The Cherokee Nation principal chief had an important announcement to make last week. Standing on a stage in the Cherokee capital, Chuck Hoskin Jr. told his people, and the United States, that he intended to nominate a Cherokee delegate to Congress.
His decision would come as a surprise to some. But to the Cherokee, the announcement was nearly 200 years in the making.
For the Cherokee Nation, the years leading up to and after the signing of the Treaty of New Echota were dark. Living in their ancestral homeland of Georgia, the tribe was facing increased pressure to leave.
While other tribes were being kicked off their land, the Cherokee fought against removal. They even won a sovereignty case in the U.S. Supreme Court. But Georgia was passing laws to delegitimize the Cherokee Nation’s government and ripping its homes away from the Cherokee people.
John Ridge, a member of the Cherokee Nation, traveled to Washington to speak with President Andrew Jackson, explaining that Georgia was violating the court’s decision. But Jackson’s now-famous response to Ridge was that Supreme Court Chief Justice “John Marshall made his decision, let him enforce it.”
“They were just giving our homes away to Georgia citizens and raping our women,” said Mary Kathryn Nagle, a great-great-great granddaughter of John Ridge. “It was a time of great trauma and turmoil. My grandfather saw that and said, ‘We won in their court of law, but their president refuses to enforce it.’ “
“The writing was on the wall,” Nagle said. The government was forcing Native Americans off their land across the Southeast, and her ancestors wanted, at the very least, to be active participants in a negotiation rather than victims of forcible removal. Even though they probably would lose everything they knew, they’d still have the Cherokee Nation.
But many Cherokees disagreed. They still wanted to fight it. Notably, John Ross, the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation at the time, was strongly against removal, according to Julie Reed, an associate professor at Pennsylvania State and citizen of the Cherokee Nation.
Despite this, Nagle’s ancestors signed the Treaty of New Echota on behalf of the Cherokee in 1835. The group would come to be known as the “Treaty Party,” Reed said, and resentment within the Cherokee still lingers, said Nagle, who recently heard people refer to the treaty as one that “traitors signed.”
In early 1836, thousands of Cherokee citizens, led by Principal Chief Ross, delivered a petition to Congress asking it to void the treaty, according to Smithsonian magazine. But the Senate ratified the Treaty of New Echota, and Jackson signed it into law.
The treaty would force the Cherokee out of the land on which they had lived for centuries within two years of the ratification. Many resisted the government, Reed said. This refusal sparked what came to be known as one of the darkest periods in Cherokee history: forced removal and the Trail of Tears.
Nagle’s relatives were later killed for their role in the treaty.
“We had a huge division in Cherokee nation,” Nagle said. “And that’s the real tragedy of it all, that this outside oppressive force really drove a splinter through Cherokee Nation, and we’re still dealing with the intergenerational trauma from that time, today.”
The treaty provided for land in Oklahoma, where the Cherokee Nation still resides, and $5 million. But there was something else in that agreement that, until last week, the Cherokee had not taken advantage of: a provision that allows for a Cherokee delegate in the House.
Ezra Rosser, a law professor American University, said the language of the provision is complicated: that the Cherokee “shall be entitled to a delegate in the House of Representatives of the United States whenever Congress shall make provision for the same.” Rosser says it could be read in two ways: Congress could say they didn’t really promise anything; or it could say the delegate can be admitted once there are administrative provisions made.
But Rosser has argued that the clause “was not a paternalistic pat on the head” or a “pretend promise,” he told The Washington Post. “It was real promise with this administrative function set aside for Congress.”
This week, the Cherokee Nation Council is expected decide whether to begin the process of sending a delegate to Congress.
“Over 184 years ago, our ancestors bargained for a guarantee that we would always have a voice in the Congress.” Hoskin said at a news conference in the Cherokee capital of Tahlequah, Okla. “It is time for the United States to uphold its end of the bargain.”
Hoskin nominated Kim Teehee, a former Obama administration official and current vice president of government relations for the Cherokee Nation.
Hoskin said he’s exercising the rights spelled out in the Cherokee Nation Constitution to hold the U.S. accountable to the promises it made while forcing the Cherokee off their land. Nearly 200 years after its signing, the Treaty of New Echota could allow the Cherokee to move toward the membership in U.S. democracy.
The conversation about nominating a delegate has been ongoing in the Cherokee Nation, Reed said. As Oklahoma’s economy has struggled, native nations have supplemented public services in Oklahoma like education and road work, and provided support to fire departments. Because of this, Reed says, momentum behind the decision to send a delegate has grown.
“It’s complicated.” Reed said. “You can have positive outcomes in spite of really awful conditions. That doesn’t make what took place any less awful. I think that’s how people try to make sense of that period. It was a dark period, but the Cherokee people overcame it.”