‘We never tried a young person in office’

(Photo Courtesy of Durell Cooper III)

Kalle Benallie

The 28-year-old Apache Tribe of Oklahoma chairman is less than four months into his new position and is adjusting to leading during a pandemic

Kalle Benallie
Indian Country Today 

Durell Cooper III became one of the youngest leaders in Indian Country when he won the Apache Tribe of Oklahoma general election on June 29 as its chairman. He is 28.

He won by 176 votes against the previous chairman Bobby Komardly and previous vice chairman Kristopher Killsfirst.

Cooper decided to run for tribal chairman while completing his undergraduate degree at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, Kansas.

And he is walking down the road he is meant to be on, according to his Apache name.

Last year, while he was working on his master’s degree in Indian Law at the University of Oklahoma, his late grandfather, Nathan “Jumbo” Tselee, gave him his Apache name, Itá Dahchii, which means Two Feathers.

“One feather means the road I’m going down now and then the other feather represents the road I’m creating for others to follow,” he said.

This is not the first tribal leadership role for Cooper; he was also the tribe’s secretary treasure from 2018 to 2020 under Komardly. The tribe headquarters are in Anadarko, Oklahoma.

“That gave me much needed experience to carry out the duties of chairman,” he said. “I’m glad I took that first step.” 

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(Photo Courtesy of Durell Cooper III)

INDIAN COUNTRY TODAY: What was your reaction when you won?

COOPER: The reaction was kind of overjoyed pretty much. It was the first time in our tribe that something like that happened -- someone so young got elected, even in our area, we’ve never seen a young person do something like that.

What was it like to participate in an election during COVID-19?

All the meet and greets, just everything I had planned was completely stopped. I had to do a lot, almost all of my campaigns through Facebook, through Facebook live and social media.

Were you always interested in tribal politics?

When I first started growing up, I wanted to be an athletic trainer. That was my goal. I wanted to pursue that career. I believe it was in 2012, our casino got shut down, it’s called Silver Buffalo [Casino]. All these benefits that we were receiving suddenly stopped. Instead of complaining about it or wishing we had that, I wanted to go to school for my business degree.

Our elders always say to our young people: go out and get an education and come back to our tribe.

Did anybody express their concerns about your age or experience?

There was definitely a slight handful, but I think everybody in our tribe wanted change, change from what’s been going on. We elected retired BIA officials, retired military people, retired workers but we never tried a young person in office.

What do you think about other Natives who were elected at young ages like Carri Jones, who was 32 when she was elected in 2012 as tribal chair of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe? She said, "It’s time for my generation to start taking over.”

I completely agree with that statement. I always go back to that seventh generation,that prophecy, our age groups in that seventh generation where we’re supposed to be making and creating the biggest change and movements in Indian Country.

How has your first few months as chairman been since the June 27 election?

It’s definitely been a different process due to COVID. It’s been a lot of stopping and going. I believe it’s helped the leadership and my leadership skills. It’s helped so much because now you have to conduct these meetings from phone, you have to communicate by phone. It’s helping my communication and leadership skills a lot, and even to my tribal members.

Can you explain your other priorities for the tribe ?

My biggest platform that I wanted to run on is the reopening of our Silver Buffalo Casino here in Anadarko, Oklahoma. For economic development, putting economic development at the forefront of our tribe. Also, changing the way that the Apache tribe of Oklahoma does actual business.

I wanted to change the persona of the Apache tribe’s name and actual business and conducting good business where these investors or outside entities can sit here and work with the Apache tribe of Oklahoma. I have people on my committee that bring their expertise in whether it’s culture, finance or HR.

And for others to get to know you better, what do you like to do in your free time?

I love lifting weights, doing cross fit and olympic lifting. I have two daughters I had at a super young age. I had one daughter when I was 17 years old and another daughter when I was 23 years old. On the weekends I love spending time with them and getting to do things with them.

Has there been any funny or interesting generational gap moments?

Our previous committee, now that we have two older guys, a lot of the people that they’re conducting business with are older as well...so every time I came into the room it was kind of like this little ball of energy. Instead of giving formal handshakes, they’d be excited to see every single time where the younger people shake hands, then pull it off and do some knuckles and stuff. Everytime I came into the building, everybody would love doing that to me, a little chest bump.

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Kalle Benallie, Navajo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today's Phoenix bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @kallebenallie or email her at kbenallie@indiancountrytoday.com. Benallie was once the opening act for a Cirque Du Soleil show in Las Vegas.

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