Principal Chief Bill John Baker
Inter-Tribal Council shows unified front
BY Bill john baker
Last month, Deputy Chief Joe Crittenden and I, along with a few members of the administration and Tribal Council, visited our nation’s Capital for the National Congress of American Indians’ winter session.
As you all may have heard, while in Washington, I met with my counterparts from the Muscogee (Creek), Chickasaw, Choctaw and Seminole nations to discuss resuming the Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes. Muscogee (Creek) Chief George Tiger and I – the two newest heads of the bunch – were elected president and vice-president respectively.
As sometimes happens, the organization fell by the wayside several years ago as each tribe went its own way. However, as our predecessors acknowledged more than 60 years ago when forming the council, there are many issues facing Indian Country today that are bigger than any single tribe. Health care access, language preservation, education, water rights and preservation of our natural resources are just a handful of the concerns facing all Indian nations. With that in mind, we are making another attempt to resume the council in an effort to support each other and present a unified front on key issues when needed.
In keeping with that goal, one of the first moves by the newly re-established council was to bring together the nearly two dozen tribes based in eastern Oklahoma for a meeting with Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk. The NCAI is a wonderful opportunity to network and share concerns, but it does not lend itself well to extended conversations about mutual issues facing multiple tribes from a single region.
Although bringing together that many heads of state is not an easy task, it is a lot easier and more financially responsible to ask a handful of people from the federal government to come to Oklahoma versus have the leadership from all of eastern Oklahoma’s corner of Indian Country travel to Washington.
Along with my fellow chiefs from the Inter-Tribal Council, I was pleased to see representatives from more than 15 tribes at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino last month for a successful meeting with Secretary Echo Hawk. As wonderful as it was to meet with leaders from across the United States the previous week at NCAI, there is something special to be said about getting together with our neighbors.
I sincerely hope that this is only the beginning of a new era of cooperation to better advance the interests of Natives across not only Oklahoma but also Indian Country as a whole. Although we may have our differences, they are far outweighed by our shared similarities.
Historically, the Cherokee Nation has been a matriarchal society and has always looked to strong women for guidance and leadership. Cherokee women are proud and powerful and fuel our success as a tribe. This fact is as true today as ever. We are honor and celebrate the enormous contributions Cherokee women have made throughout our history and in our modern government and business endeavors.
As Principal Chief, I strive to place talented women in leadership roles within this administration and at Cherokee Nation Businesses. In fact, there are more women in management at CNB and Cherokee Nation than ever before. Many of our tribal programs and departments are led by women and our tribal government’s workforce is dominated by women. Of the 3,665 employees we have at Cherokee Nation, 2,597 are female. That represents more than 71 percent of our staff.
We have created a more female-friendly work environment at Cherokee Nation by establishing a fully paid, eight-week maternity leave policy for expectant mothers who work for the Cherokee Nation and by raising the minimum wage for all employees, allowing our employees to continue working for the Cherokee people while meeting their family obligations.
The tribe’s legislative body, the Cherokee Nation Tribal Council, is shaped, in part, by Deputy Speaker Victoria Vazquez and Councilors Frankie Hargis, Janees Taylor and Wanda Hatfield. Their leadership and vision are helping drive the Cherokee Nation into a brighter future.
Recently, we also recognized the fourth anniversary of the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act. At Cherokee Nation, we remain committed to protecting women and children from the epidemic of domestic violence. We created the ONE FIRE Victim Services office to be a beacon of hope and safety for women and families within our tribal jurisdiction.
I'm going to share some “feels” with you. I'm not going to weep all over the page, but I will share with you what this job has meant to me, what it’s done for me and how I come to spend nearly 10 years doing it.
This job has shaped not only my career but also my life. I wasn’t one of those kids who had their tribal heritage shared with them as they grew up. I mean my story isn't that different from a lot of people. I was Cherokee. I knew that, but I missed out on the cultural aspect of being a tribal citizen. This job gave me the opportunity to not only grow and establish a career, but I grew to understand my culture, where I came from and what the Cherokee people have overcome. I learned of a tumultuous history that my ancestors faced as well as a personal history regarding my direct ancestor, Anderson Springston. I even wrote a column about it explaining the roles my people played in the killing of three prominent Cherokees: Major Ridge, John Ridge and Elias Boudinot. I also learned of the connection the son of that ancestor, John Leak Springston, had with the Cherokee Phoenix. He was known to be an Indian activist, an interpreter, newspaper editor, attorney and Keetoowah revivalist.
