Kimberly Teehee is no stranger to firsts. In early 2009, President Barack Obama appointed her as the first senior policy adviser for Native American affairs on the White House Domestic Policy Council. Before that, she served as the first deputy director of Native American Outreach for the Democratic National Committee. Now, she is set to become the first delegate of a tribal nation to Congress — a position that would fulfill the terms of a 235-year-old treaty.
Teehee, 53, grew up in Claremore, Oklahoma, speaking the Cherokee language in her home. She graduated cum laude at Northeastern State University in Oklahoma before attending the University of Iowa College of Law in 1995. There, she co-taught a class and attended conferences about federal Indian law. She also recruited other Native American students to the university.
“I will always have an affinity for Iowa,” Teehee told Iowa Magazine. “It’s a school that rooted for me and helped me bring my interests to campus.”
After graduation, she brought those interests to D.C., representing Native American issues within the DNC, Clinton administration and Obama administration. She helped pass the Tribal Law and Order Act, and played a major role in securing the bipartisan reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act in 2012, which included tribal-jurisdiction provisions allowing for the prosecution of non-Natives who abuse Native people on tribal lands; this work earned her an honor from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. She went on to work with a lobbying firm and serve as vice president of special projects with Cherokee Nation Businesses.
Teehee was nominated for the Congressional delegate position by Cherokee Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr. in August 2019. Her appointment was approved by the Cherokee Council shortly after. As a delegate, she would represent the Cherokee Nation, which, with approximately 400,000 recognized citizens, is the largest tribal nation in the U.S.
“Over 184 years ago, our ancestors bargained for a guarantee that we would always have a voice in the Congress,” Hoskin said, announcing his nomination of Teehee in Tahlequah, Oklahoma on Aug. 22. “It is time for the United States to uphold its end of the bargain.”
This bargain was codified in two treaties: the Treaty of Hopewell of 1785 and the New Echota Treaty of 1835.
“It is stipulated that they [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,” reads Article VII of the New Echota Treaty.
These treaties do not have an expiration date, and are as enduring as the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, Teehee asserts.
“This is a provision that we have not enforced, but just because we haven’t enforced it doesn’t mean that it is not valid and enforceable now,” Teehee explained to Tulsa World in August. “… Today we’re in a position of strength, and we ought to be asserting our rights under our treaties. Our country is better if it keeps its promises, and I fully expect them to keep this promise they made to the Cherokee Nation.”
If approved for her position by Congress, Teehee would serve as a non-voting delegate, similar to representatives of U.S. territories such as Washington D.C., Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands. She would have the power to introduce legislation, vote in committees and speak on the House floor.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has come out in support of honoring the treaty.
Four current members of the U.S. House of Representatives are also members of tribal nations: Democrats Deb Haaland of New Mexico (Laguna Pueblo), Sharice Davids of Kansas (Ho-Chunk) and Republicans Tom Cole (Chickasaw) and Markwayne Mullin (Cherokee) of Oklahoma.
“I think the time is right now because the foundation has been laid. We have a more educated Congress when it comes to Indian issues. We have a more educated Congress when it comes to honoring treaty rights,” Teehee told Now This. “I mean, there was a time I worked in Congress 20 years ago when I was the only Native American on the Hill.”
As a delegate, Teehee said she intends to advocate for mandatory federal funding for tribal nations — funding guaranteed by treaties, but not always reliable in practice.
The process to confirm Teehee will take time, but she said she’s patient.
“We want to be at the table,” she said.