Cherokee Nation citizen Kimberly Teehee, the first delegate of a Native American tribal nation appointed to Congress, spoke on the significance of her appointment and her advocacy for tribal nations at a virtual event hosted by the Harvard Institute of Politics Wednesday.
Teehee’s unanimous confirmation this August fulfills a clause outlined in the Treaty of New Echota between tribal leaders and U.S. commissioners in 1835, which gave the Cherokee Nation the right to send a delegate to the House of Representatives. Andrew Lee, the moderator of the event and a Seneca Indian affiliated with the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, opened the conversation by underscoring the treaty's significance.
“In a nutshell, treaties matter,” he said. “The Cherokee Nation is using its treaty rights enshrined in 1835 to exercise its sovereignty in government relations.”
Teehee explained that although her position in Congress is similar to that of delegates from U.S. territories, understanding her appointment requires historical context. She outlined what she described as the egregious treatment of Native Americans that resulted from the Treaty of New Echota, such as the loss of their homeland and the displacement of tens of thousands of Native Americans.
“You’ve got to understand all the bad things that the courts and Congress and U.S. policy did to dismantle a nation, and then appreciate the rebuilding that it took up until now,” she said.
This rebuilding is an ongoing process: Both Teehee and Lee outlined the various policies of the Cherokee Nation’s “era of self-determination and self-governance.” Teehee explained that Native American tribes have repeatedly shown they are most successful when given adequate resources to make independent decisions.
She described how she partnered with Oklahoma State University to establish the first medical school on a reservation — a breakthrough policy for a rural community suffering from a lack of doctors.
The speakers also discussed the Cherokee Nation’s success in controlling COVID-19 compared to the pandemic’s overwhelming devastation of the Native American population. Teehee described their policies, which included a mask mandate, rapid testing, travel restrictions, and readily available PPE. She also noted that Congress failed to include the Cherokee Nation — the largest U.S. tribal health system — in the first stimulus relief package.
In addition, the nation has worked with local restaurants and the USDA to serve nearly 6.1 million meals to citizens – particularly schoolchildren – since the beginning of the pandemic, according to Teehee. They are also building a meat processing center to combat rising meat prices.
Still, Teehee called for the federal government to free up capital to meet the needs of Native American Nations.
“It all relates to funding,” she said. “I think that Indian Country deserve to have funding be mandatory funding, the way social security is mandatorily funded, the way the food stamp program is mandatorily funded – we don’t have something similar.”
Teehee said she is looking forward to working under the Biden presidency, especially as a former senior policy advisor for Native American affairs under the Obama-Biden administration.
“[Obama] set the bar, and I feel like there’s opportunity for Biden to go farther,” she said.