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One of the Oldest Broken Promises to Indigenous Peoples Is for a Voice in Congress

A treaty commitment to seat a delegate representing the Cherokee Nation in the House has gone unmet for two centuries.

Two hundred and thirty-eight years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the American Revolution against the British Empire, representatives of the former colonies that were then governed under the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union negotiated a treaty with the Cherokee people. Among the many issues addressed by the Treaty of Hopewell was the question of how Indigenous peoples might make their voices heard in the new systems of government that were only then emerging in the US. The answer came in Article XII, which promised that the Cherokee “shall have the right to send a deputy of their choice, whenever they think fit, to Congress.”

This commitment was reaffirmed and clarified by the US government—now operating under the more formal dictates of the US Constitution—a half-century later in the 1835 Treaty of New Echota. That infamous document was written at a time when the administration of President Andrew Jackson was scheming to implement the forcible removal of the Cherokee people, via the “Trail of Tears,” from their historic lands in states east of the Mississippi River to what is now Oklahoma.

The backstory of the treaty recalls what The New York Times has referred to as “one of the darkest moments in American history and the string of broken promises to Indigenous people across the nation.” As the Times reminds us, “The treaty led the U.S. government to force 16,000 members of the Cherokee Nation on the Trail of Tears, a deadly trek to land in what is now Oklahoma. A quarter of those forced to leave—about 4,000—died before they arrived, as a result of harsh conditions, starvation and disease.”

Yet, buried in the 1835 treaty was a clearly stated “stipulation” that reasserted the right of congressional representation and declared that the Cherokee Nation “shall be entitled to a delegate in the House of Representatives of the United States whenever Congress shall make provision for the same.”

Unfortunately—if perhaps unsurprisingly, knowing the brutal history of the US government’s mistreatment of Indigenous peoples —Congress never enacted the provision. Not during the tenures of Jackson and his many Democratic successors, nor during the tenures of Abraham Lincoln and his many Republican successors.

The promise of congressional representation, like so many other promises made to the first peoples of North America, was broken by the initial 117 Congresses of the United States. And, now, it is being broken by the 118th Congress—even though a delegate designated four years ago by the Cherokee Nation is ready, willing, and able to serve.