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.
Cherokee artisans are some of the most talented in Oklahoma and across all of Indian Country. They preserve our culture and heritage through their work across various mediums. It’s critical for us as Indian people to ensure Indian art is truly created by enrolled citizens of federally recognized tribes.
That’s why Cherokee Nation, along with the leadership of the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole Nations, is supporting Oklahoma House Bill 2261, which is being considered now in the Oklahoma State Senate after passing the Oklahoma House of Representatives by a 90-0 vote. The bill is authored by Rep. Chuck Hoskin (D-Vinita) and Sen. John Sparks (D-Norman), Cherokee Nation citizens, and proposes a change in the definition of who can sell Indian art.
The proposal defines “American Indian tribe” as any Indian tribe federally recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and, further, defines “American Indian” as a citizen or enrolled member of an American Indian tribe.
This issue is important for us because it ensures people who falsely claim tribal citizenship will not be able to market themselves and their crafts as Native. Oklahoma should take a strong position in preserving the integrity and authenticity of American Indian arts. As the home of 39 federally recognized tribes and more than 500,000 tribal citizens, Oklahoma should be the pacesetter for protecting tribal culture. Each of the 39 tribes in Oklahoma is a sovereign government with a unique history and culture and has been acknowledged and confirmed by the U.S. Constitution, treaties, federal statutes, executive orders and judicial decisions.
Today, the sale of American Indian art and craftwork in Oklahoma is regulated by both federal and state laws, and strengthening our state laws guarantees the integrity of Native American art and the artists themselves.
Oklahoma Indian artisans are renowned worldwide for beadwork, jewelry, basket weaving and fine arts like painting, pottery and sculpture. As the popularity of Indian art expands, so does the sale of items misrepresented as authentic American Indian products. Purchasing authentic American Indian art and crafts in Oklahoma from an enrolled citizen of a federally recognized Indian helps preserve our rich and diverse cultures, and it significantly increases entrepreneurship and economic development in Indian Country.
H.B. 2261 will provide a direct economic benefit to Cherokee artists by helping to decrease the availability of fraudulent Cherokee art in the market. Additionally, if the availability of fraudulent items decreases, the demand for authentic art will increase.
Closing the loophole about who can sell Indian art will protect not only the artists but individual consumers, galleries, art collectors and museums, especially smaller museums with fewer financial resources. Nothing in H.B. 2261 prevents individuals who claim to be tribal descendants from selling arts and crafts in Oklahoma. However, the claim “Indian made” or “Indian art” simply would not apply.
I strongly encourage you to contact your state senators and ask them to support H.B. 2261.
Osiyo. It was a historic achievement for the Cherokee Nation recently as the tribe negotiated, finalized and signed a Joint Venture Construction Program agreement with Indian Health Service to provide a new world-class health facility at our W.W. Hastings Hospital campus in Tahlequah, Oklahoma.
Later this spring we will break ground on the new facility, which is planned to be more than 450,000 square feet. Cherokee Nation will construct the facility at a cost of between $150 and $175 million. IHS will provide the staffing, including doctors, nurses and other professionals, a cost estimated to be more than $80 million annually for at least 20 years and likely longer.
This historic project will be transformative for generations of our citizens. Our plan was to take a big step forward for Cherokee health care. Instead, we took a giant leap of faith and surpassed anything we could have hoped for.
Once complete, sometime in late 2019, this will be a state-of-the-art health care center and the absolute crown jewel in our health care system. This is far and away the largest project IHS has ever helped a tribal government achieve. Our hospital is twice as big as the next largest IHS joint venture. It is something monumental, and it’s something we should all be proud of.
IHS will work through Congress to secure the funds for staffing and operations for the life of the building. IHS saw Cherokee Nation as a good partner to deliver quality care, and together we are making the health of Indian Country our top priority.
