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How can we improve Native American representation in Congress?

Updated: Nov 6, 2019

In the first of two posts about Native American representation, Dr. Julia Marin Hellwege explains how the complex status of Native Americans limits their representation in Congress, and what we can do about it.

By Julia Marin Hellwege

In August this year, the Cherokee Nation announced its plans to send its first delegate Kimberly Teehee to Congress. This unexpected announcement caught most people by surprise; few knew that such a thing was even possible. But in fact, the decision to send a delegate from the Cherokee Nation not only revealed a little-known provision from a nineteenth-century treaty, but underscored the unusual citizenship status of Native Americans and how it is--and should be--reflected in the U.S. Congress. In this two-part series on Native American and territorial representation, I discuss Native American voting rights and representation and then link territorial voting rights and representation by examining how both groups have been marginalized through racialized electoral institutions.

The Cherokee Nation, the largest tribe in the United States (of 562 federally recognized tribes) with a population around 500,000, is asking Congress to make good on its 1835 Treaty promise (the same one that that served as the legal basis for the death march to relocate about 100,000 Native people from their homelands in what is known as the Trail of Tears). The treaty “stipulat[ed] that they shall be entitled to a delegate in the House of Representatives of the United States whenever Congress shall make provision for the same."

This is important, in part because Native Americans continue to face social and politicial discrimination as indidviduals, but also because these semi-sovereign and dependent nations that rely on the U.S. federal government by design do not have an opportunity to voice those concern in Congress. This announcement also brings territorial representation and the role of congressional delegates to the fore. While sending a delegate to Congress is an important step and establishes some opportunities for representation, a congressional delegate is not the same as a representative; something that is all too clear to the millions of territorial citizens and nationals in Puerto Rico, Guam, Northern Marianas, U.S. Virgin Islands, and American Samoa. This lack of proper congressional representation for Native American nations and the U.S. territories stem largely from institutional racism and a manipulation of partisan balance, has both public policy and voting rights implications, but also begs the question of the legitimacy of our representative institutions.

Why aren’t Natives represented?

Native Americans, both as tribes and as individuals, hold complex status in the American system. Native American tribes are sovereign nations, theoretically, this means that they have decision-making authority over their own affairs and can make autonomous decisions. Practically, however, they do not exist as truly independent nations, can only manage limited internal tribal affairs, and are considered “domestic dependent nations.” This dependent status without congressional representation is at least in part to blame for poor conditions on native reservations. Although their status allows for more autonomy than several of the U.S. territories, their reliance on the U.S. federal government warrants, at the least, the same basic delegate representation as the territories currently enjoy.

As individuals, Native Americans are dual citizens of their tribe and of the United States, giving them an opportunity to participate in both their internal tribal affairs and as full citizens with voting rights in U.S. elections. That said, Native Americans, as with many other marginalized groups, have a long history of being on the receiving end of voting suppression. In addition, their small numbers make it difficult to elect representatives who prioritize native issues. Native Americans did not fully receive American citizenship until the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. Before this time, Natives were expected to (and often manipulated into) leave their tribal membership, give up property rights, and assimilate in American society to earn citizenship through provisions of the 1887 Dawes Act, clearly written to undermine native communities and identity. Even today, voter ID laws and polling location access are among the barriers to voting for Native Americans, similar to barriers for African Americans and Latinos.

Dual citizenship means that Native Americans are also citizens of the state they reside in, and have voting rights in those states. However, with approximately 22% (or 1.4 million) of Natives living in reservations, where voting is difficult for a variety of reasons, a large portion of this population is not voting. As nominee Kimberly Teehee explains, some argue that it is because many Natives don’t feel that those congressional representatives are prioritizing Native issues. This can be ameliorated by electing Native congressional representatives, such as Deb Haaland (D-NM) and Sharice Davids (D-Kansas), who were the first Native women elected to the U.S. Congress just last year. Their identity and experiences as Native women likely leads them to seek to represent native issues, based on a tremendous amount of research that shows how one’s descriptive identity characteristics tend to lead to substantive policy outcomes. That said, they are still elected to represent the interests of their congressional district at large. Teehee, who was formerly Obama’s senior policy adviser for Native American affairs, notes that there are many issues particular to Native Americans that warrant specific attention of a congressional delegate.

Clearly, Native Americans as a community and as semi-sovereign nations lack representation. This is important as David Wilkins, Chair of American Indian Studies at University of Minnesota reminds us that “Indians are Nations not Minorities.” The sovereign, but dependent status of Native American nations warrant representation in the U.S. Congress. Congressional representation would allow for the inclusion of important missing voices through the American law-making process. The Cherokee request for a congressional delegate; however, would not necessarily provide much in terms of substantive representation, that is actual policy benefits, given that congressional delegates do not have voting power in Congress. In the next part of this two-part series, I discuss what delegational representation, which U.S. territories are currently awarded, actually means and what the limitations are on such representation. I also delve into how limitations on representation for both Native Americans and the U.S. territories have relied on racialized and racist justifications.

Julia Marin Hellwege is an Assistant Professor at the University of South Dakota in the Department of Political Science. She is also affiliated faculty with the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program. She earned her Ph.D. from the University of New Mexico in 2016. Her MA (2011) and BA (2009) are also in Political Science from UNM and Colorado Mesa University.

Marin Hellwege specializes in the interaction between political institutions and identity, particularly as related to the political representation of women and other marginalized identities, including race and ethnicity. Her current book project examines the role of parenthood as salient identity for members, and particularly women, of Congress and how this shapes their legislative agenda. Her work has been published in American Politics Research, Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Social Science Quarterly, and Politics, Groups, and Identities, and has also been featured in the Monkey Cage, the LegBranch blog, and the LSE USCentre blog ​She proudly serves on the Vermillion, SD City Council.

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