There have been so many stories that have left a mark on me. I’ve covered countless meetings, several tribal elections, as well as your basic health, education, cultural and people stories, and they all served a purpose of educating, entertaining and informing the Cherokee people.
It’s been nearly 10 years since I started here, and I have loved having the opportunity to work for such a historic newspaper. I’ve met some great people and made lasting relationships, but my most favorite aspect of working in this capacity has ultimately been helping people by both informing them of what their government is doing, as well as giving our Cherokee people a voice - something that has been taken from them time and again.
My concern for the Cherokee people and their involvement in the goings-on within their government is something that during the past several years I’ve noticed is most important. So I’ve tried to do that. It’s important to become educated in your government. You should want to have a say in what happens within your tribe. We’ve seen in our history what happens when we allow others to decide for us, and we’re a stronger people than that. I personally missed out on being involved with my tribe while growing up, but that will not be the case any longer and neither will it be for my children.
I buried the lede with this one friends, but on purpose, because once I’ve written it and once you’ve read it, it’s real. I have tendered my resignation from the Cherokee Phoenix effective April 8. I have accepted a job with the city of Tahlequah. Although I’m sad, scared and nervous for what is coming I know this is the best move for me.
This change will afford me the chance to reach for goals that working for the tribe will not allow. Although those goals may be far down the road, I need to give myself a true shot at accomplishing them. But new is always scary.
I hope the Cherokee Phoenix, a newspaper that has been at the forefront and example for excellent tribal journalism, will continue to be what it was created to be, what it should be – a true voice of the Cherokee people. One that stands up for what is right by its citizens and one that the Cherokee people can count on to be a real representation of the what happens within our tribe, not just what you need to know.
You are the Cherokee Nation. No voice is too big or small and at the end of the day the Cherokee Nation is not a thing, it’s a people and those people should be treated with respect and love like all people.
I wish all my fellow staffers, current and former, the best. You made me better, smarter and definitely more quick-witted.
So with that said, I bid you a fond farewell. Much love to anyone who played a part in the stories I’ve told over the years. This isn’t goodbye. If I can be of any help to someone in the future, you can email me at <a href="mailto: email@example.com">firstname.lastname@example.org</a>. Do-na-da-go-hv-i.
A new day has dawned for health and wellness in the Cherokee Nation, as we recently broke ground on a new state-of the-art outpatient health care facility, located at the W.W. Hastings Hospital campus in Tahlequah. When complete in the fall of 2019, this nearly 470,000-square-foot facility will be full of cutting-edge medical technology, more doctors, nurses and specialists, and will be known as the largest American Indian health center in the country.
I can’t tell you just how monumental this milestone is and what it will mean for future generations of Cherokees and other Natives. It will also be transformative for northeast Oklahoma. Between W.W. Hastings Hospital, this new outpatient facility, Northeastern Health System next door and our partnership with OSU Health Science Center to train residents, Tahlequah is set to be a hub for medical technology in rural Oklahoma.
We have worked aggressively to improve access to quality health care and the wellness of our tribe, both individually and collectively, since the day I took office more than six years ago. Since then we’ve built new health centers in Jay and Ochelata and expanded health centers in Stilwell and Sallisaw. As the final piece of our health care capital expansion plan, the new outpatient facility is definitely the crowning jewel.
For our nation to achieve so much in just a few short years makes this mission extremely personal for me. It means our health services can now adapt with the needs of our tribe, and we can continue to improve the gaping health disparities between our Indian people and other ethnicities.
Thanks to our historic joint venture with Indian Health Service, they will provide about $80 million annually for operating costs and staffing doctors, nurses and other medical professionals. With IHS’s arrangement to pay salaries, we will be able hire more than 800 new medical personnel, almost tripling our current staff.
Cherokee Nation will pay to construct the $200 million facility, which will have 180 exam rooms, a new surgical center with additional capacity for MRIs and endoscopies, and expanded dental, optometry and auditory testing that will revolutionize the services we provide for our people. Much of this is technology we haven’t offered in the past due to space and budget constraints.
It is the largest project IHS has ever helped a tribal government achieve, and it was so badly needed.
Cherokee Nation already operates the largest tribal health system in the United States. Our current 190,000-square-foot hospital in Tahlequah is more than 30 years old and was built to handle only one-third of the current patient load it sees every day. That puts a tremendous workload and unjust pressure on our staff and the antiquated building. We have simply overburdened W.W. Hastings Hospital for too long, which has been serving as a health center and a hospital.
