Cherokee Nation Set to Exercise Right to Representation in Congress

In December 1835, a minority party of Cherokees signed the Treaty of New Echota with the U.S. government. In exchange for $5 million and new lands in what was then called Indian Territory (now the state of Oklahoma), the Cherokees agreed to leave their ancestral lands in the southeastern United States. The result became known as the Removal, or more commonly, the Trail of Tears.

Article 7 of that treaty “stipulated that [the Cherokee nation] shall be entitled to a delegate in the House of Representatives of the United States whenever Congress shall make provision for the same.” Congress has never made that provision, and now the Cherokee Nation has said it plans to assert that right.

The newly elected principal chief, Chuck Hoskin Jr., said in his inaugural address last week that “now is the time for the Cherokee Nation to execute a provision in our treaties. It’s a right negotiated by our ancestors, reaffirmed in two treaties with the federal government and reflected in our constitution.” The Cherokee Nation cites a 1785 treaty, in addition to the 1835 treaty, it says provides for a representative from the tribe. The Cherokee Constitution, adopted in 2003, also includes provision for a congressional representative.

The Cherokee Nation has more than 370,000 registered members and is the largest Native American tribe in the country and in the majority of states (here is a full list of the largest tribe in each state). It is because the number of U.S. House members was fixed by law at 435 in 1911, the population of a congressional district has risen from about 212,000 following the 1910 census to around 710,000 following the 2010 census. Wyoming, the country’s smallest state, with a population of about 570,000, and six other states (Alaska, Delaware, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Vermont), each has one representative, as constitutionally required.

Six non-voting members of the U.S. House come from American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Washington, D.C. Ezra Rosser, a professor at American University’s law school, told the AP that a likely outcome of the Cherokees’ demand is a seventh non-voting member.

The issue is complicated, however, by the Treaty of New Echota’s history. According to the Smithsonian Institution, in February 1836 the Cherokee National Council rejected the treaty and submitted a petition to Congress urging it to nullify the agreement. To no avail. The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty on March 1, and President Andrew Jackson signed it into law.

Oklahoma Congressman Tom Cole (R-Moore) told a town hall meeting in Norman, Oklahoma, on Tuesday, “There’s a lot of questions that have to be answered. Number one, I don’t know that the treaty still is valid. [The Cherokee Nation is] basing [its claim for a representative] on something that is 185 years ago.” Cole is himself a member of the Chickasaw Nation and is “the strongest advocate in Congress for Native Americans,” according to a report at The Oklahoman. Oklahoma has a larger Native American population than nearly every other state. Here is a full list of states with the largest Native American populations.

Cherokee Nation Chief Hoskin said he expects a decision to take a long time. He is expected to outline his proposal to name Kimberly Teehee, currently the tribe’s vice president for government affairs, as the Nation’s delegate. TeeHee served from 2009 to 2012 as a senior policy adviser on Native American affairs adviser to President Obama. The Cherokee Tribal Council also is expected to vote on Hoskin’s proposal Thursday.