Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby marked the beginning of his unprecedented eighth consecutive term as governor during the historic inauguration ceremony October 1 in the Ataloa Theatre, on the campus of East Central University.
“It is a great honor to serve the Chickasaw people as governor of the Chickasaw Nation,” said Gov. Anoatubby. “We have made tremendous progress working together with the Chickasaw people. With their continued support, we believe our greatest achievements are yet to come.
“It is exciting to look toward the future of the Chickasaw Nation as we travel together toward an even brighter future.”
While Gov. Anoatubby has served 28 years as governor of the tribe, he has been working for the Chickasaw people for 40 years. Before he was first elected governor in 1987, Bill Anoatubby gained some valuable experience working as a tribal employee.
He began work for the Chickasaw Nation in 1975 as health services director. A year later, he was asked to direct its finance department. In October 1978, he was promoted to the position of special assistant to the governor and controller. In 1979, he was elected as the tribe’s first Lt. Governor.
When he began working for the Chickasaw Nation in 1975 as health services director his office was in Sulphur, Oklahoma in the Chickasaw Motor Inn.
In 1975, tribal trust funds were used to fund the tribal government operations budget of $25,000. That budget paid the salaries and expenses of the governor and a bonded treasurer.
Federal funding, on the other hand, paid the salaries and expenses of those involved in delivering federal programs. Federal sources of funding provided less than $1 million, which came with very strict guidelines on its use.
“At the time it seemed like a lot of money, but it was not nearly enough to provide the services that we needed,” said Gov. Anoatubby. “If you look at the control factor, the federal government controlled more of what we did than we did ourselves. What I mean by that is when you receive money from someone they tell you what you can use it for, what your objectives are going to be and so on. It was just a transfer to the tribe of dollars and authority.”
With passage of the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act that relationship began to change. Under the act, tribes could contract for programs and services from the federal government, which enabled tribes to tailor programs to meet the needs of their citizens.
Tribes were also eligible for capacity building grants under the act, which enabled the Chickasaw Nation to begin building its tribal infrastructure.
Today, the Chickasaw Nation has an annual economic impact of more than $2.4 billion in Oklahoma. The tribe operates more than 100 businesses and has nearly 14,000 employees. These businesses include a bank, manufacturing, fine chocolate factory, healthcare clinics, pharmacies, casinos, horse racing tracks, hotels, convenience stores, radio stations, information technology, administrative support services and cultural center.
While the tribe has a firm financial foundation today, when Gov. Anoatubby was first elected, the tribe faced difficult financial circumstances.
In 1986, then Governor Overton James informed the tribal legislature that they were in danger of depleting tribal trust funds. Those trust funds were used for tribal government operations, including the salary of elected officials, travel and other government expenses.
There was less than $500,000 in the tribe’s trust fund account. While trust properties were earning about $125,000 annually from oil and gas leases, timber leases and other sources, they were spending about $250,000 each year on tribal government operations.
Entering his first term, Gov. Anoatubby knew he faced a significant challenge.
“We had several businesses that weren’t making it, so we had to find a way to make them work,” said Gov. Anoatubby. “Economic development was a plank in my platform. Healthcare, education, senior services and other things we still do today were also part of the platform. It was a matter of sink or swim.
“In order for the tribal government to stay afloat, we needed to create some sources of revenue – and shore up the ones we had. We had some great folks working here that were just as determined to succeed, so we just went to work. Some things didn’t work, but the ones that did were enough to pull us above water.”
Neal McCaleb, former Assistant Secretary of Interior for Indian Affairs, explains the difficulties facing tribes across the country at the time.
“I’ve been able to witness tribal government and tribal enterprise since the late 60s and early 70s, because I was on the Indian Affairs Commission and it was pretty grim,” said McCaleb. “We didn’t have any resources of our own. We were wholly dependent on the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service, which were dramatically underfunded then as they are now. And along came Bill Anoatubby, who had a vision of economic self-sufficiency.
“He’s got a vision, and he’s focused on getting it done, which doesn’t mean that everything he has tried has worked 100 percent, but most of it has. He was in charge during those years when the tribe began to organize and implement successful businesses and plow the profits of those businesses back into tribal services for the people, like health care.”
As the Chickasaw Nation was beginning to establish a firm financial foundation, the tribe faced another significant challenge when the State of Oklahoma challenged tribal sovereignty.
Neal McCaleb, former Assistant Secretary of Interior for Indian Affairs, praised the leadership abilities Gov. Anoatubby demonstrated in dealing with the issue.
“I think part of good leadership is courage and he had the courage to stand up to state government on issues of taxation especially on fuel taxes,” said McCaleb. “I understand that they came after him personally and they put a lien on his house, and he took them all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States and prevailed on this fuel tax issue.
“As a result, we have a very attractive compact as do the other tribes that are participating.”