During my tenure as principal chief, no issue has been as important to me as ensuring our health care services continue to grow with our tribe. It’s been my mission to help drive down the extreme health disparities our Indian communities face. I’ve worked with passion and purpose, and today we are aggressively striving to improve the wellness of our tribe, both individually and collectively.
We wisely invested $100 million of our businesses’ profits to expand and refurbish smaller clinics, and now we have a significant public-private partnership in place with IHS that will create construction jobs, health care jobs and an enormous positive economic impact in our region. This is the next step to ensuring Cherokee health care is the best in Indian Country and that our citizens reap the benefit.
Cherokee Nation operates the largest tribal health system in America, and we desperately needed a new hospital, as the current 190,000-square-foot facility is more than 30 years old. It serves nearly 400,000 patient visits per year when it was built to handle only about 60,000 per year. This agreement will allow our health department to better meet the demand and needs of our Cherokee Nation citizens and other Native Americans who access our health system.
A special thanks goes to the leadership in Congress who championed our cause. U.S. Representatives Tom Cole (R-OK) and Betty McCollum (D-MN) led a bipartisan effort to reopen this IHS construction program, as well as Cherokee Nation citizen and Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-OK) for representing our needs with the federal agencies.
It’s a golden moment in our Cherokee history. In three short years when we dedicate this new massive health complex, we will know in our hearts that the next several generations of Cherokees – our children and grandchildren – will have a better future. They will have more opportunities to live healthier lives. They will have access to cutting-edge, modern medicine. There is no better feeling in the world than knowing this is on the horizon for you and the ones we all love so deeply.
At our world-class Cherokee Nation health care centers, we are committed to the well-being of our patients. One of the most progressive initiatives we have today is the Hepatitis C Elimination Project. This is a pilot program to screen patients for the disease, with an end goal to cure all those who test positive. I am proud our tribal health department is doing everything possible to eliminate this debilitating disease many of our Cherokee families face.
We are committed to fighting this disease because it touches so many here in the heart of Indian Country. It is a viral infection that can cause serious liver damage, liver failure and even death. About 3.2 million people in America live with hepatitis C, and 75 percent of them don’t even know they are carriers because they are symptom free.
Like with many poor health signifiers, the issue is in even more prominent in our tribal communities. According to the Urban Indian Health Institute, based in Seattle, Indian people are twice as likely to be diagnosed with hepatitis C. Sadly, substance abuse is another contributing factor and critical escalator of our rates with hepatitis C. Opiate abuse is a significant part of the problem, as 73 percent of cases involve intravenous drug use. Unlicensed tattoo artists reusing ink or not sanitizing needles properly are also contributing.
The rates are not good but there is hope, and that’s why we are tackling this issue head on. So far in the Cherokee Nation’s health system there have been 12,000 patients screened, with 4 percent of women and 7 percent of men testing positive. Of those, roughly 300 patients have taken the medicine, which is non-invasive and allows patients to continue a normal routine, and have been cured. We have seen a high success rate with treatments, and our hope is to eliminate this disease entirely through Cherokee Nation Health Services. As Native people and as Cherokee Nation citizens, we must keep striving to eliminate hepatitis C from our population.
Staying ahead of the rate of infection requires vigilant testing, screening, treatment and creative strategies to prevent future cases. We are now screening all tribal health department patients over the age of 20, which avoids the problems of determining which patients to test, and will help identify a carrier even if the virus is dormant.
Through diligent counseling and public awareness programs, I am confident we will drive down exposure to this infection. In the past, a positive hepatitis C test could be crippling to an individual or family, both physically and financially.
We have dedicated leaders within our Cherokee Nation Health Services department who partnered with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Oklahoma Department of Health and the University of Oklahoma on this effort. Additionally, Gilead Sciences, a biopharmaceutical company, donated $1.5 million to this unique partnership that enabled the creation of a prevention and treatment plan. The Cherokee Nation is the only entity in the country working on an elimination project with the CDC.
Our partners are just as committed as we are to cure patients with hepatitis C and work to reduce the incidents of new infections. The historic joint effort between federal, state and tribal governments will help lay the foundation of a national strategy to fight hepatitis C.
