Bill John Baker, Policy-Maker: An Interview With the New Cherokee Principal Chief

An interview with new Cherokee Chief Bill John Baker.

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker’s campaign for chief against three-term Principal Chief Chad Smith made national news, with the months-long campaign marred by recounts, appeals and decisions by the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court. The original election took place June 25, 2011 with unofficial election results showing Baker in the lead. A recount of the vote on June 30, 2011 showed Baker the winner by 266 votes. After proceedings in the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court, those votes were thrown out in favor of a special election on September 24.

After the original June 25 election and before the September 24 special election, the enrollment status of the Cherokee Freedmen—the descendants of former Cherokee slaves—was revoked by the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court. Following this decision, Congress froze funds due the Cherokee Nation from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). After reinstating their membership and voting rights pending an appeal made in U.S. district court the September 24 vote included absentee ballots and freedmen votes. The results showed Baker the winner, with 53.97 percent of the vote.

Baker told Indian Country Today Media Network that the first few weeks of his administration were spent fulfilling campaign promises, which include expanding contract health funding into the Indian Health Service budgets; reviving the Cherokee Nation Housing Authority; fully funding tribal Head Start programs; expanding Cherokee cultural education; and hiring more Cherokees for tribal employment.

What was your primary focus these past couple of months?

The first 30 days, we were drinking directly out of a fire hose. We’ve got the nozzle turned down just a little bit now. We’ve been trying to look at all departments, make sure that all services continue; make sure that everything stayed within the budgets, those kinds of things.

What have been your major challenges?

Immediately, we come into office, and the federal government has held $39 million of our housing funds. We immediately got on the phone to work with HUD and work with congressmen to get those funds released. We’re getting those back.

The citizens deserve to be heard, and so we’re letting them be heard. One of the first policies to change was that we would allow employees to speak to the tribal council. There had been a policy in place that said you’d be fired if you talked to the tribal council.

Does that mean in an official session or even off-site?

Apparently, people were afraid to talk to members of the tribal council at Walmart. Did I go ahead and talk to employees while I was on the council—absolutely. But it was kind of a running joke—“Well, I won’t tell if you won’t.”

We don’t live in a vacuum. On the campaign trail, if I said it once, I said it a thousand times: “We come from One Fire.” We go back 2,000 years. The Cherokees were a very small group of people. We’re all related. If we go back far enough, we’ve got the same great-great-great-grandmother.

We had another policy that said you can only get assistance once every three years. When people need help, they need help. We’ve tweaked that policy so we have the ability to help multiple times, and even raise the limit of what we can do for one citizen. We’ve got thousands of successful Cherokees who are never going to need anything from us. So if we can help the ones in the most distress, maybe we can keep a roof over their heads, keep them from being homeless.

What made you want to be a public servant for the Cherokee people?

Growing up in Tahlequah, I was able to ride my motorcycle out to the Restaurant of the Cherokees and sit just as close as I could to Bill Keeler, our first elected chief and listen to them plot and scheme the rise of the Cherokee Nation. I’m 59 years old. The tribe is about 40 years old. We started before written history, but we reconstituted in the 1970s. I’ve been here from the time they had two employees to what we have today.

What were your greatest accomplishments from your 12 years on the tribal council?

There were many. When I first got on the council, we would fuss for a month over the $1 million we had in discretionary money. That’s all we had, $1 million. Everything else was federal funds.

I remember we were sitting up in Stratton Taylor’s office [the former Oklahoma Senate president pro tempore]. The governor didn’t have time to meet with the chiefs. I left Stratton Taylor’s office. The Superintendent of Public Instruction used to have an office next door to my mother [Isabel Baker, who was a on the Oklahoma State University A&M Board of Regents]. They were good friends. I saw him in the hall. I explained to him that I had the five chiefs, and they really needed to see the governor. He went back and got time for us. I sat upstairs with the chiefs, and we all went back to the governor’s office to knock out a motor fuels compact. That meant more than $10 million a year coming to the tribe that was not earmarked. It immediately took us from a million dollars a year to 10 times that.

As soon as we got that signed, I immediately brought legislation to take 25 percent of it and put it into a rainy-day fund for education. We did that for education because we thought that even if the federal government stops giving us any money, at least we’d have money to help with scholarships. At that time, the council was in agreement that the most important thing was education. That fund is now up to almost $40 million.

Then we got a federal grant that allowed Indian Health Service to screen all the women patients for breast cancer. We applied for that grant; we got it. If they found breast cancer, if they had Medicare, Medicaid, private insurance, then they were immediately treated. If they didn’t have Medicare, Medicaid or private insurance, the Indian Health Service didn’t have any money to treat them. We took a million dollars of our newfound wealth and earmarked it for contract health services for those women. We found that, instead of telling these women to just go home and die, the million dollars was enough. We were able to treat them all.

