TAHLEQUAH – Claims made about Native American culture by a political commentator and former Pennsylvania senator sparked widespread ire, and according to Cherokee Nation leaders, highlight the need to “pick up the burden ourselves to educate on who we are.”
“There’s no need to have a talking head on a major network trying to pick on Native Americans as though we don’t matter,” said Kimberly Teehee, CN Government Relations director and the tribe’s congressional delegate nominee. “We know we matter, and we know we have real, legal relationships with the United States and that we have real, tangible things that flow from who we are as tribes and as governments, and we have contributed greatly to the fabric of this country.”
CNN contributor and former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum on April 23 made what many have decried as racist and disparaging remarks about Native Americans and their cultures.
“We birthed a nation from nothing,” Santorum said during a speech to the Young America’s Foundation. “I mean there was nothing here. I mean yes, we have Native Americans, but candidly, there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.”
In response, Native American organizations and advocates called on CNN to fire Santorum. National Congress of American Indians President Fawn Sharp described Santorum as “an unhinged and embarrassing racist.”
“Any mainstream media organization should fire him or face a boycott from more than 500 Tribal Nations and our allies from across the country and worldwide,” Sharp said.
The Native American Journalists Association also urged CNN to dismiss Santorum while cautioning journalists “from working with, or applying to jobs, at CNN in the wake of continued racist comments and insensitive reporting directed at Indigenous people.”
According to the Associated Press, CNN has not commented on Santorum’s remarks, but in a later interview on the network, Santorum claimed he “misspoke,” and “was not trying to dismiss Native Americans.”
“In fact, I mentioned them because yes, they were here, and they did have an impact, in fact, in this country,” he said. “I misspoke in this respect. I was talking about the founding and the principles embodied in the founding.”
Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said Santorum’s initial “sad commentary” on not only American history, but contemporary America is troubling.
“At the same time, we can also be proud that we’ve made some strides,” he said. “We have a secretary of the Interior that’s a Native American woman. We’ve got people on both sides of the aisle in the state Legislature and in the Congress that have a deeper understanding of Native issues today than they did a generation ago. So there are definitely signs of progress. I don’t know that we’ll dignify Sen. Santorum’s ignorance with much more than this, but I do think we need to use it as a teaching moment for other people in the country and remind ourselves that we have a lot of work to do.”
Teehee, a former policy advisor for Native American affairs in the Barack Obama administration, called Santorum’s comments “shortsighted.”
“I think that his remarks are dismissive and belittles a whole culture and takes us right back to an era we thought was bygone,” she said. “He’s going to see the impact of the statement that he made and perhaps he will think the next time. But at the same time, we also know that it’s our responsibility as tribal nations to educate to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past.”
She added that education on Native history and culture is key to understanding.
“Our hope is that the misguided policies of the 19th century that still plague our communities and have left them with high rates of poverty, unemployment, crime and disproportionate chronic illnesses, those policies never happen again,” she said. “The only way we’re going to do that is we pick up the burden ourselves to educate on who we are, educate on our contributions to this country, educate on who we are as governments and people. I can’t think of any better way of doing that than for the United States to seat a treaty-authorized delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives.”
The CN in 2019 named Teehee its delegate for the U.S. House of Representatives, enacting a 184-year-old treaty provision that the tribe had yet to enforce. Movement toward that goal was hampered by COVID-19, she said.
“We are working with House leadership and staff on figuring out the appropriate mechanism to seat the delegate in the House,” Teehee said. “Our goal is this session, but we’re not going to stop until we’re seated. I definitely think that having a delegate seated would be the biggest symbol of this United States that it honors Native Americans, it honors treaties, however old they are, and that these are real, legal documents that have real, legal obligations and responsibilities.”
The congressional delegate provision is outlined in two treaties with the U.S. government – Article XII of the 1785 Treaty of Hopewell and in Article VII of the 1835 Treaty of New Echota. It is also outlined in the tribe’s 1999 Constitution.
“I think our delegate to Congress, once she’s seated, she’ll be in a position to call some of these people colleagues and develop relationships,” Hoskin said. “When you’re working together in a position of power that can really influence public policy … I think that’s good for a Native American to be in that position. That’s where we want Kim Teehee to be.”
Teehee said that as a delegate, she could “help educate members of Congress, former members of Congress and the media, whomever, on Indian Country.”
“We have diverse, vibrant cultures and governments that have real, legal relationships with the United States, and that relationship is based in part on the treaties that live today,” she said. “So the delegate whose seat is authorized for a treaty that put so much hardship on our ancestors, I think is one, symbolic, and two, historic.”