Baker cites accomplishments of his 8 years
Bill John Baker is sworn in as principal chief on the back steps of the Cherokee Capital building on Oct. 19, 2011, in downtown Tahlequah. Baker served two terms from 2011-19. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Newly sworn in Principal Chief Bill John Baker addresses the crowd who came to see him sworn in on Oct. 19, 2011, on the back steps of the Cherokee Capital building in Tahlequah. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Principal Chief Bill John Baker speaks during a Feb. 28, 2014, groundbreaking ceremony for an addition to the Wilma P. Mankiller Health Center in Stilwell. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Principal Chief Bill John Baker honors U.S. Army veteran Richard Acorn during an Aug. 11, 2014, Tribal Council meeting. Baker, along with Deputy Chief Joe Crittenden, honored veterans at every monthly Tribal Council meeting. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
Principal Chief Bill John Baker speaks during a ceremony to officially announce the acquisition of the Sequoyah’s Cabin site by the Cherokee Nation on June 28, 2017. The CN purchased the site in 2016 from the state. WILL CHAVEZ/CHEROKEE PHOENIX
TAHLEQUAH – With the baton passed to a new principal chief, the Cherokee Nation’s top executive of the past eight years can look toward other opportunities and perhaps a less hectic schedule.
Bill John Baker said he is proud of the accomplishments of his administration during his tenure, pointing to improvements or enhancements to tribal services, but specifically for home construction, health care and education. Plus, he said he never wielded his veto power.
“We hadn’t built any homes for the Cherokee people in about a decade when I was elected principal chief,” Baker said. “We hadn’t even voted on a budget in a couple of years, and I knew I wouldn’t vote for a budget that didn’t have something in it for home construction. It was to be Cherokee homes for Cherokees, built by Cherokees. It created a good job market for tradespeople, which we have an abundance of in the Cherokee Nation.”
Baker said more than 800 families had received tribal housing and a cost to each of $350 a month plus taxes and insurance.
“I visited with single mothers who were in tears because they never believed they would be homeowners,” Baker said. “I am extremely proud of our housing program, and thousands of Cherokees are benefitting from these 800-plus homes – kids, parents, grandparents.”
Among the tribe’s education efforts, Baker pointed to 5,500 students attending classes on CN scholarship funds and the tribal funding issued to schools with Cherokee students – though the aid is not categorical and can be spent to benefit all students. He also pointed to educational projects with a cultural focus, including the “Remember the Removal” bicycle ride, National Youth Choir, the Summer Youth Employment Program and trips east to the old Cherokee homeland.
“When I came in, we had about 2,500 (on tribal scholarships),” he said. “That doesn’t count the kids in vo-tech and trade schools. We’re trying to entice young people with the idea that college and trade school are not out of reach. They have something to look forward to and something to work toward.”
Upon assuming the role of principal chief, Baker said citizens made it clear that health care was their top concern. During his terms, the CN has built the Cooweescoowee Health Center in Ochelata, Sam Hider Health Center in Jay and expanded the Redbird Smith Health Center in Sallisaw and Wilma P. Mankiller Health Center in Stilwell.
CN Health Services will also soon open its 496,000-square-foot Outpatient Care Facility in Tahlequah. It will include exam rooms and MRI and outpatient surgery capabilities. It is the largest such facility in Indian Country funded by $200 million from the CN for construction and $80 million per year for at least 20 years from the Indian Health Service for operational expenses and staff.
In May, the tribe announced the start of construction on the 84,000-square-foot Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine at Cherokee Nation. The college is scheduled to open with an inaugural class of 50 in 2020. Once fully operational, the school is expected to serve 200 students. The first graduating class is expected in May 2024. The facility will include 16 full-time faculty, five part-time faculty and several adjunct clinical faculty, and hold certification from the Commission on Osteopathic College Accreditation.
“We are partnering with OSU to build a medical school on the same campus as a clinic,” Baker said. “Hopefully, we will recruit as many Cherokees as we can…. Many will do their residencies and stay in the Cherokee Nation, giving us access to more professionals than we have ever seen before.”
Baker said the CN had seen other “wins” in the past eight years. He pointed to the office of Secretary of Natural Resources and the conclusion of a 40-year effort to remove radioactive materials from the shuttered Kerr-McGee Sequoyah Fuels uranium processing plant near Gore, which he said would have been “devastating” had the waste been present during the recent flooding along the Arkansas River.
The CN also encouraged Macy’s to build the Macy’s Fulfillment Center in Owasso, and Baker said the economic impact of the CN has grown from $2 billion to $8 billion this decade.
“More than 70 percent of our employees are Cherokee citizens – without breaking down those who are married to Cherokees or caring for Cherokees,” Baker said. “We help every fire, police and sheriff’s department, every superintendent with school funding, every county commissioner with building roads.”
With his time as principal chief concluded, Baker can turn to other interests or leisure, but would miss the interaction with others and the public service associated with leading the tribe.
“It’s been a good ride,” he said. “I made it eight years and never vetoed any legislation. We’ve left the woodpile a whole lot higher than we found it.”