Three Cherokee tribes are pushing aggressively for the U.S. government to make good on a nearly 200-year-old promise to award them a sitting delegate in the House of Representatives.
But, sensing that lawmakers may finally act amid the Biden administration’s historic advances in Native American causes, they’re also quietly competing against each other for the largely ceremonial seat. And so they have done what those in search of Washington influence often do: hired a bevy of consultants, lawyers and K Street types to push their cause.
One of the tribes, the Cherokee Nation, has launched a Facebook and Instagram ad campaign and its leaders have booked major television appearances. Another tribe, the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, enlisted a PR firm about six months ago to push back against the narrative that the Cherokee Nation is deserving of the sole delegate. The third, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, said the issue is a legislative priority for 2023.
They’ve also donated generously to lawmakers. Since the beginning of 2021, Federal Election Commission reports show the Cherokee Nation made more than $900,000 in donations to candidates or political action committees; while the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians made nearly $500,000 in donations; and the United Keetoowah Band, the third, has given more than $9,000.
“If you’re going to accomplish things, there are lobbyists,” said Richard Sneed, principal chief of the Eastern Band. “As tribal leaders, we understand that — it’s not how we would prefer to have to do things but it is what it is.”
The aggressive push for the non-voting seat, similar to the ones held by representatives from Washington, D.C., Guam, Samoa and the Virgin Islands, is being sparked by the belief that lawmakers are finally willing to move on the matter. The Biden administration has shined the brightest spotlight on Native American issues in recent history. The president appointed Deb Haaland as the nation’s first Native American Cabinet member when she became Interior Secretary. Last fall, he pledged to protect 450,000 acres of ancestral Navajo land from future development by declaring the region a national monument. And in November, the House held a historic hearing on seating the Cherokee delegate.
Eager to see that momentum extended to the fulfillment of the treaty to seat a delegate, tribal leaders have turned to influence peddling. Indeed, the delegate that the Cherokee Nation has chosen — should it be awarded one — is Kimberly Teehee, a former registered tribal lobbyist and Obama administration alum.
Groups turning to influence peddlers to help them as they vie for political power is a tale as old as government itself. But the fight over the seating of a delegate representing the Cherokee tribes is an extremely rare collision of America’s historical sins and the subterranean forces of its current political system.
It’s also a lesson in how immovable Congress can be. There has been some movement to finally award a delegate on the Hill, including a House Rules Committee hearing late last year where Chuck Hoskin Jr., principal chief of the Cherokee Nation, spoke of his expectation that the House “make the United States good on its promise to our Cherokee ancestors.” But the predominant feature of this debate has been inertia.
Fearful that that may remain the case, there is concern on the Hill that lobbying and consulting firms may be profiting off what could be a futile effort. One Hill staffer who has worked closely on tribal issues expressed fear the money spent would be for naught, noting it appears unlikely that the new Republican-led Congress would seat a Cherokee delegate.
“A lot of these people are taking the tribes for a ride a little bit,” the staffer said, while also noting that the tribes themselves have long standing and broad political operations. “They have lobbyists and government affairs teams and all that. And when they look at where they’re trying to peddle influence or gain access, they dole out hundreds and hundreds of thousands, millions of dollars each cycle.”
But tribal leaders themselves stress that they are merely working within the system as it exists, one which they know how to navigate. In a statement, Julie Hubbard, a Cherokee Nation spokesperson, emphasized that the House changing party control would not end its efforts. Hoskin nominated the tribe’s delegate-designate among a set of initiatives for his first 100 days in office and the tribe would “continue to do whatever it takes to get the Cherokee Nation’s delegate seated,” Hubbard said.
“This is not a partisan issue,” she said in a statement. “We have good relationships on both sides of the aisle and are encouraged by our ongoing conversations with members.”
The right to a House delegate comes from a treaty signed in December 1835 between the federal government and Cherokee members that led to the brutally forced removal of the tribe from its ancestral home to land in what is now Oklahoma. That route became known as the Trail of Tears.
Since then, the historical Cherokee tribe has divided into three groups: the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians.
The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, the largest of three, has overseen the most widespread campaign, arguing that Teehee, who is director of government relations for the Cherokee Nation and senior vice president of government relations for Cherokee Nation Businesses, is owed a seat in the House. But the United Keetoowah Band also has a chosen delegate and argues that the three tribes should agree on a candidate or each have a separate seat. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians contends that, in a best case scenario, it would be given its own seat, too.
After recent activity over a Cherokee delegate, another tribe, the Delaware Nation, has also argued it has a right to one.
The United Keetoowah Band argues that the delegate fight is part of a long history of tensions with the larger Cherokee Nation, which unlike the smaller tribe has gaming profits to spend. The United Keetoowah Band has enlisted a public affairs firm — Trysail Strategies — to keep up, they said.
“We’re all well aware that that’s pretty much how everything rolls in D.C.,” said Sneed, whose Eastern Band has firms, including Integrated Strategy Group and Pipestem Law, on retainer. The delegate issue will be on the forefront of its legislative agenda for 2023, he said.
The Cherokee Nation’s registered lobbying firms include Cornerstone Government Affairs, along with Jenner & Block, DiNino Associates, and Venable (DiNino Associates and Venable have reported no activity in the first three quarters of 2022). Cornerstone, which was paid $230,000 in the first three quarters of 2022, and Jenner & Block both reported lobbying on the Cherokee Congressional delegate (how much the firms were paid for the last quarter is set to be revealed in reports due later this month). Jenner & Block’s outreach included the Executive Office of the President.
The public relations firm Precision Strategies, among the most Biden-connected firms co-founded by President Joe Biden’s deputy chief of staff Jen O’Malley Dillon, is also representing the Cherokee Nation. The firm has done media outreach on behalf of the tribe but declined to comment.
“When we renewed the effort to get our Cherokee Nation delegate seated, we knew it would not be easy. But, we’re making progress,” said Hubbard in a statement. “The House held the first-ever hearing on seating the Cherokee Nation delegate, and we’re encouraged by the positive bipartisan response from Congress and remain inspired by how many people across the country have joined us.”
The United Keetoowah Band’s lobbying on the issue has been in response to the Cherokee Nation’s widespread campaign, said representatives from the tribe. Victoria Holland, the tribe’s chosen delegate, called it “very much a David and Goliath situation” referring to fighting between the better funded Cherokee Nation and the UKB, which is less financially well-off.
The United Keetoowah Band has for years retained Michael Rossetti, a lobbyist at the law firm Lippes Mathias. Rossetti helped bring on a public relations firm for the tribe about six months ago.
“We don’t have extra money just laying around,” Holland explained, pointing to, for example, the tribe’s building that serves as its wellness center, council house, courthouse, and Indian child welfare office.
“We would much rather be spending that money on something else, but we don’t have those opportunities,” she said.