The treaty imposed on the Cherokee Nation in 1835 facilitated the Trail of Tears, and was the surest sign yet that the eventual fate of North America’s native population was going to be ugly, violent, and tragic. But the Treaty of New Echota, which forced the Cherokee to relinquish their ancestral lands in the South, also included the promise that the Cherokee Nation would be “entitled to a delegate in the House of Representatives of the United States whenever Congress shall make provision for the same.” It is almost 200 years later, and Congress still hasn’t made such a provision.
Well, if we searched the Rationalization List for the excuse for this disgraceful betrayal, we would find several candidates on the very first page, mutations of the hoariest rationalization of all, #1, “Everybody Does It,” but represented by such variations of the theme as, It’s done all the time,”“It’s always been done this way,” “It’s tradition,” “Everybody is used to it,“Everybody accepts it,” and “It’s too late to change now.” The United States broke too many treaties with the various tribes to count, but this one has an especially ugly story behind it.
On Georgia lands guaranteed by the United States to the Cherokee in yet another, earlier treaty, the tribe was attempting to create a model of what might have allowed all the Native American tribes to flourish in the new European-settled nation that was clearly not to be denied. The Cherokee Nation had foresworn war, was working with white communities, creating commerce and launching a hybrid culture that could be integrated into the U.S. while preserving Indian culture. The plan was working too— too well. Georgia exercised the then-current doctrine of nullification, a states rights principle holding that a state could nullify Federal law. The Georgian legislature wanted the Cherokees’ land, and declared the Federal treaty leaving it in their control null and void. The Cherokee sued Georgia in the U.S. Supreme Court and won. President Jackson, however, even though he had earlier condemned South Carolina’s nullification attempts in the strongest possible terms (Jackson threatened to hang Senator John C. Calhoun with his own hands), hated Indians. In an unprecedented demonstration of abuse of power and raw defiance by a President, “King Andy” refused to enforce the SCOTUS decision and backed Georgia.
This was in 1832; it took three years to hammer out the conditions of the Cherokee removal. Then 16,000 members of the Cherokee Nation began the so-called “Trail of Tears,” a deadly journey to, again, guaranteed land, this time in Oklahoma. About 4,000 of them died from exposure, starvation and disease on the way.
Now, in 2022, Kim Teehee, a Cherokee Nation official, has been selected by the tribe to be its nonvoting delegate in the House and the first delegate from a tribal nation ever to serve there. If she is approved by the House, Teehee would join delegates from the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands and the Virgin Islands. Like the others, Teehee would be able to introduce legislation and sit on committees, but not to have a vote on the House floor.
This minimal acknowledgement of the Cherokee was the right, ethical and legal course almost 200 years ago. It still is, except that the inexcusable delay just adds one more layer to the United States’ government’s terrible history of stolen lands, broken promises and minimal justice regarding Native Americans. There may be other tribes with similar legitimate claims to a presence in Congress. The Delaware Nation, which signed a treaty with the United States in 1778, and the Choctaw Nation, which signed the Treaty of Dancing Rabbit Creek of 1830 also claim that they bargained for delegates in the House.
Then give them what they deserve too.
Representative Tom Cole (R-Ok), told reporters that he was “glad to see tribes advocating for their treaties with such conviction” and added, “It’s never too late to do the right thing.”
Yes, and it’s also impossible to make up for delaying doing the right thing for nearly 200 years.
The issue has to have hearings, and if Republicans get difficult, the resolution of the matter could drag on again. The American people should make it clear that this needs to happen, and now. It is far from justice, but at least the delegate will provide some small compensation for a terrible part of American history.
Just do it.