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Nearly 200 years after the Cherokee Nation signed a treaty with the United States that forced them to give up land and lives through the Trail of Tears, the tribal nation is calling on Congress to uphold its end of the deal.
The 1835 Treaty of New Echota forced the Cherokee people off of their homelands in Georgia, and onto a deadly trek thousands of miles away to what is present-day Oklahoma. It resulted in the loss of millions of acres and thousands of lives, but a single sentence within the centuries-old document made it clear that in exchange for their immense losses, the Cherokee Nation would be granted representation in the United States Congress.
According to Article 7 of the 1835 Treaty of New Echota, 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.”
That single sentence gives renewed hope to the country’s largest Native American tribal nation.
“That treaty, which is the source of so much pain and injury for the Cherokee people, has become, symbolized by this sentence, a source of power, a source of representation,” Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. told The Black Wall Street Times.
I spoke with @CherokeeNation Principal Chief @ChuckHoskin_Jr about his efforts to push the United States to honor the 1835 Treaty of New Echota, which promises the Cherokee Nation a seated delegate in Congress. pic.twitter.com/GB4tVeWc1t
— Deon Devon Osborne (@indepthwithDeon) December 13, 2022
Cherokee Nation lobbies for delegate in Congress
Speaking via zoom from Tahlequah, Oklahoma—the Cherokee Nation capital post-removal—Chief Hoskin Jr. expressed optimism that seating a Cherokee delegate in the U.S. House of Representatives is a matter of when, not if.
“We are talking about a treaty that is nearly two centuries old. So, there’s a need, I think, to carefully explain ourselves, and that’s what we’ve tried to do,” Chief Hoskin added.
He first appealed to Congress in the fall of 2019, shortly after becoming Cherokee Nation Chief. Since the U.S. Congress already ratified the treaty in 1836, Chief Hoskin argues, there doesn’t need to be a new law enacted to move forward.
The Chief reiterated that argument during a historic Congressional committee hearing on Nov. 16, which marked the first time members of Congress convened to discuss seating a Cherokee Nation delegate.
Cherokee Nation Chief @ChuckHoskin_Jr: “It is my firm belief and expectation that the House of Representatives will take swift action to seat our delegate to Congress, honor our treaty right and therefore make the United States good on its promise to our Cherokee ancestors.” pic.twitter.com/Du9hIdO9cc
— CSPAN (@cspan) November 16, 2022
If approved, the Cherokee Nation delegate would be able to debate bills and write legislation, though they would not be able to vote on final passage. The status would be similar to other non-voting delegates representing the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. territories of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
When it comes to honoring treaty rights, the Cherokee Nation has a firm leg to stand on.
The so-called “Five Civilized Tribes” (Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole and Muscogee Creek) were penalized for giving some support to the Confederacy during the U.S. Civil War. They were forced to give up land and offer citizenship to the formerly enslaved Black members of their tribes through the Treaties of 1866.
Today, only the Cherokee Nation has fully embraced citizenship and recognition of their Cherokee Freedmen relatives. An exhibit focused on Cherokee Freedmen is currently on display inside the Cherokee National Museum in Tahlequah.
“For the Cherokee Nation, moving beyond adhering to the letter of the law when it comes to Freedmen citizenship, which we absolutely should adhere to, also taking the step of embracing the spirit of equality, has made the Cherokee Nation a bigger nation in ways that’s indescribable,” Chief Hoskin told The Black Wall Street Times.
“I cannot imagine going to the Congress of the United States, knowing the United States’ history of violating treaties, and seriously advocating for the United States to adhere to a treaty obligation if we were not adhering to our treaty obligations.”
Members of Congress appear supportive
Chief Hoskin’s optimism has been strengthened by the reactions from members of Congress. No one has voiced outright opposition to the proposed delegate, according to Chief Hoskin, and some have expressed outright support.
Massachusetts Democratic Congressman Jim McGovern is Chairman of the House Rules Committee, which listened to testimony from Chief Hoskin.
“America’s history with the Indigenous people that are native to this land is atrocious,” Rep. McGovern told NPR days after the historic hearing.
“I personally believe we need to find a way to honor our treaty obligations with the Cherokee Nation, even though it will be a potentially challenging road.”
Notably, U.S. Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) has also appeared supportive of the measure. As a ranking member of the House Rules Committee, he’s poised to become the new chairman when Republicans take control. The Black Wall Street Times reached out to Rep. Cole for comment, but his office did not respond in time for publication.
Yet for the Indigenous people of Turtle Island, navigating through the bureaucracy and white supremacist, settler-colonialism of the United States has always been challenging.
Illustrating the immense hope and faith he has in his efforts to uplift his people with dignity and representation, Chief Hoskin named Kim Teehee as the Cherokee Nation delegate to Congress shortly after taking office in 2019.
When asked by NBC’s Meet the Press what a Cherokee Nation delegate wants to accomplish, Delegate-elect Teehee kept it simple.
“Indian tribes have too few champions that exist on Capitol Hill,” she said.
“Indian tribes have too few champions that exist on Capitol Hill.”
— Cherokee Nation (@CherokeeNation) December 15, 2022
Ultimately, with support from Democratic Congressmen from around the nation and Oklahoma’s own Republican U.S. Rep. Tom Cole, Chief Hoskin Jr. is ready to seat a Cherokee Nation delegate immediately.
Much like the past several hundred years of U.S. history, the Cherokee Nation continues to wait on the United States to honor the treaty.
“I’m patient. I think as a Cherokee leader you have to be patient. Ultimately, we’re trying to meet the expectations of our ancestors, those who survived the Trail of Tears. I suspect they’re disappointed that it’s taken this long, but I know they wouldn’t want us to give up,” Chief Hoskin said.