STILWELL, Okla. - What started as a tribal business employing eight individuals has turned to gold for the Cherokee Nation. Its award-winning Cherokee Nation Industries provides products for the Defense Department.
The company, started in 1969, has expanded and entered the world of telecommunication and fiber optics. It is the only tribally owned business that manufactures fiber optics and cable for defense contractors.
Cherokee Nation Industries was started in Stilwell to help solve staggering unemployment rates in the area. It uses cutting-edge technology and boasts of products used in outer space, a far cry from its humble beginnings.
"We were kind of a job shop for Western Electric. Then in 1980 or so, they read the writing on the wall and went to defense work," Sean Walkingstick, telecommunications director, said.
Walkingstick explained that the company started out providing relay switches to Western Electric. During the 1970s and 1980s, it took advantage of the increase in defense spending and contracts and began producing wiring harnesses for defense contractors during the years of the Reagan administration. The move from job shop to subcontractor has been incredibly successful for the business.
The eight employees have grown to nearly 300 at various offices throughout the country. Walkingstick said the company has gone global with offices in Germany and Italy.
Walkingstick said he's proud of the growth over the past two decades. "We have been, for most of our history, a defense sub-contractor, so we have built a lot of cable systems for Boeing, Lockheed. ... Currently with Boeing we are doing work on the International Space Station. The cables connect the solar panels to the batteries, I believe."
As the defense budget began to decline, Cherokee Nation Industries looked toward telecommunications and personnel services and continued to expand in other directions. It provides medical services personnel for military bases around the world.
One part of the expansion has included a personnel services division that contracts personnel to the government. After seeing a need for health care personnel at Cherokee clinics, the Medical Services Division was born.
"The way we got into personnel services contracting, it's actually medical services," Walkingstick explained. "The Cherokee Nation itself recruits employees for its clinics in the area. We contract for the government. You marry the two together and we've been recruiting and staffing medical personnel overseas on military bases. It's kind of an interesting fit, but it actually makes sense."
Another boost came when the company was awarded a multi-million dollar contract with Lucent Technologies to assemble and distribute fiber optic equipment for Southwestern Bell.
"The telecommunication business has just gotten crazy lately," Walkingstick said, "so we have been receiving a lot of contracts for that."
The possibilities are endless, Walkingstick said, but he still sees cable production at the core of the business.
"Cherokee Nation Industries is basically three or four different divisions," Walkingstick said. "Back in May, we won an award from Southwestern Bell. They rate all of their suppliers, minority or otherwise. We won the Gold Award, out of 150 suppliers, we were one of 14 that won an award."
Walkingstick said that since both presidential candidates are talking about beefing up military spending, fiber optics will probably mean even more growth for the company.
From a proud heritage, the Cherokee Nation has not only found a way to be a part of the rapid technology growth in the world, but how to make money doing it.