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Lisa Johnson-Billy: NMAI’s Meet Native America Series

The National Museum of the American Indian interview series Meet Native America continues today with Lisa Johnson-Billy.

In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native peoples today.

Please introduce yourself with your name and title.

Lisa Johnson-Billy, Oklahoma representative for district 42.

What tribes are you affiliated with?

Chickasaw and Choctaw.

What is a significant point in history from your tribes that you would like to share?

The year 1832 is the removal for the Choctaw Nation, and it was very significant due to the loss of life along the removal.

For the Chickasaw people the removal was 1837, and it literally removed our people out of prosperity into poverty. But also significant for the Chickasaw people were contacts with the Spanish conquistadors—the Chickasaw people forced these foreigners off the Chickasaw boundaries. Years later the Chickasaw forced back the French, and eventually the Chickasaw people became allies with the Americans—specifically, with George Washington. The Chickasaw leader Piomingo forged a lasting relationship with Washington. The Chickasaw people joined alongside the Americans fighting against the British to build the United States.

World War I and World War II were also extremely important. Native people were not allowed to speak our languages in our educational institutions during this time. In fact, it was actively discouraged: Tribal children were severely punished for speaking Native languages in schools. But at this same time, our tribal men were joining the U.S. military of their own free will and at a higher rate than any race. And these same men went on to serve in the military and create the tribal code languages that America's enemies were never able to decipher. Members from Oklahoma tribes of the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Comanche, and Seminole helped to create and carry out these secret tribal code languages.

In 2009, with the support of the Oklahoma Native American Caucus, I was able to bring forth Oklahoma House Resolution 1031 and honor the Choctaw Code Talkers on the House floor. It was a significant event for the descendants! Choctaw Chief Gregory E. Pyle and Assistant Chief Gary Batton were also recognized on the House floor for their leadership in preserving the history of the Code Talkers. My own grandfather was punished for speaking Chickasaw in boarding schools, and yet years later the State of Oklahoma honored our tribal people for their language.

How is your state government set up?

The government of the State of Oklahoma, established by the Oklahoma Constitution, is a republican democracy modeled after the federal government of the United States. The state government has three branches: the executive, legislative, and judicial. Through a system of separation of powers or "checks and balances," each of these branches has some authority to act on its own, some authority to regulate the other two branches, and has some of its own authority, in turn, regulated by the other branches.

The state government is based in Oklahoma City, and the head of the executive branch is the governor of Oklahoma. The legislative branch is called the legislature and consists of the Oklahoma Senate and the Oklahoma House of Representatives. The Oklahoma Supreme Court and the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals are the state's highest courts.

How are leaders chosen?

They are elected from their districts.

Are Democrats or Republicans more dominant in your state? Do legislators vote along party lines?

Republicans are the majority party, and we work together on most issues. Occasionally, there are votes cast along party lines.

Are there any other Natives who are elected leaders in your state?

Yes, there are other Native Americans who serve in the legislature. In fact, nearly 10 years ago, Rep. Paul Wesselhoft (Citizen Potawatomi) and I set up the first Oklahoma Native American Caucus. As we began the process of developing the caucus, then-member Shane Jett, a Cherokee citizen, eagerly jumped on board, and together we developed by-laws and elected chairmen. I served as the first co-chairman. We designed the caucus to be bipartisan, in that we always elect one chairman who is a Republican and one who is a Democrat. Our original goals included developing better relationships with our tribal governments and leaders. We also assisted House and Senate members in knowing which tribe or tribes live in their districts. The caucus has accomplished these goals and has passed several pieces of significant legislation, including a tribal law enforcement bill and a tribal language bill. We also created a tribal liaison position with the governor's leadership team. The caucus has about 20 members with most of those holding Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB) cards.

To read the full interview, visit the NMAI series here.