Race in America

After 187 years, treaty serving Indigenous people will be honored

The relationship between Indigenous Americans and the federal government has had a tumultuous past, but one treaty is coming closer to fruition.

After 187 years, treaty serving Indigenous people will be honored
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While driving through Tahlequah, Oklahoma, the capital of Cherokee Nation, the history and pride are noticeably present.

Kim Teehee was raised in the town and has lived there much of her life. The only reason she wasn't born there is because her parents had moved via federal relocation to Chicago.

"Federal policy is completely interwoven into my family's history from removal to today," Teehee said.

Now Teehee is looking to make history in a way that would encompass nearly 200 years of history with present-day pride.

"Indian tribes have too few champions in Congress," she said. "I think it sends a huge signal to all the tribes in this country that the United States is capable of keeping its word."

There are currently six non-voting delegates in Congress. They represent territories like Guam, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. Teehee is trying to become number seven, the first to represent a Native American tribe.

"You can introduce legislation. You can serve in committees. You can vote in committees. You can amend your legislation in committees," Teehee said. "This is a provision that has remained unfulfilled for nearly 200 years."

The Treaty of New Echota was signed in 1835. It's known for leading to the forced removal of the Cherokee east of the Mississippi, but it also said "they shall be entitled to a delegate in the House of Representatives of the United States whenever Congress shall make provision for the same."

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Last fall, 187 years later, Congress held its first-ever hearing on the issue. 

Eyebrows rose. Then, the year ended. The House switched hands, and with a new Congress taking over, momentum has stalled.

Dr. Julie Reed, a member of Cherokee Nation and a professor of history at Penn State, says there's power in the House beyond a vote, particularly for tribes whose concerns too often go unheard.

"I don't think that we can discount what it would mean to have a Native person, a Cherokee person, sitting in the room," Reed said. "We often overlook lots of people who have the ability to really shape legislation without actually being the people that are voting on it at the end of the day. You start with funding, health care, education, infrastructure, connectivity issues ... It runs the gamut."

Scripps News reached out to the White House and received this response: "We are supportive of upholding the federal government's treaty obligations ... [but] there has not been a congressional action ... for the Administration to respond to."

While the fight for Teehee's seat is about correcting history and instilling pride, she'll say it's also about steering the discussions that affect her community.

"We have a saying in Cherokee called 'gadugi'; gadugi means something greater than yourselves," Teehee said. "You work towards something greater than yourself. You have this responsibility, this urge, you feel to help your family, to help your loved ones, to help your family in any way that's possible. It's something beyond you, right? It's helping others."