In addition to new health care jobs, we anticipate construction of the facility to generate more than 350 construction jobs. New jobs, shorter wait times and better services will positive impact so many lives.
In late 2019, we will gather once again to dedicate this new world-class health complex. And when we do, we will know that the next several generations of Cherokees will have a better future. Our Cherokee people will be able to live longer and healthier lives because they will have real access to modern medicine. This is a wonderful moment in our tribal history and the start of a brighter, better future ahead.
The Cherokee language is one of the most vital elements of our tribal culture. We have invested in preservation efforts and youth education endeavors, including the Cherokee Immersion Charter School, which is a renowned global example for developing youth speakers.
Today, there are an estimated 2,000 to 4,000 fluent Cherokee speakers, and many others who are conversational second-language learners of Cherokee. While we have elders who are fluent and the emerging youth who will be, there was a void in the development of young adults.
That is why, two years ago, we launched the Cherokee Language Master-Apprentice Program. The goal of this program is to create new adult Cherokee language teachers. We selected four young adults to be the first class, and I am proud to say two of the students recently graduated and one of them will soon be teaching at the Immersion School.
When the selected students came into the program, they had little to no knowledge of the Cherokee language. However, upon graduating two years later, they have achieved high conversational levels. That is truly amazing.
The Master-Apprentice Program is an everyday effort. The students perform general, everyday activities but speak nothing but Cherokee. No English is spoken all day. They cook, look for wild onions and mushrooms and have general daily conversations in Cherokee. The approach is to do the everyday things, simple activities that are second nature to speak about in English, but do so only in Cherokee. The Cherokee language immersion environment is eight hours each day, five days per week.
The students are paid an hourly wage to attend the program and are selected through an essay and interview process. The students are referred to as apprentices, and these activities and classes are led by fluent, first-language speakers called masters. The program tries to identify young adults and older learners.
This method has been adopted by many tribes in California and has proven to be effective in producing fluent second-language learners. The evidence-based strategy integrates the Cherokee language and our staff has secured multiple grants to help fund the Master-Apprentice Program. Our success in the past year reinforces this effective learning method. Language immersion may be difficult and disorienting initially, but through perseverance and patience, students begin to grasp and learn Cherokee communication structures. Our mission is to develop Cherokee speakers who will have the knowledge to continue learning and teaching throughout the student’s life and ensure language preservation.
A third class of eight participants was selected in late 2016, bringing our total to 16 students. Increasing our number of speakers means preserving our unique culture. Our goal is to provide a seamless path for Cherokee language achievements that result in cultural preservation and eventually finding employment utilizing the Cherokee language.
With this effort, coupled with our Cherokee Immersion Charter School and the work of our Cherokee translation department, which has helped develop the Cherokee language for new technology that our citizens can use to text and email in Cherokee, we have set the bar for what it means to invest in language development. Cherokee Nation is a leader in Indian Country, and we are committed to preserving and growing our language. The tribe is proving we can cultivate more Cherokee speakers and enhance our language programs.
For more information on the Master-Apprentice Program, contact the program’s manager, Howard Paden, at <a href="mailto: Howard-Paden@Cherokee.org">Howard-Paden@Cherokee.org</a>.
The Cherokee Nation recently filed a lawsuit against the federal government to uncover details about how the United States throughout history managed the tribe’s trust fund, which includes money, property and other resources. The claim was filed in federal court in the Western District of Oklahoma on the 231st anniversary of the Treaty of Hopewell, the first treaty between the Cherokee Nation and the United States government. In the Treaty of Hopewell, the United States agreed its actions would be for “the benefit and comfort” of the Cherokee Nation. Sadly, the United States violated this treaty and every other treaty signed with the Cherokee Nation’s government.
This current lawsuit is about holding the federal government accountable; it is about making sure there is an accurate accounting of the vast Cherokee trust fund, the money and natural resources, including the land, coal, timber, water, grazing, and oil and gas, that the federal government agreed to hold in trust for the benefit of the Cherokee Nation.
As a trustee, the federal government managed the Cherokee trust fund, handling the money earned off the land and resources. The federal government’s reports state that Indian trust funds were handled with a “pitchfork.” As a result, many of the recorded transactions are lost or scattered across the country in epically disorganized accounting books. Our hope and desire are to address the information and management gap at the core of the federal government’s mishandling.