McCaleb was the Oklahoma Secretary of Transportation when the court ruled on the case. He said the decision could have had a very negative impact on the state were it not for the sound judgment of Gov. Anoatubby.
“The department I was running, the transportation department, depended entirely on fuel taxes, and if he hadn’t been willing to negotiate a fair settlement that would pass the legislature, it would have bankrupted our program in the state.
“He could have taken a hard line, but he didn’t, he took a very statesmanlike position. He is interested not just exclusively in the greater good of Chickasaws, but the greater good of Oklahoma, and that is why he has so much respect from the business leaders in Oklahoma.”
Gov. Anoatubby has long operated under the philosophy that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Representative Tom Cole, who represents Oklahoma’s Fourth Congressional District, illustrated how the Chickasaw Nation puts that philosophy into action in remarks published in the Congressional Record.
“I have witnessed the Governor achieve amazing things for our tribe, for the State of Oklahoma, and for tribes across the country. The Governor has presided over the Renaissance of the Chickasaw Nation by focusing on increasing economic development, expanding health coverage, improving education, and preserving and reviving the tribe's cultural and historical heritage so important for our future vitality and self-identity.”
Rep. Cole added “Governor Anoatubby profoundly understands that neither the Chickasaw Nation nor the State of Oklahoma can thrive independently of one another. He has demonstrated time and time again that working together, the two can bring remarkable benefits to all Oklahomans, Native and non-Native alike.”
An economic impact study conducted by Oklahoma City University revealed that the Chickasaw Nation has an economic impact of more than $2.4 billion annually in Oklahoma. The study also demonstrated the tribe is responsible for creating thousands of jobs in the state.
“We are proud to play a role in helping other Oklahoma businesses grow and succeed,” said Gov. Anoatubby. “We believe that what is good for the Chickasaw Nation is good for Oklahoma and what is good for Oklahoma is good for the Chickasaw Nation.”
Successful economic development efforts have enabled the Chickasaw Nation to offer more than 280 programs and services, including education, health care, housing, aging and family services to name a few.
Health care has always been a high priority for the Chickasaw Nation. Under the leadership of Gov. Anoatubby, the Chickasaw Nation assumed responsibility for its own health care in 1994. That decision was a giant step forward in their self-governance efforts.
As the tribe began operating their health care services and making administrative decisions at the local level, they were better able to understand the needs of their clients, which led to the expansion of services. In 2004, they opened a Diabetes Care Center with a full spectrum of services, from vision care to pediatrics and nutrition to exercise consultation.
In 2010, the tribe became the first tribe to complete construction of a new hospital under the IHS Joint Venture program. The Chickasaw Nation invested more than $150 million in construction of the Chickasaw Nation Medical Center in Ada.
Under the program, the IHS provides millions of dollars in additional funding annually for staffing and operation of a facility built with tribal funds.
McCaleb noted that the Chickasaw Nation has “the finest hospital and clinic system in rural Oklahoma today.
Education is also a high priority. In the past four years a total of $64 million in educational assistance has been awarded. This year alone, Chickasaw Nation higher education and career technology programs have provided more than $18 million to more than 4,700 students.
“We are all enjoying the benefits of the scholarships for our kids and grandkids,” said McCaleb. “I have 13 grandkids, so I’ve been a personal beneficiary of those scholarships. And so has everybody else.”
Governor Anoatubby has continued to be a leader in defending and protecting tribal sovereignty. Recently, the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nation finalized a $186 million settlement with the federal government in a lawsuit regarding the management of trust assets.
At issue was an accounting of management and disposition of more than a million acres of Chickasaw and Choctaw tribal lands that the U.S. government took control of on the eve of Oklahoma statehood. The U.S., as federal trustee, held those lands in trust for the benefit of the Nations.
The settlement will be divided between the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations based on longstanding treaty agreements. According to those treaties, the Choctaw Nation will receive $139.5 million, while the Chickasaw Nation will receive $46.5 million.
“We are gratified by the federal trustee's willingness to face and take steps toward resolving our serious concern,” said Gov. Anoatubby. “The settlement we have reached reflects our mutual desire to move past litigation and toward a more productive relationship.
“We believe this is in the best interest of the Chickasaw and Choctaw people and applaud Chief Gary Batton, former Chief Greg Pyle and commend the excellent work conducted by our legal team under the outstanding leadership of Judge Mike Burrage and Bob Rabon.”
Gov. Anoatubby said the Chickasaw Nation’s portion of the funds will be invested and earnings used to fund future programs and services to serve the Chickasaw people.
“This settlement will be utilized to further our mission to enhance the overall quality of life of the Chickasaw people,” said Gov. Anoatubby. “We will carefully consider how to invest these funds so that we can improve the lives of all Chickasaws.”