Someday You Could Be… a congressional delegate, activist and educator like Kim Teehee.

Kim Teehee

Kim Teehee is the Cherokee Nation’s first-ever delegate to Congress, a position which was promised in a treaty signed over 200 years ago to grant Native Americans representation in Congress. However, she is still fighting to be seated as a congressional member to fully fulfill the treaty, and allow Indigenous peoples to have their say in how the country is run. Teehee also served on the White House Domestic Policy Council under President Obama as the first-ever senior policy adviser for Native American Affairs. 

Gibran: Do you think your work is important?

I absolutely think my work is important. I’ve had the privilege of working for the United States Congress in the United States House of Representatives, and I’ve had the privilege of working in the White House. And both of those jobs allowed me to look after the interests of Native Americans throughout the country. When you do that for a living, looking out for the interests of [a whole] segment of society on behalf of the federal government, it’s called policymaking, and you have to make sure that you’re trying to steer the federal government into a place where the community benefits from that decision-making. That also means making sure that we have the resources and the programming that looks after our community. … It means protecting our community and then trying to advance laws that will benefit us, as well. So I think my role is very important, because it looks after Cherokee people, and that’s what I’m charged to do, as well as looking after the interest of the government itself.

Luca: What kind of resources do you fight for?

Cherokee Nation as a tribal government, our issues crosscut so many areas: healthcare, roads, bridges, schools, education, housing, infrastructure—all of those areas. So, [for] example, healthcare. Cherokee Nation is the largest tribe in the country. We have a citizenship of over 450,000, Cherokee tribal citizens, and we have a footprint in every state in this country. Because we are so big, we operate the largest tribal healthcare delivery system in the country. Our facilities are no longer the size that is needed in order to accommodate all the healthcare needs of the nation. So in order to expand our facility, we were able to work with Congress to open up a program that allowed us to partner with the federal government so that we could construct the facility, while the federal government provided resources to pay for staffing and operations of that facility. 

That joint effort was literally considered a joint venture program with the United States to allow that to happen. I was able to secure not only our status as a joint partner, but also working with Congress, we needed the funding in order to run the facility and to staff it. That facility [in Tahlequah, Okla.] is the size of three football stadiums. In addition to that, we partnered with Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine to [open] the very first medical school where doctors get trained on our reservation. 

The reason we did that is because we are located in a very rural, isolated area in Oklahoma, and we don’t have enough doctors and nurses that want to come live here. So we had to create an environment where we grow our own doctors, by them coming to our medical school to not only get educated at our medical school, but do their residency right here in Tahlequah, Okla. The goal is that they will want to live here, and we will have addressed the healthcare needs by providing more physicians. 

Ayla: What is your favorite thing that you do for your job?

My favorite thing is this: engaging with the public, educating [them]. I’ve had a wonderful career, where part of my job has been to educate people about Native Americans generally, Native American policy, history, legal history. I’m a lawyer also. So I like to educate. And so much of my job is educating, because most people don’t learn about [Native American] tribes while they’re in school. I’m so elated and proud of your school and your education[al facility] for allowing us to have a space today. 

So much of my policy work and advocacy work hinges on the understanding of why we need the resources we need, and the history that led us to the point where we do have those needs, and the legal relationship that the federal government has to the tribe, because it’s actually a legal relationship. It’s called the federal trust relationship, and the United States actually gets sued from time to time for breaching that federal trust relationship. So much of what I do is education. And I love educating youth groups.

Anna: What do you like about your job?

I also like the advocacy. I like being able to appreciate all of our needs, because my family benefits from all of those needs. I get a firsthand experience living in the Cherokee Nation reservation of what our needs are: healthcare, housing, education, infrastructure, the fact that we need cleaner water, updated systems, better roads to drive on, [addressing] food security. Not every family and every child has certainty from day to day that they’re going to get a breakfast or lunch or dinner. So we work hard to address those needs. I love seeing how the work that I do has impacted communities, so that they have better roads and bridges, greater access to their doctor’s appointments, seeing how the work plays out in real life, seeing the results in the communities themselves.

Esteban: Did anyone ever tell you that you couldn’t achieve all that you have accomplished?

