their fellow members of the fact that the Cherokee Nation is the best friend the United States ever had, and we're the best friend that Oklahoma ever had."
The House of Representatives currently includes six non-voting members. There is one delegate from each of the permanently inhabited U.S. territories: American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The federal district of Washington, D.C., also has a delegate, while the a resident commissioner represents Puerto Rico. Such delegates cannot vote on the House floor, but they have other ways of advancing their respective interests.
"Non-voting delegates actually have quite a number of impacts," said Teehee. "They can vote in committee, they can introduce bills, they have staff, they have resources, they're an extra voice in Congress."
Discussions with members of Congress have already begun for implementing Teehee in a new role. She has spent time in Washington, D.C., as an advocate and lobbyist on Native American issues.
She served as President Barack Obama's senior policy adviser for Native American affairs from 2009 to 2012.
She also now serves as the tribe's executive director of government relations.
Hoskin cited a section of the Cherokee Nation Constitution drafted in 1999, in which it states the tribe's right to the delegate.
It also states the appointed delegate shall make regular reports to the council and principal chief regarding congressional activities and administrative matters relating to federal law and policy.
Last year, the Bureau of Indian Affairs sent a letter to the tribe regarding its election laws, in which it also indicated the BIA still recognizes the 1976 Cherokee Nation Constitution, rather than the 1999 constitution. Hoskin said he has no doubt "about the effectiveness of our current constitution."
"If people want to have academic debates about the constitution, I suppose they can, but here's one thing they can't debate: The treaties that underpin our sovereignty are still in full force and effect," he said. "No one has ever said different at the Cherokee Nation, and we are going to assert those rights, so I don't expect any letters from the BIA to trump treaties that were signed by our ancestors."