In August 2019, the Cherokee Nation made history by appointing their first delegate to Congress, Kimberly Teehee. Although the Cherokee had reserved the right to make such an appointment to Congress since 1835, when a treaty ratified by the Senate and signed by then-President Andrew Jackson granted them the right, no appointments had ever been made. While it remains to be seen whether or not the Cherokee Nation’s delegate is accepted by Congress, it raises a bigger question on the role of Native American representation in Congress as well as a potential solution both parties might be able to support.
What are delegates?
Most Americans don’t know about Congressional delegates or their role in Congress. Currently, the House of Representatives consists of 441 members, not the 435 commonly said; 435 of these members are full-voting members representing the 50 states, while six are non-voting delegates representing the District of Columbia and the five inhabited territories. Delegates are popularly-elected by the people they represent – the current approved delegates to Congress are:
American Samoa – Amata Coleman Radewagen (Republican)
District of Columbia – Eleanor Holmes Norton (Democrat)
Guam – Michael San Nicolas (Democrat)
Northern Mariana Islands – Gregorio Sablan (Democratic-caucusing Independent)
Puerto Rico – Jenniffer González (New Progressive Party/Republican)
U. S. Virgin Islands – Stacey Plaskett (Democrat)
Although delegates cannot vote on legislation, they share nearly all of the rights and abilities representatives have; they can serve on committees and caucuses, vote on legislation in committees, and propose bills and legislation. The only major difference, aside from the unique four-year term of Puerto Rico’s delegate (known as the Resident Commissioner), is their inability to vote on bills. This office of delegate is what the Cherokee Nation seeks to be awarded, and the Choctaw also hold a right to appoint a delegate under the same treaty.
Native Americans in Congress
Currently, four Native Americans serve as representatives in Congress; Republicans Markwayne Mullin (Cherokee) and Tom Cole (Chickasaw) represent districts in Oklahoma while Democrats Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) and Sharice Davids (Ho-Chunk Nation) represent districts in New Mexico and Kansas, respectively. This is despite the lack of any majority-Native districts; Arizona’s 1st congressional district, the seat with the highest percentage of Native Americans, is only around 25% Native.
Despite their stark ideological differences, they have worked together on issues relating to Native Americans in the past, and Haaland has said she views Cole as a mentor. The effectiveness of Native representation, then is clear to see. Additionally, the idea of Native American delegates is not unheard of; in the Maine House of Representatives, three non-voting delegate slots are reserved for the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, Passamaquoddy Tribe, and Penobscot Nation. While some have argued the idea of Native American delegates violates the idea of one-man, one-vote by granting “dual representation” to Natives, the situation in Maine has, to my knowledge, never been challenged.
While I am excited by the idea of Cherokee Nation and Chickasaw delegates in Congress, I don’t think this goes far enough; in the entire history of our republic, only 18 Native Americans have been elected to the House and only four have been elected to the Senate. This is in part because Native populations were dispersed from their homelands or worse, dividing them and rendering them unable to have influence in government. I’m proposing a constitutional amendment that would result in the creation of 12 new Native American delegates to Congress. 10 of these delegates would be assigned to the largest Native American tribes while two would be awarded to the entire native people of the states of Alaska and Hawaii. Alternatively, any tribe with over 50,000 registered members could be granted a delegate.
These delegates would be unique from other delegates in that they would be allowed to vote on legislation provided it specifically related to Native American issues. This would involve any regulation changes to Native reservations, the voting rights act, spending, national monuments, and tribal land issues, as well as the budget, as the budget affects everyone. The broad list of issues that always allow Native delegates to vote could be listed in the constitutional amendment, with the House Rules Committee to have jurisdiction on the relevance of other issues on a case-by-case basis. On all other issues, they would function as an ordinary delegate. The exact mechanism of how these delegates are elected would also need to be decided upon, but there is no reason popular votes could not be used given that the Cherokee Nation, among others, holds a popular vote for the election of their principal chief.
Why both parties could support this
Many Democrats have long seen Native American issues as important, but Republicans have also had a role; representatives Cole and Mullin have emerged as important voices for Native American issues, and Republican Dan Bishop strongly supported full federal recognition for the Lumbee Tribe, the largest tribe of Native Americans not to be federally recognized, during his successful race for North Carolina’s 9th congressional district; his over performance in Robeson County, home to the majority of the Lumbee tribe, was widely noted in the aftermath of the race.
Western Republicans have also long been skeptical of the federal government’s management of federal land, a major issue for both Republicans and Native Americans. By giving Native Americans, who predominantly live in the American west, a stronger voice in Congress, western conservatives could find an ally in resisting federal overreach. The creation of these new delegate positions would enable Native Americans to have a more forceful voice on the federal government’s actions in their communities – an important check on the role of government in their lives.
It’s unclear whether the Cherokee delegate will be accepted to Congress, even under the current Democratic House leadership; since her appointment in August, little progress seems to have been made. However, if she is approved, it should not be seen as the last step, but as the first one. Native Americans have been mistreated throughout American history, and while providing them a stronger voice in Congress won’t make up for that, it could certainly help in ensuring that future abuses will be less likely to happen.