Kimberly Teehee has now been appointed as the first delegate from the Cherokee Nation to join the U.S. House of Representatives. Her nomination was approved by the tribe’s council Thursday. The Treaty of New Echota that created the nonvoting position was established in 1835, but until now, the spot has remained empty.
Teehee grew up in Oklahoma and in the 1980s, interned for Wilma Mankiller, the first woman chief of the Cherokee Nation. She attended law school and later worked for the Democratic national Committee as both a Hill staffer and an Obama appointee. She has spent her political career advocating for Indigenous rights, and she has contributed to a number of laws concerning Native American people, including the Violence Against Women Act and the creation of Congress’ first Native American caucus.
Congress still needs to give its approval, but given the language of the treaty, the Cherokee nation certainly has the right to a delegate. NPR reports it may take Congress time to decide where to seat Teehee, but that her bipartisan connections will likely garner her support.
She has worked with Oklahoma Republicans Markwayne Mullin and Tom Cole. Mullin is part of the Cherokee Nation and Cole is a member of the Chickasaw Nation. The newly elected Chief of the Cherokee Nation, Chuck Hoskin Jr., told NPR Teehee’s appointment was one of his first priorities, due largely to her ability to transcend partisanship.
Though the Treaty of New Echota is allowing Native Americans visibility in Congress, its impact is very much a double-edged sword. It also was the document that led to the Trail of Tears in the 1830s. The “Indian removal policy,” which forced Cherokee people to give up their lands around the Mississippi River and migrate to an area in what is now Oklahoma, amounted to a genocide, killing 4,000 out of 15,000 people.
Speaking to NPR, Teehee made it clear that the document’s link to the persecution of Cherokee people cannot be ignored.
“We can’t ignore that history and what it meant for us to have a provision like that put in place given the devastation that occurred and the deaths that occurred,” she said.
However, the attempted erasure of Indigenous people and cultures did not end with the Trail of Tears. Native American people are still made largely invisible in America today. They face police brutality, mass incarceration, poverty, joblessness, abuse, depletion of natural resources on their land and other systemic social and health problems.
The Native American poverty rate, as of 2016, is 25.4%. In 2017, CNN analyzed CDC data to find for every 1 million Native Americans, an average of 2.9 of them died between 1999 and 2015 as a result of “legal intervention.” This mortality rate is three times that of white people.
Indigenous women specifically experience extreme oppression and violence. The Indian Law Resource Center reports more than three in five American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence, and over half have experienced sexual violence. Indigenous women and girls also go missing at alarming rates. Over 5,700 American Indian and Alaska Native women and girls were reported missing as of 2016, according to a CBS review of National Crime Information Center data. Only 116 of those cases were logged with the Department of Justice.
Native American youth also have the highest rates of suicide out of any ethnic group. It is the leading cause of death for Native youth aged 15–24.
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Teehee’s role will likely be similar to that of those who represent Washington DC, Guam, American Samoa, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Northern Mariana Islands and Puerto Rico. They cannot vote on the House floor but can introduce legislation, vote in their committees and debate.
In a statement to CNN, Teehee acknowledged how far the Cherokee Nation has come, and how far it still has to go.
“This journey is just beginning and we have a long way to go to see this through to fruition,” she said to CNN. “However, a Cherokee Nation delegate to Congress is a negotiated right that our ancestors advocated for, and today, our tribal nation is stronger than ever and ready to defend all our constitutional and treaty rights. It’s just as important in 2019 as it was in our three treaties.”