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U.S. House considers creating a new delegate seat for the Cherokee Nation

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

One hundred eighty-six years ago, the U.S. government made a deal with the Cherokee Nation. In exchange for its land, the government agreed to provide the tribe a seat in Congress. The treaty was ratified, but its terms were never fully honored. NPR political correspondent Susan Davis reports that some in Congress want to finally make good on that deal.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: The Treaty of New Echota was first ratified by the Senate in 1836. It gave the Cherokee people $5 million and new land west of the Mississippi River in exchange for their seven million acres of ancestral land in the southeast. It was this treaty that led to the infamous Trail of Tears, where resistant members of the tribe were forcibly removed off that land, causing thousands of deaths along the way.

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JIM MCGOVERN: America's history with the Indigenous people that are native to this land is atrocious.

DAVIS: That's Massachusetts Democratic Congressman Jim McGovern, who recently led the first ever congressional hearing to focus on a lesser-known provision in that treaty, the one that also promised the tribe a delegate seat in the U.S. Congress as part of the deal for their land.

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MCGOVERN: I personally believe we need to find a way to honor our treaty obligations with the Cherokee Nation, even though it will be a potentially challenging road.

DAVIS: Cherokee Nation Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. is leading the lobbying effort for Congress to fulfill its obligation without any more delay.

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CHUCK HOSKIN JR: No barrier, constitutional or otherwise, prevents this.

DAVIS: But how to seat a tribal nation delegate in Congress is a question without much historical precedent to fall back on. Delegates, unlike representatives, do not get to vote on bills on the House floor, but they can participate in committees and give floor speeches. There are currently six such nonvoting members of the House, representing places like the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Those delegates were all established by laws passed by Congress and signed by the president. Hoskin says that is not necessary in this case because the Senate and the president already acted nearly two centuries ago.

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HOSKIN: This would render the treaty right in Article VII of our treaty meaningless.

DAVIS: The House could change the rules that govern the chamber, which Hoskin supports, and seat a Cherokee Nation delegate by simple majority vote. But that is an impermanent solution because it would need to be reapproved every two years at the start of each new Congress. The Cherokee Nation has already appointed its chosen delegate, Kimberly Teehee, who was unanimously approved by the Cherokee council, not directly elected by the people, which all other House representatives and delegates must be under the United States Constitution. Hoskin said appointing a delegate in this manner is consistent with the Cherokee constitution - in other words, none of your business, Congress.

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HOSKIN: So the first response is deference to the Cherokee Nation's sovereign act of determining how the delegate is selected.

DAVIS: Lawmakers also questioned whether seating a Cherokee Nation delegate would open the door to similar requests by other tribal nations. Already, the chief of the Choctaw Nation has written Congress in support of the Cherokee Nation's request and asking for one of their own based on an unrelated treaty. The top Republican on the committee, Tom Cole of Oklahoma, wanted to know the answer to the simple question, what took them so long? Hoskin said it has taken the Cherokee Nation nearly these two centuries to regain its footing from the Trail of Tears and the conflicts that followed in the decades since with the U.S. government.

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HOSKIN: And so we are now, I think, in a position where we can, as a practical matter, assert this right, whereas my predecessors in the two centuries before - frankly, we were just trying to hang on to our way of life and rebuild. So that's the explanation.

DAVIS: Control of the House will flip in January, and it's unclear what the new Republican majority will do on this. Cole is poised to become the top Republican on the Rules committee. He said he'd like to finally resolve it.

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TOM COLE: It's never too late to do the right thing. It's not as if something that happened 150 or 170 years ago can't be addressed and corrected now.

DAVIS: Cole is a member of the Chickasaw Nation and the longest-serving Native American in Congress. Susan Davis, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.