At different times throughout history, Cherokee lands in Indian Territory were taken, sold or leased by the federal government, the most powerful and sophisticated government in the world. Yet, because of the federal government’s management, we cannot get an accurate accounting of what it did with the revenue from our natural resources. The resources relate to the treaty lands of the Cherokee Nation, including the current 14-county jurisdiction of our tribe.
The federal government can’t tell us what it did with our trust fund resources; it can’t tell us what profit was realized from the sale of those resources; it can’t tell us where the money went or whether it was fairly and justly allocated to the tribe as negotiated and agreed upon. We believe the United States government should live up to its word, and we think most Americans feel the same way.
This is a tremendous opportunity for the United States to reconcile its management of the Cherokee trust fund over the centuries and to finally account for the resources that it was legally obligated to manage for the benefit of the Cherokee people. We believe the Cherokee Nation is in a position of strength in this litigation and that the Nation is able to pursue its legal interests to hold the federal government accountable. Yes, lawsuits by nature are adversarial, but this is a chance for the government of the United States to do what is right. This can chart a path of healing and of stronger cooperation between our governments going forward.
The United States has a trust responsibility to the Cherokee Nation, and similar duties to other tribes nationwide. In the recent past, the United States was sued by other tribes seeking an accounting like the Cherokee Nation seeks in this lawsuit. The United States, ultimately, never provided any accountings in those other cases, but instead it has paid other tribes the values of the trust funds for which it cannot account. To date, there have been dozens of such settlements spanning the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations.
Without a doubt, this lawsuit is overdue, and as Principal Chief it is essential for me to hold the United States accountable for the promises made. As a leader among tribal governments, we hope Cherokee Nation’s lawsuit helps all of Indian Country move forward. We have very strong claims, and we are hopeful for a positive outcome in the courtroom. This suit will mean a brighter future for the Cherokee Nation.
Learn more at <a href="http://www.brokentreaties.com" target="_blank">www.brokentreaties.com</a>.
Cherokee Nation was the first tribe to adopt a written language, and the impact the syllabary has had on our people and the advancements of our tribe continue still today. Sequoyah, also known as George Gist, gave us one of the most significant gifts in our history. Sequoyah’s invention of the syllabary had an immeasurable impact on us as a tribe.
Recently, Cherokee Nation finalized the purchase of Sequoyah’s Cabin, near Sallisaw, from the state. We are so proud to assume ownership and management of the historical site and have the opportunity to give it the respect and reverence it deserves.
It’s unimaginable that sites, like Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace, Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello or George Washington’s Mt. Vernon, would be operated by anyone other than the United States government. Likewise, it is only fitting that Sequoyah’s Cabin site, which is a vital part of our story, would be operated by the Cherokee Nation.
In our tribe’s long and unique history, Sequoyah made an everlasting impact and truly changed the way our people communicate, share ideas and preserve history. He was a genius who advanced the Cherokee Nation and our rich culture. Sequoyah is one of our most well-known statesmen and historical figures, and his contributions to the Cherokee Nation are immeasurable. The Cherokee syllabary is the single most important contributor to the advancement of the Cherokee people and Cherokee society.
He reshaped the future of Cherokees and all Native people, not just seven generations but infinite generations.
Chief of Staff Chuck Hoskin, in his role as a state legislator, singlehandedly led the effort to secure Sequoyah’s Cabin for our people. We are so fortunate that his strong relationship with the Oklahoma Historical Society and its executive director, Dr. Bob Blackburn, helped pave the way for our purchase of this important piece of our history.
We commend the state for being such good stewards of the 200-acre site and former home, and now it is time for Cherokee Nation to lead the preservation effort. Our relationship with Dr. Blackburn and the state’s historical society is a true partnership and will allow this project to advance for the benefit of the Cherokee Nation, the state of Oklahoma and the thousands of tourists that visit this historic site each year. Yes, it is unfortunate that after 80 years the state no longer has the resources to manage and maintain the property. But that’s where our tribal government can step in and ensure the preservation meets the highest standards. Together, we will guarantee this beautiful and historic site thrives and continues operation forever.
It is a historic achievement to add this land and site back into the tribe’s land base and bring Sequoyah’s home back to the Cherokee Nation and place it under our cultural protection. Our operation of the cabin and the surrounding land will enable us, as Cherokees, to tell the story of Sequoyah through a uniquely Cherokee perspective. We will be able to do it in our own words and in our own language, which Sequoyah helped advance.