OKLAHOMA CITY — The Cherokee Nation announced Thursday that it intends to appoint a delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, asserting for the first time a right promised to the tribe in a nearly 200-year-old treaty with the federal government.
It was a historic step for the Oklahoma-based Cherokee Nation and its nearly 370,000 citizens, coming about a week after Chuck Hoskin Jr. was sworn in as principal chief of the tribe.
The Cherokee Nation says it’s the largest tribal nation in the U.S. and one of three federally recognized Cherokee tribes.
The move raises questions about what that representation in Congress would look like and whether the U.S. will honor an agreement it made almost two centuries ago.
The Cherokee Nation’s right to appoint a delegate stems from the same treaty the U.S. government used to forcibly remove the tribe from its ancestral lands.
As a result of the 1835 Treaty of New Echota, the Cherokee were ultimately made to leave their homes in the Southeast for present-day Oklahoma in exchange for money and other compensation.
Nearly 4,000 citizens of the tribe died of disease, starvation and exhaustion on the journey now known as the Trail of Tears.
A delegate in the House of Representatives was one of the ways the U.S. government promised to compensate the Cherokee Nation.
Ezra Rosser, a law professor at American University, said the U.S. government has long made it difficult for tribes to exercise rights afforded to them in treaties.
But now, tribes are asserting themselves in a way that demands the attention of non-Native Americans.
“We have to recognize that we imposed a genocide on tribes and we imposed harsh measures toward any government structure that they had,” Rosser said.
“To me, it’s not surprising that it would take somewhat deep into the self-determination era for tribes to be in a position to assert some of these rights.”
Hoskin echoed that sentiment, saying “the Cherokee Nation is today in a position of strength that I think is unprecedented in its history.”
Having a delegate in the House would fundamentally alter the relationship between the U.S. government and the Cherokee Nation, Rosser wrote in a 2005 article for the Boston University Public Interest Law Journal.
Right now, the federal government and Native American tribes largely operate as two sovereign nations that interact with one another, Rosser said.
Representation in the House would incorporate the Cherokee Nation into the U.S. government itself.
The two other Cherokee tribes recognized by the federal government are the United Keetoowah Band in Oklahoma, which has about 14,000 citizens, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina, which has about 16,000 citizens.
It’s unclear if they would have the same right to appoint a delegate.
The treaty doesn’t specify whether or not the Cherokee Nation’s delegate would be a voting member of the legislature.
But Hoskin said the position might look something like the non-voting members that represent the District of Columbia and five U.S. territories.
“I think we have to look at the road maps that are laid out as a suggested path to seating our delegate, and certainly the delegates afforded the territories give us an idea of what is workable in the Congress,” he said.
There are six non-voting members in the House. The District of Columbia and four permanently inhabited U.S. territories — American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands — are represented by a delegate, who serves a two-year term.
Puerto Rico is served by a resident commissioner, who is elected every four years.
Those representatives can’t vote on the House floor, but they can vote in committees they are on, introduce legislation and engage in debate.
Hoskin said he hoped the Cherokee Nation’s delegate would help advance the interests of the tribe and, more broadly, all Native Americans.