When I was in high school, I heard rumblings about the [ACT test for college admissions]. So I went to my high school guidance counselor, and she said Indians, meaning Native Americans, drop out of college, [so] I might as well get a trade. And she directed me to a trade school that was down the road, and said mechanics make good money, so that’s where I probably should put my energy. My parents were Cherokee first-language speakers. They didn’t have college degrees. My dad has a trade certificate. There’s nothing wrong with having a trade and going to school to be a mechanic, but that’s not what my parents had in mind for me. They knew the value of education. They knew that they wanted me to go to college. They also taught me how to fight for what I want. 

We all will have challenges in our lifetime. From your age on, you’re going to find somebody that’s going to be a naysayer in your life, that’s going to tell you you’re not good enough, you’re not smart enough, or are somehow [going to] eliminate you from something that you had a right and were qualified to participate in. 

And what I say to you is, when those moments happen, those moments are not about you and any deficiencies you have. It’s about the person who’s trying to kill a dream. Don’t ever let somebody kill your dream. I’m fortunate that I had parents who strongly believed in education, who fought for me to go to school to get a college degree, and who trusted me whenever I made decisions, like to go to Washington, D.C., and to do the work that I loved. And along the way, there were people who tried to discourage [me] and say no. But I fought anyway. 

Connor: If you could have any other job, what would you do?

I would want to be a doctor. I always say that [if I could have any] superpower, it would be to heal. I have an enormous desire and passion to help people. And if I wasn’t doing what I’m doing now, I probably would be in the medical field helping in another way.

Sol: Who helps support the work that you do?

I’ve had tremendous support personally, as well as professionally, and on our journey to get seated in Congress, when the chief of my tribe appointed me to be the Cherokee Nation’s delegate to Congress, we knew that we needed to have support nationally. We’ve got a lot of tribes throughout the country supporting Cherokee Nation’s effort to get Congress to see our delegate as a member [of Congress]. We also have members of Congress who are both Republican and Democrat, so our work is what’s called bipartisan work. So we have allies on both sides of the political aisle to support me, too. I also had a mentor, who was the first female chief of my tribe, Wilma Mankiller, who urged me to go to law school and to work in Washington, D.C. I’ve been supported by my parents, who influenced me because of their amazing work ethic. All I needed was somebody to show me the way, and I had parents who did not mind asking questions [or] for help to teach us along the way. So, today, I do feel an amazing responsibility to young people, to help make their path and their journey to success easier. 

Ashley: Did anyone at your job ever feel uncomfortable or feel like you didn’t belong there?

I was the first-ever person to oversee the Native American Caucus, and it’s not that I felt unsupported, but I was working in an environment where very few people knew about what I was trying to do, which is help Native Americans. And so I flipped that on its head. Rather than work in an environment where people were unfamiliar with why we were working on Native American issues, I instead turned it into an education: Here’s how you get to know Native Americans and our history and how Congress has a role to play. So now that I’ve put a foundation there, hopefully, we can in turn work together to better the lives of Native Americans nationally. So I always look for an opportunity [to educate], because oftentimes what I run into is people who just don’t know better. They weren’t trying to create an obstacle or to tell me no, [but] they didn’t quite know about me, about what I was trying to do and what I was trying to work on. Where I found resistance in those environments, it was not intentional resistance. It was because people simply needed to be educated about why we needed to do the things that we were doing, and why, if we didn’t act, the community would suffer as a result of that.

But in terms of moving me forward, I have been a product of excellent mentoring. And the people that I have worked for directly, from Wilma Mankiller to members of Congress to President Obama, have only praised me and given me the support that was necessary. 

Ayaan: What was it like to work with President Obama?

Oh, gosh, I love President Obama. I was the very first policy adviser for a sitting United States president whose policy portfolio consisted only of Native Americans. My colleagues didn’t always understand everything about Native Americans, so I had to educate them, too. I had regular meetings with the president himself. The meetings consisted of a briefing every week, [where] we had to summarize what our work was for the president, so he could be informed about our portfolio. What I loved about talking to the president was that he read everything. He was like a sponge, and he retained it. So when you talked to him, even if you didn’t see him from day to day, he [would be] up to date on everything. I love that he was genuinely curious about our issues. He was so good about engaging staff one on one, and about calling you to his office if he had questions, [and] he loved to give credit where credit is due. And it was so fun to have him randomly stop me in a hallway just to tell me what good work I’m doing. He was such a cheerleader for us. 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *