Washington DC, US
Thomson Reuters Foundation

Giving a Native American tribe a seat in Congress would "send a huge message" to the world, the woman poised to make history as the first delegate to formally represent an Indigenous community in the US House of Representatives has said.

The right of the Cherokee Nation, home of the largest US tribe, to take a seat in Congress dates back to treaties signed in the 18th and 19th centuries.

But it has never been taken up - until now.

Kimberly Teehee

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr, (left), and proposed congressional delegate Kimberly Teehee speak on 22nd August in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. PICTURE: Handout photo by Cherokee Nation Communications.

In August, the Cherokee Nation proposed Kimberly Teehee, who served as the White House's first-ever senior policy adviser for Native Americans under former President Barack Obama, to take the seat.

"That the United States fulfills its treaty rights would send a huge message, not only to the Indian tribes of this country but internationally," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview in Washington.

"Because other governments of other countries look at the United States and how it interfaces with its Indigenous population."

Teehee said the proposal had received enthusiastic support from political leaders in Washington and expressed optimism she would be able to take up the seat in the coming year.

The 51-year-old, who is the tribe's vice president of government relations, said she would make land issues a central legislative issue, decrying "archaic laws" that have vastly diminished the Native American land base.

Most native lands in the United States are governed as sovereign territories but continue to be administered, and legally held in trust, by the Federal Government.

Tribes also need to be engaged far earlier in permitting processes for extractive industries, she said, noting the impact these can have on sacred and cultural sites.

The Cherokee were originally from what is today Georgia state, but were forcibly relocated to Oklahoma during the 1830s.

One of the treaties that offers them a seat in Congress was a result of that movement, called the Trail of Tears.

Nearly seven million Native Americans live in the United States, making up about two per cent of the population, according to census figures.

Teehee was in Washington with the Cherokee Nation's principal chief, Chuck Hoskin, Jr, to continue talks with lawmakers and others about how she could take up the seat in Congress.

"This is this as clear and concrete an example as we've had in modern times in the United States. Will [the government] keep their word? It's a yes or no," said Hoskin.

"All of Indian country is watching this, and they're hopeful."

Models that could be followed include US territories such as Guam, whose representative can propose legislation but cannot vote.

If she gets a seat, Teehee would be the official representative in Congress of the Cherokee Nation's government.

But she said she would solicit input from all Native Americans, beyond the 380,000 Cherokee citizens, about half of whom live in north-eastern Oklahoma.

"So much of the issues that impact Cherokee Nation impact other tribes as well. And so they have an extra seat at the table," she said.

Teehee's other national priorities include pushing through legislation she said had languished for years, including on housing and violence against women.

Allowing her to take up the seat, she said, would send a strong signal that the United States "values its indigenous populations and honours legal documents through the treaties that they signed with the Indians...even if it's nearly 200 years later".