What were your greatest challenges then?

Lack of funding. When we did the gaming compact, we really started generating dollars. Ten million is a

lot of money when all you had was 1 million. A hundred million is a lot when all you have is 10. The tribe has consistently grown, year after year after year, since it was reconstituted.

What are Cherokee values?

The Cherokees have been Christian since the 1700s. A lot of what my grandmother taught me is biblical from the standpoint of the poor will always be with us. The more that is given to you, you’ve got the bigger responsibility to give more back. I don’t know that I can separate some of those Christian values to a lot of the Cherokee values.

Why is economic diversification important?

I don’t think gaming’s going to last forever. I don’t know that by creating thousands of jobs for Cherokees in a smoke-filled room—knowing the effects of secondhand smoke—we’re doing the best we can for our people.

We’re actively pursuing a housing program that will create jobs for Cherokees. I envision building a home a day in a few years. It will create a lot of jobs for the cement finishers, the bricklayers, the roofers, the electricians, the plumbers, right on through. We’ve got Cherokees in all those trades. It will put safe, sanitary, decent affordable housing at the fingertips of our Cherokee citizens. We’re the First Americans, but we’re the last Americans to achieve the American dream. If we build these houses through the Housing Authority model, then we can help all of the school districts in 14 counties.

If we can put these homes in these rural communities to where the next generation can stay close to the family land, the traditional Cherokee communities, if you want to truly pass on culture, heritage, language, morals and religion to kids, you put them close to Grandma and Grandpa.

What is the Cherokee Nation’s relationship with the other two federally recognized Cherokee governments?

I would say the relationship is good. It hasn’t always been good. We’ve been having joint council meetings with the Eastern Band for quite some time. The [United Keetoowah Band] has never been invited to the table. I think that’s going to change pretty soon.

What is the future of the Cherokee?

I think the future of the Cherokee is quite bright. We’re a people who have survived much. I think that we’re stronger together than we are separate. We’re looking at a future in which all three tribes can work together on so many things—keeping our language alive, the resources of some shared services, preservation of culture and heritage, [and] some shared political clout. I think we have all kinds of opportunities to work together.

What are the biggest issues facing Indian country?

Sovereignty is always the number one issue—the environment, water rights. As Americans, we’re all concerned about the economy of the federal government. We rely on a lot of federal programs, and the mood of the country is, maybe, not taking care of the poorest of the poor.

Which Cherokee leaders do you most admire?

I admire all leadership. It would be so easy for people to take their time and talents and be selfish with them. I’m one of the fortunate few who go back to Nancy Ward as a descendant. She stood her ground during the American Revolution. She was a great leader. John Ross was chief for 40 years, during the Civil War and during removal. All the current day chiefs had their moments of glory. I think anybody who puts himself out there and puts a target on his or her back needs to be commended. I’m proud of the leadership we’ve had.

How do spend your time when you’re not involved in public service?

I forget [grins].… No, I live on a farm. I can get on my tractor, and I can brush hog and forget everything. There’s something calming about being able to look behind you—the path you cleared—and you really can’t hear anything going on sitting on top of that tractor. You can do so much thinking out on a tractor. I don’t have time to hunt and fish. I do play marbles—when time allows—a couple of times a week. Cherokee marbles. That’s a really good time—to be able to knock people’s marbles just as far as you possibly can and laugh and just have a good time.

What can the world can learn from Cherokee people?

Patience. I think we could teach them to laugh a little more and to not sweat the little things.

Where do you see the revitalization of Cherokee language heading?

If you write a paragraph in English, it takes you 30 seconds. If you did it in Cherokee Syllabary, it would take you 30 minutes. Because if you look at our syllabary, there are letters that look almost alike, but they’ve got to have a curl. Apple is putting Cherokee out as a standard app to where our kids can text in the syllabary at the same speed that one can do in English. What took them 30 minutes to do before, if they can do in 30 seconds, I see that as a great advantage. We know kids now are learning from their iPhones and computers. By being able to have the Cherokee Syllabary as an app—if the kids want to talk in Cherokee, they can do it in the same speed of what non-Cherokee kids have been able to do all along. I think that’s going to be tremendous.

The Cherokee are so fortunate to have a written language. We’re meeting with our elders. We’re having them work on words that didn’t exist in our language. How are we going to say computer? How are we going to say these new words? We’re keeping the language alive and keeping it fluid. We’ve got the immersion school. We’ve got teachers who go out to the communities for folks who want to brush up.

Personal or professional, what has been your most rewarding achievement?

I don’t think I’ve had it yet. I think that’s yet to come.