Kimberly Teehee is ready to be a role model. This August, she made history when Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. appointed her as the first-ever delegate designated to represent the Cherokee Nation in the U.S. House of Representatives, a right given to the Nation in two treaties from the 18th and 19th century.
Though the position is new, Teehee’s public service is not. She is the tribe’s vice president of government relations and worked as a senior policy advisor for Native American affairs in the Obama administration. She’s educated members and influenced policy, including playing a role in the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act.
While Congress still needs to officially seat Teehee as a delegate, her appointment is a monumental step toward Native American representation in American government. Below, Teehee shares exactly how she got here:
In the small town where we grew up, I rode on my brother’s coattails. He was a very popular athlete, and I was just the little sister. I was kind of reserved, and I had a guidance counselor who tried to direct me toward a vocational school instead of college. She said, “Indians drop out, and if you’re going to drop out of college, you might as well have a trade.” There’s nothing wrong with vocational school, if that’s what you want, but my parents had something larger in mind for me.
I graduated from Northeastern State University, which is the small university here in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and then I went to the University of Iowa Law School. Originally, I thought I was going to be a doctor. But working for Cherokee Nation as a summer youth intern in the early ’90s changed the course of my career. Principal Chief Wilma Mankiller was leading the tribe, and I got to see her engage with tribal elected leaders, tribal councilors, with state leaders, with our Congress people, with dignitaries in the community who are nationally known, like Gloria Steinem, who was one of her very best friends. She would treat everybody equally, with dignity and respect. I was in awe of her and her grasp of the issues, how she treated people, and how she was treated in return.
In the course of that summer, I changed my career path and enrolled in the local university and continued to work for Wilma on a part-time basis. She always emphasized that school came first. She encouraged me to go to law school because she said being a leader for the Cherokee Nation is becoming more complicated because there’s a lot of litigation going on that will ultimately control a tribe’s abilities. She said, if you have the legal skills, then it’ll be a lot easier to analyze those things and own your decisions.
In Indian country, we don’t have the kinds of role models that other ethnic minority groups have. We don’t have the J.Los, the LeBron James, at least not at that level. So our role models tend to be our elected leaders, our community leaders, our parents. Sometimes I can become an inpatient person, and I remember the patience that Wilma showed me. She took time to review my work, took time to talk to me, took time to engage with me.
She also encouraged me to go to Washington D.C. That parlayed me into working for Congress for nearly 12 years to run the Congressional Native American Caucus. During that time, in the mid ‘90s, there were a lot of anti-tribal sovereignty bills that were passing through the House and getting stopped in the Senate. A lot of Indian country looked to the Senate to be their champions. There was a member of Congress, Dale Kildee from Michigan, who founded the bipartisan Congressional Native American Caucus. He knew that there needed to be a watchdog in Congress to educate fellow House members about Native American issues and that the effort had to be bipartisan.
I was the first person who ran the Congressional Native American Caucus on a full-time basis. I held a lot of Indian 101 briefing sessions for members of Congress, for their staff. We would hold briefings on health care, on environmental issues, on justice issues, on health issues.
By the time I left, nearly 12 years later, there were no more anti-Indian bills going through the House. We would stop them from moving at all, and we were quite successful at getting increased appropriations on a number of items, as well as getting legislation through.
I took all of my skills from legislative drafting, from negotiations, from identifying stake holders, and collaboration, and took all that to the Obama Administration. I had to educate my colleagues and say, “I’m all Indian issues. You know that means my stuff touches on your stuff. So when we’re talking about the Elementary and Secondary Education Assistance Act, we need to work together because if we don’t include tribes expressly, then we have to presume tribes will be omitted from direct participation in any of these programs.” Working together, we were able to do some really good things.
When Chuck Hoskin appointed me as the Cherokee Nation delegate, I was excited. But I wasn’t sure what the reception would be broadly. We’ve had a lot of positive press and a lot of bipartisan statements about the need to honor treaty rights, but I couldn’t have predicted that part—and that was the scary part for me, the unknown piece. I know how to get it done, but I can’t control public sentiment.
I was emotional too because years ago, when I was being mentored as an intern at Cherokee Nation, Chief Mankiller told me to get a law degree, to go to Washington D.C., to get experiences outside of Cherokee Nation so that I can bring those skills back. It just felt like a full-circle moment to me. This is something that I’ve trained for, something I’ve got the skill set for, something that I understand. It’s something that I feel confident in. I’m honored by it. But ultimately at the end of the day, I just feel prepared to take this on. And to have had the seed planted early in me by a strong woman, it just makes me proud.
I feel like it’s great timing. We have a record number of women of color who are serving in Congress today. I remember when I was a Hill staffer and being the only Native American Hill staffer who didn’t work for a committee. There were sometimes no members of Congress who were Indian at all. Then fast forward to today, to see the women of color and to see Congress be more representative of the people it serves than ever before speaks volumes. There are four members of Congress who are citizens of fairly recognized tribes. Those representatives are often working beyond the needs of their congressional districts because Indian country often looks to their champions, whom we have few of in Congress. So we do rely heavily on Deb Haaland, on Sharice Davids, on Tom Cole, on Markwayne Mullin, on other members who make up Congress. It makes me reflective of all the work that I’ve done in my career to see where we are today and to see so many people of color serving.
The timing is wonderful, but it was not planned. It was not one of those things where we thought, “Let’s do it now, now that there’s so many other people of color.” Our timing didn’t work that way. Our timing coincided with a new chief that has his own path he wants to create, a new chief that is bold and willing to tackle this kind of issue, a new chief who recognizes that prior administrations worked to set a foundation for Cherokee Nation to thrive.
In politics, the biggest barrier I’ve seen young women face is they don’t know what the next steps are. This career path doesn’t come with a road map. In a lot of ways, I’m also a product of good timing and execution, taking advantage of opportunities that were presented to me. As they became available, I asked the question, “Why not me?”
When I talk to young women about this, I don’t want them to be discouraged because it’s hard in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, to live the life that I’ve lived unless you have somebody helping to guide you along the way. One of the things I look for in young people is motivation. Don’t just tell me you want to go to law school. Don’t just tell me you want to do great things, unless you know how to execute those plans. And I can help you figure out how to execute them. People have dreams all the time, but unless you know how to execute them, how do you know how to move forward? That’s the key. But I love having those conversations. I want to see that eagerness, that fire in their belly. I want to know that with a little bit of guidance, they won’t give up.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.