A diagnosis doesn’t have to be a death sentence. I hope you will join us in this battle and help us drive out hepatitis C once and for all. Please ask your medical provider to screen you for hepatitis C. It’s not often we can say a disease can be completely eliminated from a citizenry, but it’s something we can absolutely achieve in the Cherokee Nation.
Heroes deserve hope.
That’s a mission that will be fulfilled as we create more opportunities for the brave men and women who have given so much of themselves to our great country through their military service.
A new tribal program launched in partnership between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will ensure Native military veterans have access to safe and secure housing. This partnership is especially significant because it marks the first time the HUD/VA housing assistance program has included tribes. Nationwide, $5.9 million will be distributed among the selected tribal governments.
It’s an admirable goal, and I am proud the Cherokee Nation will be one of 26 tribal governments nationwide to share in federal funding to provide long-term housing for veterans who need a permanent home. We will provide 20 vouchers to Cherokee veterans for rental assistance thanks to $194,000 awarded to our tribe.
As most of us know, Indian people serve in the military at a higher rate than any other group, and this program targets homeless veterans within tribal jurisdictions. There is no better way to honor the service and sacrifice of Cherokee veterans than by making sure they have a roof over their head.
In our communities, homelessness may not be the textbook definition of “homeless.” We don't see as much traditional homelessness in Indian Country as other racial populations because our people take care of one another. We don't kick people out on the streets. However, many Indian families and homes are severely overcrowded. This is one of the examples of “homelessness” within our tribal communities.
Cherokee Nation was selected to participate because we have raised the bar for veteran services. We have a state-of-the-art veterans center, which provides veterans invaluable resources and services, and we have a memorandum of understanding in place with the VA to treat Native veterans with routine health care in tribal facilities.
I applaud HUD Secretary Julián Castro for traveling to Oklahoma for the sole purpose of sharing this news with tribal leaders and for the White House’s efforts to curb the rate of veteran homelessness. This new effort will ensure Cherokee patriots get the assistance they desperately need after serving our country. As Secretary Castro said, we can “create a better 21st century for all Americans.”
We are already working with the VA to identify 20 Cherokees veterans who need adequate housing. My administration has been defined by homes and hope. I am so proud we will be able to do this for our veterans. Anytime you can help provide the basic necessities for a Cherokee Nation citizen and for a veteran, it is the right and honorable thing to do. Heroes deserve hope. I believe this program will be a great success and hope it will perpetuate and help more deserving souls in the future.
Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all. It’s hard to believe 2015 is already coming to a close, but time flies when good things are happening in our Nation. We’ve accomplished more this past year than perhaps any other year in the history of the Cherokee Nation.
On the health care front, we’ve opened three of the four health centers we promised to build using casino dollars. Cherokees in Adair, Sequoyah and Washington counties are now being served in more spacious health centers with newer equipment while enjoying a wider variety of services. Cherokees in Delaware County are up next, as the new Sam Hider Health Center in Jay is nearly complete. When I was elected a little more than four years ago, I pledged to make health care a priority, and I have followed through on that promise.
Earlier this year, we became one of the largest employers in Nowata County, practically overnight, when we opened Cherokee Casino South Coffeyville. The casino brought more than a hundred jobs to that community, where jobs are sorely needed. South Coffeyville has welcomed us with open arms, and we are happy to finally have a presence in that corner of the Cherokee Nation.
Not only did we reinforce our sovereign rights to hunt and fish our lands freely this past year, but we also expanded that sovereignty to include hunting and fishing rights across all of Oklahoma. Previously, the patchwork of Cherokee trust land, fee simple land and non-Cherokee-owned land made jurisdiction confusing, and many Cherokees feared receiving a citation from state game and wildlife officers. Likewise, those game and wildlife officers feared unnecessarily citing Cherokees for legally hunting our lands.
