Cherokees' intended congressional delegate says tribes must stay engaged

Kim Teehee, Cherokee Nation Director of Government Relations and the tribe's first delegate-designate to Congress, was the speaker for the 2021 Sequoyah Fellowship Lecture at Northeastern State University, Monday.

TAHLEQUAH, Oklahoma – The intended congressional delegate for the largest Native American tribe in the U.S. says she believes President Joe Biden’s administration could significantly impact federal Indian policy.

Kim Teehee, Cherokee Nation director of Government Relations and speaker for Northeastern State University's 2021 Sequoyah Institute Fellow Lecture, was tapped to fill a seat in Congress as part of a treaty. Though she has yet to be sworn in, she's optimistic.

“I believe we are on the precipice of real, meaningful change in federal Indian policy – change that is built on the foundation laid by others,” said Teehee. “The Biden administration is committed to building on the Native American accomplishments of the Obama administration’s, where historic first appointments occurred – the first American Indian U.S. ambassador, the first Native American solicitor for the Interior Department, the first Native American woman federal judge, the first senior policy adviser to the president in the White House.”

Biden’s Cabinet is the most diverse in U.S. history, said Teehee. It will soon likely include the first Native American to lead a Cabinet agency, as Biden nominated U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland, D-New Mexico. The nomination has garnered praise from tribal nations, as they hope to see her approved as the secretary of the Department of the Interior by the Senate.

“This appointment is especially profound when we consider the historic indignities Native people have suffered at the hands of the Untied States, as the secretary of the Interior was often responsible for executing devastating policies, designed to terminate our political existence and exterminate Native people,” said Teehee.

Four Native Americans are already working in the White House, whereas it took until July for Teehee to be named the first-ever senior policy adviser for Native American Affairs under former President Barack Obama’s administration. Such appointments allow for greater representation for tribal nations, and provide avenues for consultation on legislation that can impact Natives.

Teehee said with a Democratic majority in Congress, Biden will have many of his policy priorities considered, and there will be more coordination on legislation. This means there will be opportunities for tribes to be expressly included in legislation that could have a positive impact on them.

The Biden-Harris Plan for Tribal Nations is essentially a road map detailing the policy direction Biden wishes to take the country, said Teehee. And to better capitalize on such opportunities to benefit tribes, it’s important to have input from Natives.

“Consultation is probably the key piece to all of this, because without our voices being heard and without our input, it would be very hard to have meaningful engagement with us and to know the meaningful kind of reforms and refinements that are necessary to serve our communities,” said Teehee.

Teehee said it’s important to advocate on behalf of tribes when looking at legislative priorities, such as addressing needs in road construction, water supply, and broadband services in Indian Country; honoring treaty rights to include a Cherokee Nation delegate in the House of Representatives; and reintroducing the Durbin Feeling Native American Language Act to target federal resources to save and preserve Native languages.

Teehee said tribes must remain engaged in ongoing litigation, such as monitoring the case of the Affordable Care Act, which authorizes tribal health care delivery systems. If it were to be declared unconstitutional, Natives and their supporters would want to quickly pivot to Congress for action to preserve those systems. She also mentioned the Indian Child Welfare Act, and said that based on the court’s decision, advocates may need to lobby Congress to ensure Native children are protected.

“It is imperative that we engage with the agencies and that we come to the table with recommendations,” said Teehee. “The more we can influence policy outcomes, the better in the long run our reservations will be, and the better we are culturally, economically, and politically.”

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