Lisa Johnson Billy continues to make history. The two-time Chickasaw Nation legislator and former Oklahoma State Representative is now the first Native American to be named to the Oklahoma Governor’s Cabinet in the state’s history, serving as the first Secretary of Native American Affairs.
She served in the Oklahoma state House from 2004 until 2016. She represented District 42 in south-central Oklahoma as the first Native American, the first woman, and the first Republican to represent her district.
Gov. Kevin Stitt, Cherokee Nation, a Republican from Tulsa who was elected in November, created the position during his first few weeks in office and appointed Billy on Jan. 30. She was confirmed by the Senate committee Feb. 28.
Billy, who has a Bachelor of Arts and Business Degree from Northeastern State University and a Master of Education degree from the University of Oklahoma told Indian Country Today that Gov. Stitt created the brand new position as a way to increase economic strength by involving tribal nations.
“Gov Stitt called me in January. So it’s brand new. He created the position. Gov. Stitt wants to see our state become a top ten state and part of that is becoming economically strong. Tribes are a big part of that,” said Billy.
“Lisa has been a consistent and faithful representative for the people of Oklahoma, from her time serving in the Oklahoma Legislature to her role today in the Chickasaw Nation Legislature,” said Gov. Stitt in a press release. “She will bring her hard work ethic and wealth of experience to the table in order to serve as an adviser to my administration and help foster strong partnerships between our tribal governments and the State of Oklahoma.”
Billy was a major influence in the creation of the Native American Caucus as a state legislator in 2006. “It picked up a lot of momentum and we had other members join us. Those members were tribal citizens as well as non-tribal citizens that were elected to serve in the House and Senate who wanted to help make that happen. We can’t just preach to the choir, we have to get everybody involved in the process.”
“Tribes are very involved at the state level, but when we started the Native American Caucus in 2006 there were a handful of tribes that had been involved at the state and had some relationships with the leadership, but most of the tribes did not. Now tribes host their own day at the State Capitol.”
Billy, who is currently serving her third year of a three-year term for the Chickasaw Nation (her first stint was from 1996-2002) is now reaching out to tribes, “We have 39 federally recognized tribes in the state and my job is being an adviser to the governor, so I’m touring across the state and meeting with every tribe and finding out what they want from state government. How can we better serve them? Initially, of course, they will be meeting with Gov. Stitt.”
Billy says since the Governor is Cherokee, it is a strong reason to have a cabinet position for the benefit of Native Americans. “We are tribes and we’re not leaving the state. We are an economic arm of this great state. I think it’s important and I think it’s timely as well. The Governor wants to get out and see what’s happening in Indian Country. We have some great secrets.”
Billy says there is a vast economic power in tribally-based tourism. “When people come to Oklahoma they want to tour tribal areas. Lt. Gov. (Matt) Pinnell is very focused on tourism. He asked me, ‘What can we do to help tourism in the state?’ I said, ‘let’s take (tourists) to Cheyenne country.”
“They have this amazing buffalo program where they are raising buffalo. Let’s take people down there so they can see the buffalo. People from out of state they come to Oklahoma and they think Indians and buffalo, they go together.”
Billy says she is looking forward to working in her position for the benefit of tribes.
“It’s challenging and daunting because there’s a lot of work that needs to be done,” Billy said of her new job. “But on the other end, it’s very exciting to host our tribal leaders at the State Capitol – sovereign to sovereign.”
Harlan McKosato is a former host of Native America Calling and has served as an adjunct professor of journalism at the Institute of American Indian Arts. In 2005 McKosato was recognized by his alma mater, the University of Oklahoma, as a “Distinguished Alumnus of the Gaylord College of Journalism.” He received his bachelor’s degree in Journalism & Mass Communications (Radio/TV/Film) from OU in 1988. Harlan is a citizen of both the United States and the Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma.
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