Now, with the hunting and fishing compact I signed with Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin, there is no more confusion. Cherokees may now pheasant hunt in western Oklahoma, trophy fish on Lake Texoma in southern Oklahoma or deer hunt right here in Cherokee country like our ancestors did, free of concern about boundaries.
Hunting and fishing licenses will be mailed to all Cherokees who are 16 and older and living in Oklahoma beginning Jan. 1. To ensure we have your correct address on file, visit www.Cherokee.org and click on services > citizenship > updating your information.
Also on the natural resources front, we took a major step in protecting and preserving our resources for generations to come. I appointed the first secretary of Natural Resources, Cherokee Nation citizen Sara Hill, to oversee all of the Cherokee Nation’s interests in water rights, fish and wildlife, environmental conservation and more. The position was established by the 1999 Cherokee Nation Constitution but has remained vacant for nearly 20 years. It was time to stop acting like our natural resources are a secondary issue, when in fact they’re some of our most precious gifts.
As Indian people, if we do not protect our resources, who will? I look forward to the strides we will make in this area in the years to come and am eager to share our progress with you as we accomplish great things.
Lastly, I want to thank each and every one of you for your continued prayers and support as Deputy Chief S. Joe Crittenden and I continue to work on your behalf. It was the greatest honor of my life to be re-elected this year to a second term serving all of you. We accomplished so much this past year, and I pledge to work just as hard the next four years.
On behalf of myself, Deputy Chief Crittenden and the more than 9,000 employees of the Cherokee Nation, we’d like to wish all of you a very merry Christmas and a safe and happy New Year. Many blessings to each of you in 2016.
At the Cherokee Nation we are committed to protecting our air, water, land and wildlife for future generations. That’s why I recently announced the first-ever appointment to an important Cabinet-level position in my administration. This position was originally established by the 1999 Constitutional Convention. Unfortunately, it was never filled, but this key advisory role cannot go vacant any longer.
I have appointed attorney Sara Hill as the new secretary of Natural Resources, and last month she was confirmed by the CN Tribal Council and took her oath of office. In her role as secretary she will ensure our natural resources are properly preserved for the future of the CN and our people. I am so proud to say we are finally making our natural and environmental resources a priority. Our natural habitats and environment must be a factor in every decision we make. We have a responsibility to leave this land, this water and this air pure and clean for future generations.
Sara previously served as the deputy attorney general of the CN, with expertise on environmental issues, water rights and natural resource protection. Her hard work has helped the CN maximize our inherent sovereign rights, and she has been critical in developing preservation programs that benefit our citizens.
She chairs the CN Interdisciplinary Water Work Group and is working on the feasibility of a potential hydroelectric project on the Arkansas River. Sara has long served the CN in many ways, successfully representing our interests before the Oklahoma Supreme Court in Cherokee Nation v. Nomura – a case that successfully upheld full compliance of the Oklahoma Indian Child Welfare Act for out-of-state Indian child adoption cases. Additionally, she is a dedicated special assistant United States attorney for the Northern District of Oklahoma.
Part of her mission will be ensuring that sustainability is a part of every conversation we have and every decision we make at the CN. Since time immemorial Cherokees have considered the impact of our actions on our environment and our surroundings. Our elders teach us about our connection to plants, animals and all natural elements.
We must be steadfast in the stewardship of our natural resources. We have an obligation to protect these precious resources for the next seven generations. As our teachings tell us, that is the Cherokee way.
We cannot leave today’s environmental issues for our children and grandchildren to solve. That is an unfair burden. The secretary of Natural Resources will work at the highest level of my administration, assuring that we are protecting and preserving our natural resources and environment. We have a better vision of preservation, and we must take action to ensure we reach our goals.
With the secretary of Natural Resources in place, coupled with the leadership of the Tribal Council, we have the ability to develop laws that will truly enhance the sustainability of our land, water and air for generations to come. The Cherokee people deserve that. Clean air, safe water and a fertile land will always be our foundation for long-term health as a tribe and a people.