By Ellen McGirt
January 5, 2017

Here’s something I didn’t know but should have: For more than 200 years, the Cherokee Nation has had the right to have a delegate be seated by the U.S. House of Representatives. They are the only tribal nation that has the ability to do so.

And they never have.

The seat was negotiated by treaty and is codified in both the U.S and Cherokee Constitutions. Though it is a non-voting seat, the position still has plenty of power and access associated with it. (The District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have similar arrangements.)

And it goes back a long way. From the Cherokee Constitution:

“In accordance with Article 12 of the Treaty with the Cherokees, dated November 28, 1785 (Treaty of Hopewell), and Article 7 of the Treaty with the Cherokees dated December 29, 1835 (Treaty of New Echota), there shall be created the office of Delegate to the United States House of Representatives, appointed by the Principal Chief and confirmed by the Council.”

The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma is the largest tribal nation in the U.S. It has more than 330,000 tribal citizens, 11,000 members and boasts a local economic impact of $1.5 billion annually, through enterprises ranging from entertainment venues to aerospace and defense.

Tribal representatives are already Beltway regulars, visibly walking the halls of power and lobbying for issues that matter to their communities. And two of Oklahoma’s five representatives in Congress are already tribal members: Tom Cole, of the Chickasaw Nation, and Markwayne Mullin of the Cherokee Nation. (Both are republicans.)

But the difference between a lobbyist and a seated representative is more than just optics: The representative is paid for by the federal government. Their right to representation is official, and the influence they can wield within committees is significant.

It’s an interesting idea that’s long overdue. The incoming president has a history of using racist tactics against Indian casino owners in his previous work as a developer, and has indicated that the drilling at Standing Rock will resume on his watch. And in general, he has exhibited little interest in previously negotiated commitments of any kind. But, say the experts, he can’t mess with treaties.

Tristan Ahtone, a journalist and member of the Kiowa Tribe of Oklahoma, has a pretty thorough analysis here. His point, and it’s a radical one, is that the seat could become an opportunity for inclusion at the highest levels:

“To support tribal nations in a meaningful way, one solution could be to seat a Cherokee delegate, but perhaps a more radical approach is for the United States to rethink how it deals with indigenous people at the government level.

“[T]here are precedents both at home and abroad where governments make it a point to include Native people in the political process. Given its history with Native America, it’s unrealistic to expect the United States to do the same, despite that there are nearly 570 sovereign, tribal nations within its borders that have unique wants and needs. However, a single, constitutionally backed delegate, like the one guaranteed by law to the Cherokee Nation, could be a start down that path. And with an incoming president who, at the moment, appears deaf to Native American concerns, it may be the ideal time for Indian Country to advocate for representation at the federal level.”

It would certainly get my vote.

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