Gary Batton, 47, has seen tremendous growth in the Choctaw Nation since he began working for his tribe over 27 years ago. From a sovereign nation with 120 employees to more than 6,200 today, Batton’s role in this change has included serving as executive director of health and a seven-year appointment to the assistant chief position by the recently-retired Chief Gregory Pyle. Some of Batton’s accomplishments include the creation of the tribal hospital in Talihina, Oklahoma, as well as the creation of other health clinics throughout the Choctaw Nation’s southeast Oklahoma tribal jurisdiction.
Sworn in as Chief on April 28 due to Pyle’s retirement, Batton doesn’t see himself as diverging from the course of leadership already established by Pyle, sticking to the philosophy of “Do what is best for Choctaws.” This includes not only the continuance of tribal gaming and business diversification but also leading the way for tribal water rights within the state of Oklahoma.
However, Batton does see the future of the Choctaw Nation as looking deep into its past. The married father and grandfather is an avid stickball participant and enjoys expanding his knowledge of the Choctaw language. “I’m firmly involved in it,” Batton said about Choctaw culture. “I believe in it, but it’s a generation thing too, to make sure it stays alive.” Ultimately, his goal is that his grandchildren know more about traditional Choctaw ways than he does.
Batton will serve out the remainder of Pyle’s term, which ends in July 2015.
What have your first days in office been like?
For me, it’s been a bittersweet feeling. Chief Pyle and I have been friends for 27 years. At the same time, I’m excited about the future. I’m excited about the platform Chief Pyle and I have set.
The tribe is more stable financially than ever before, which allows me to have more opportunities in regards to getting services to our tribal members. It allows me more opportunity to expand our businesses so we employ our tribal members and create diversification off of gaming. It will allow us to be not so dependable on the federal government, which allows our tribal members to be independent.
With Chief Pyle and myself, the philosophy has not changed whatsoever. We do what is best for our Choctaws. We’re trying to set a path of sustainability for the next 100 years.
What will you do that’s specifically your own vision?
With culture and heritage, I’m going to expand that and continue to grow that. We cannot forget the old ways. I’m starting a Council on Wisdom. You always have to make sure you remain accountable to our people. I’m wanting to go back to the grassroots, where we’re listening to our people and know what they want to say.
What are your plans for a Wellness Center?
We just opened our first Wellness Center in Atoka. We have three more that are opening up in Idabel, Broken Bow and Crowder by the end of this month. We will be expanding that program throughout our Choctaw Nation. I believe in prevention—an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. What we’re trying to do is make sure we don’t have obesity. We want to provide alternatives. We’re going to be building independent living centers throughout the Choctaw Nation. That’s something that we’re going to be doing as well.
How about the growth of your Culture Center in Durant?
I call these “Lifetime Legacy” projects. I want to make this Cultural Center something that 100 years from now, I want people to know about our culture and heritage, where we came from and be able to display that. My goal is to showcase our culture to the world.
What is your personal involvement in Choctaw culture?
It’s very high. I’ve been trying to go back and learn the language better. My grandfather taught me more than my mother. I can’t speak it fluently, but I’ve been trying to learn the language. I’ve been playing stickball. Even though I’m 47, I go out there with the young guys and play stickball—hopefully they won’t get out there and break my leg. I made my first bow about a year ago.
How will your administration continue leading in the role of water rights in Oklahoma, like Chief Pyle was a part of, along with the Chickasaw Nation?
(Chickasaw Nation) Governor (Bill) Anoatubby and I have been dear friends for probably 27 years. We definitely will keep the water fight up. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it. I don’t care if it’s water, air or natural resources, I’m a firm believer in protecting those.
We’re a land-based tribe. To me, if we can’t protect those things—if you don’t want to protect your home, you’re going to lose your home. We’re definitely going to keep up the water fight and anything else that comes along in regards to our natural resources.
What are some primary issues that you see in Indian country as a whole?
Our sovereignty is always attacked. As our tribes are gaining more recognition, there’s certain people who don’t like that. There’s always the biggest attack on how can they get their hands on those dollars. How can they limit our sovereignty? Whether they’re trying to gain our water or timber, we just have to stay at the forefront of our sovereignty of our tribes. Number one.