Cherokee Nation's nominee to represent the tribe as a delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives says President Joe Biden's early actions since taking office in January are encouraging signs for how Indian Country will fare under his administration.
Kimberly Teehee, who served in the Obama administration as senior policy adviser for Native American affairs, said on a Friday virtual panel discussion hosted by the University of Oklahoma College of Law's American Indian Law Review that she didn't start in that role until July 2009, whereas Biden has already placed several Native individuals in top roles.
"This is from the get-go, so I suspect we're going to see a lot of Native Americans who are going to be hired, and not just the Native American positions that we typically get -- other positions too," Teehee said. "I think we've seen, early on in this administration, this president make sure that this administration reflects the diversity of the United States, and that Native Americans are included in that at the highest level."
Teehee said the "historic" nomination of New Mexico Democratic Rep. Deb Haaland to lead the Department of the Interior also reflects that priority, noting Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo, would be the nation's first Native Cabinet secretary.
Teehee said the Biden White House has also put out an encouraging "roadmap" for tribal matters.
"One of the very first actions that he took was announcing a presidential memorandum that was signed on tribal consultation. It was a nod to the importance of deliberating and coordinating and communicating with Indian Country and making sure that tribes are at the table in a very meaningful and robust way," Teehee said.
Teehee said Biden had already prioritized tribes for greater amounts of funding in his American Rescue Plan COVID-19 relief bill than President Donald Trump's CARES Act had.
"It includes significant funds for Indian tribes. The president's proposal that he sent to Congress included $20 billion for tribes. That's amazing. The CARES Act included $8 billion," Teehee said.
Overall, Teehee said Biden's overarching national policy priorities of addressing the pandemic, improving the economy, working toward greater racial equity and mitigating climate change can be leveraged to benefit Indian Country.
"There may be opportunities to include tribes expressly in policy and legislation. I call this riding the coattails of national efforts," Teehee said, noting First Lady Michelle Obama's "Let's Move" childhood obesity initiative initially did not include dedicated funding for tribes until she proposed it.
"That was not intentional at all ... the first lady was wonderful to work with, and guess what we created? 'Let's Move in Indian Country,'" Teehee said. "That's what I mean about riding the coattails."
"People who typically are creating these national policies do not always have the expertise in our issues to know to include us expressly, so it's always important to ride the coattails on national efforts," Teehee said. "And we know Indian Country has been hit disproportionately harder than most communities because of COVID. We also know there are challenges to our economy, climate, racial equity -- we fit all of those boxes."
Teehee said being seated as a non-voting member of the U.S. House of Representatives under a 19th century treaty between the Cherokee Nation and the federal government, which she expects will happen this year, will also serve to keep Indian affairs a high priority in a Congress where Democrats control the House outright and where Vice President Kamala Harris holds the tie-breaking vote in the Senate.
"That means that President Biden will get a lot of his policy priorities considered in Congress, frankly. And there will be a lot of coordination, also, on legislation," Teehee said.
Teehee believes House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will wait to seat her as Cherokee Nation's delegate until Haaland is confirmed and seated, for the symbolism of having the first tribal delegate sworn in by an administration whose Cabinet contains the first Native secretary.