Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr. stood at the podium with the National Congress of American Indians emblem to present an update and resolution for the Cherokee Nation congressional delegate in Albuquerque, New Mexico, last month.
In the middle of his update, he said: “When we need to bring wisdom and hard work to the task at hand, we ask a Cherokee woman for help.”
The audience let out some “woos” and applauded.
He finished his sentence, “And then we get out of her way.” The room laughed.
“And so with the unanimous support of the council of the Cherokee Nation, I have named Kim Teehee as the first Cherokee Nation delegate to the House of Representatives,” he said and the room exploded in applause. “My fellow delegates, seating Kim Teehee will not only give the Cherokee Nation a strong voice in Washington, D.C. It will give all of Indian Country a strong voices in Washington, D.C.”
Teehee appreciated Hoskin’s nod to her and said “ … but I also recognize too I think having strong women in Cherokee Nation is something that’s part of our history and culture. We are a matrilineal society after all.”
And she ultimately learned from one of the Cherokee (and Native) women legends: Wilma Mankiller. Mankiller was the first woman to be the Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation.
Teehee was on the pre-medicine route at a university with a fellowship. Native issues and Cherokee issues were becoming more complex so Mankiller encouraged Teehee to go to law school and to work in Washington, D.C. (Eventually, she did and made it to the highest level in the White House.)
The appointed congressional delegate stayed in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, for college and worked part-time for Mankiller.
“It was the best decision I’ve ever made,” Teehee said. With the then principal chief, Teehee learned how to nurture relationships. She remembers Mankiller treating everyone “from the janitor to the Queen of England” with dignity and respect, and gained allies.
All skills that earned her the respect and praise from colleagues. They made it clear that the newly appointed delegate is a force to be reckoned with.
She is the right person for the job. When you hear this sentiment over and over again from her colleagues and in the whispers of the crowd, you start to believe it.
Who else needs to convince you other than former President of the United States himself Barack Obama?
I just finished interviewing Teehee on camera about her new role in an illuminated corner in the dark room of the Albuquerque Convention Center. The same room for debate between candidates running for president of the National Congress of American Indians.
We stepped away from under the lights and camera when she put on her glasses and humbly pulled out her phone.
Obama’s handwritten note was on the screen. She received the handwritten note the week before the annual convention in New Mexico.
“I could not be prouder of your new job representing the Cherokee Nation in Congress! I can’t think of a better choice for such a historic position, and I’m confident that you will do an extraordinary job,” Obama wrote. “Good luck, and let me know how I can help.”
It’s not everyday you receive a handwritten note from a former president with his personalized postage stamp.
Teehee worked in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2012 as the Senior Policy Advisor for Native American Affairs on the Domestic Policy Council.
The former senior policy advisor recalls running into then president in a stairwell in the White House shortly after the Tribal Nations Conference.
He told her that she was doing a good job and knew her work wasn’t always in The Washington Post or New York Times. Despite that, the work they were doing was important to Indian Country and said to keep it up.
“Was a meaningful exchange with him,” Teehee said.
Heather Higginbottom, the former deputy secretary of state, worked with Teehee in the White House on the Domestic Policy Council.
They met during Teehee’s interview for the senior policy advisor position created. Higginbottom and those hiring her were “just blown away by her.”
“You can tell she was ready to go from day one,” she said over the phone.
From there, Higginbottom saw that nothing could stop Teehee who was “kind of a one woman show within the White House, within the policy council.”
“Kim was an absolute work horse,” Higginbottom said. She knew how to prioritize the work, and ensured they had consultation from all the correct federal agencies.
She remembers they were reviving an executive order from the Clinton administration that had just expired or was appealed. Teehee stressed the importance of tribal consultation on it to the former deputy secretary of state.
Teehee doesn’t take “no” for an answer, Higginbottom said. While they were fighting for an executive order, the White House Counsel’s Office told them a process would take 90 days. It was a normal wait time. (In Indian Country, the bureaucracy takes longer.)
“She just said, ‘Well, we have to figure out how to shorten that time and I want to work with you and figure out how to do that,’” Higginbottom said. Most people would say, “Okay.” Teehee didn’t.
“She just said, ‘You can’t wait that long. We’ve got to get this going. So what can we do?’ And you wanted to help her with that when she explained why it was so important.”
One of the attorneys in the White House Counsel was Jason Green, who was a special assistant to the president and associate counsel to the president. Part of his job was to provide legal advice and essentially served as Teehee’s lawyer during the Obama administration.
From his very first impression of her, Green could see how dedicated she was to Indian Country.
“The issues we worked on got done, in many respects, don’t get done without Kim helping us become aware,” he said over the phone from Baltimore. “So she was a force within the White House advocating for these critical issues.”
And when you’re in the White House, every issue is a critical issue, Green said. Teehee did a “incredible job” on putting each issue on the president’s agenda.
Higginbottom thinks she thrives in those high pressure environments.
Teehee wouldn’t wait for people in the White House to tell her what to do. She knew the agenda and worked hard to bring in the right people to move it forward, Higginbottom recalled.
Of course, Teehee worked long hours but Higginbottom said “that’s not what distinguishes you.” Teehee figured out how to take an issue, such as the Violence Against Women Act, and navigated it throughout the Department of Justice and the Department of Interior.
“She wasn’t going to get bogged down by the bureaucracy,” Higginbottom said.
While in the White House, Green said Teehee was able to convey the significance of issues to her colleagues who didn’t have any connection to Native American issues.
“We all felt like these were our issues,” he said. “It’s always an interesting position when you’re the lawyer and you’re learning from your clients.”
Another colleague who witnessed Teehee in work mode was retired U.S Ambassador Keith Harper, Cherokee. Harper was an ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva under the Obama administration.
He and Teehee were on a committee for the Obama campaign. Together, they and the committee created policy that the campaign adopted.
Harper and Teehee have been friends for approximately 20 years. They were part of this “cadre of young Indians” in the nation’s capital (as there always is, according to Harper). When there is a small circle of Native people working in Washington, D.C., it’s impossible to not run into each other.
Harper was working for the Native American Rights Fund at the time, which was from 1995 to 2006. He met Teehee, who at the time worked on the Hill, on a professional basis. Teehee advocated for the Cobell case that started in 1996.
In the “relatively small world” they got to know each other’s work, especially under the White House. So much that Harper said you definitely want to be on Teehee’s team.
“If you're on one side or the other side of an issue, you want Kim Teehee to be on your side of the issue, not the other side because she will outwork you,” he said. “She's strategic.”
When she was on the Hill, she didn’t mind going to Kinko’s at 3 a.m. to print out policy statements to put in the mailboxes of congressional members, he said.
She also “learned early on that if you have a color that is bright, like yellow or orange, it gets noticed in all the stacks of white paper” that lawmakers receive, Harper said. “So all Kim's stuff would be in colorful paper and all the other papers that the Congressmen and women are seeing were white.”
“So she’s gonna outwork you in all likelihood,” he said.
Harper believes her strategic thinking with her “policy chops” in this new role will help Indian Country's policies.
“I think those of us who have worked in government understand the importance of having individuals from Indian Country involved in policymaking. That it makes all the difference in the world, quite frankly,” he said at the convention in Albuquerque. “So having her, with her policy background, with her understanding of Congress, having worked in a bipartisan fashion, I just think, you know, there's a combination of skills, talents and knowledge that will be a game changer for Indian policy.”
Of course, the policy background and knowledge of the system is important.
Higginbottom found that Teehee’s obligations to her family is “really noteworthy.”
Washington is full of professionals who are workaholics: working late and getting up early. In Higginbottom’s experience in the White House, state department, or other government entities, family is “not necessarily something that is a high priority for people.” They find that doing their job is important.
It was different for Teehee when she interviewed for the senior policy advisor job.
“She was explicit with us when we were hiring her that was, you know, an important responsibility for her,” Higginbottom said. Teehee helped support her parents while she was in the position of a “very demanding job.”
“For me, it was an indication of how deeply she felt about her obligations and commitments to other people and I think that's what she felt about the issues that she was on as well,” Higginbottom said. “She was not trying to build her resume. She wasn't looking for the great credentials.”
"She was looking to really take care of people and address what she thought as problems that needed to be rectified,” she said. ““It was really about other people and her commitments to her family, I think, is an extension of that.”
The Cherokee Nation is still figuring out the details of this new role. It’s received “positive feedback” and a general response that the United States should honor their treaties, said Teehee.
But with anything new, there is fear.
“I don’t want anyone to walk away from this issue on what we’re trying to accomplish as though it’s something scary because it’s unprecedented. I think we can look on the news and see Congress doing a lot more complicated things every day,” she said. “So I think we can figure this out but I also think it’s a position that allows Indian Country to have yet another role model, to have a strong woman, to have somebody that has an extra seat at the table where our issues are being addressed.”
Videos produced and edited by Tomás Karmelo Amaya, Creative Director of Indian Country Today. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Indian Country Today, LLC., is a non-profit news organization owned by the non-profit arm of the The National Congress of American Indians. The Indian Country Today editorial team operates independently.)