TULSA – The Cherokee Nation’s newest At-Large councilor wants to see “benefit equality” for Cherokees living outside the reservation while connecting them with the tribe’s epicenter in Oklahoma.
“I’m really looking forward to it,” Johnny Jack Kidwell said. “I want to go in and obviously learn for the first little while. I plan on figuring out what I can do and what I can’t do, and how best to try to overcome some of the roadblocks that seem to plague a lot of the people that are at-large.”
Kidwell, 51, of Tulsa, took the Tribal Council oath of office Aug. 14 following his win in July 24’s runoff election. Retired from the U.S. Coast Guard, Kidwell will serve alongside fellow At-Large Councilor Julia Coates and 15 others representing jurisdictional districts.
“I want to work with everybody for the betterment of the Cherokee people,” he said, “and I want to represent the at-large citizens as best as I possibly can and be their voice and look out for their best interest.”
During his campaign, Kidwell said the greatest need for at-large citizens was “to see and feel real progress toward resource and benefit equality.”
“A Cherokee elder living at-large is no less Cherokee than one living on the reservation,” he noted in a candidate questionnaire. “However, we – as a Nation – continue to allow many at-large elders and veterans to struggle; often alone, forgotten and unappreciated. It’s time to stop giving mere lip service to this issue and start using our own tribal wealth to benefit those most in need. Grow our businesses, create more wealth and apply portions of that wealth to at-large benefits.”
Kidwell also wants increased funding for at-large scholarships to “level the playing field the best we can in some way, fashion or form.”
“I don’t know how to do it, but I know we all want to,” he said. “I know other councilors are amiable to that. It’s just a matter of working together and finding a way to do it.”
Another ambition is to “get the word out” to Cherokees about happenings within the reservation. He also wants tribal information more readily available.
“I know what I’ve gone through to try to get information, and I’m close, right here in Tulsa,” Kidwell said. “Even as connected as I felt like I was, I had a hard time getting some information. Think about how that elder in Indiana or San Diego or Houston might feel.”
To help keep distant Cherokees connected and “read about what’s going on,” Kidwell said he’s encouraged subscriptions to the Cherokee Phoenix newspaper.
“I also had the at-large messenger that I’ve sent out,” he added. “I think people really need to take advantage of those types of things that they can sign up for and receive and help them remain connected.”
As an example, Kidwell said, at-large Cherokees “really want to vote,” but sometimes are not aware of deadlines.
“Once you get a hold of those people and you can tell them, well you need to request your ballot by this date, they’ll do that,” he said. “They will jump through the hoops to make that happen. It’s just that their lives get away from them just like ours do, and we’re a little bit closer to the heartbeat of Cherokee Nation and we know when those deadlines for those elections are coming up. That Cherokee citizen in Minnesota, so far away, we have to be able to reach out and touch those people to remind them that hey, the electoral process is coming and we’d like them to participate.”
As one of two At-Large councilors, Kidwell has a responsibility with Coates representing nearly 250,000 CN citizens living outside the reservation.
“I’m sure Julia and I, we’ll work together just fine,” he said. “She’s like me; I’m sure she wants to help anyone and everyone who asks. Shared responsibility is not optimal, but it’s worked.”
During his campaign, Kidwell pushed for division of the at-large constituency between the councilors to provide “clarity on who specifically represents” their interests.
“At the bare minimum, I think we need to split this up,” he said. “How we do that, where we draw that line is anybody’s guess. But I hope the rest of the council will at least entertain it. In my perfect world, we would also have a separate councilor designated for Indian Country, meaning Cherokee citizens living on other tribal lands in Oklahoma. They’re going to have some unique things involving them that a citizen living in Minnesota or California or Texas won’t have to deal with. I’m wishful thinking here, but it is something to work toward.”