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 people today. —Dennis Zotigh
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 casts 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 twenty members with most of those holding Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB) cards.
How many tribes are in your state? Who are they?
Oklahoma is home to 38 federally recognized tribal nations:
Absentee Shawnee Tribe
Alabama Quassarte Tribal Town
Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes
Citizen Potawatomi Nation
Delaware Tribe of Indians
Eastern Shawnee Tribe
Fort Sill Apache Tribe
Kialegee Tribal Town
Kickapoo Tribe of Oklahoma
Muscogee (Creek) Nation
Sac & Fox Nation
Thlopthlocco Tribal Town
United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians
Wichita and Affiliated Tribes
Do you ever meet with the Native people of your state?
Yes, as a representative and as a Native, I meet with various tribal leaders and tribal organizations across the State of Oklahoma.
Do the Native people in Oklahoma vote in state elections?
Yes, we do.
How often does the state legislature meet?
Oklahoma session meets for legislative duties every February through May.
What responsibilities do you have as a state representative?
My responsibilities include being available to my constituents and hosting town halls and various meetings across my district. District 42 has nine communities, and I make myself available to the local schools, where I visit annually and lead mock legislative sessions so students better understand the process. I also meet with our local fire fighters and visit the Chambers of Commerce, senior citizen sites, and local youth and community events. I attend as many youth livestock shows and sporting events as I can, which makes it possible for my constituents to share their concerns
I am currently serving as the floor leader in the Oklahoma House of Representatives, so my duties include reviewing all legislation as it comes out of committee and preparing the House agenda. I am also a vice chairman for the Public Safety Appropriation Committee, which means I assist the chairman in reviewing all budget-related items for the Oklahoma Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement Commission (ABLE), Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training (CLEET), Department of Corrections, Office of the Fire Marshal, Office of the Medical Examiner, Bureau of Narcotics, Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI), and Department of Public Safety. And I serve on the leadership team for Speaker Jeff Hickman.
What is a significant point in the Oklahoma state history that you would like to share?
Oklahoma Statehood, November 16, 1907: At this point the sovereignty for tribes was nearly dissolved. Our tribal communities began to melt into the State of Oklahoma. It has taken a significant amount of time, effort, and work by tribal leaders to restore tribal governments.
Our tribal leaders still work very hard for tribal members. Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby always reminds me that we are Chickasaw citizens who live in Oklahoma, driving on the same roads and attending the same schools, and that therefore it is important that we work together as a team to move Oklahoma forward.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your community?
I believe my total life experience has prepared me. I was raised on a small farm where work had to be completed regardless of the weather, or if I was sick or thought I was too busy. My parents taught me the value of hard work and working alongside our neighbors when work had to be done. Growing up in small towns helped me to be accountable and responsible. I attended college at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah and later received my Master of Education degree from the University of Oklahoma.
I ran for the Chickasaw Nation Legislature while in my twenties and served two terms. I had the privilege to serve alongside my father. This provided me the opportunity to recognize how smart my dad is and to recognize his loyalty to the Chickasaw people. I developed a small business called Peacemakers while I was in college at NSU, and this experience truly assists me now as I make policy decisions for the State of Oklahoma.
I also think being a mom helped me to be a better legislator for my tribe and now for my state.
Are you a descendant of a historical leader?
Not that I am aware of.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
I have many mentors, and I am extremely grateful. My parents, Frank and Beverly Johnson, are my first teachers. Helen Cole, Neal McCaleb, Governor Bill Anoatubby, Congressman Tom Cole, to name a few, have had a huge impact on my thinking and believing in new possibilities! I also had an extraordinary professor while at NSU—Dr. Susan Frusher. She lifted the limits of my own dreams. A man named Jake Chanate helped me to believe I could build the Peacemaker youth group and touch lives. Chief Wilma Mankiller also encouraged me to see that, many times, dreams are really made of hard work. I had the opportunity to meet Howard Rainer when I was a freshman in college. Later, my husband and I had the opportunity to work with Howard. His dignity, his character, his morals still guide me today. One of his favorite sayings is, “If you chase your dreams with excellence, nobody can stop you!” Howard Rainer has left a lasting imprint on me, along with Native families everywhere.
Approximately how many constituents are in your district? Approximately how many are Native?
I have about 43,000 constituents in my district. Probably about 20 percent are Native American of various tribes.
How have you used your elected position to help Natives and other minorities?
I have been able to bring various tribal leaders to the table, so to speak, at the Oklahoma State Capitol, whether in meetings with the Speaker of the House, the governor, or the lieutenant governor. Hopefully I have also been a voice for Native issues at the capitol. We now have Cherokee Day, Choctaw Day, and Chickasaw Day at the capitol. These are new events that are making a big impact on policymakers.
What message would you like to share with the youth of your Native community?
I tell young people to dream big and never give up, no matter the obstacles, no matter the opposition.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I believe a quote that Margaret Mead said many years ago: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Olympic gold medalist Billy Mills also inspired me decades ago when he said “Find your dream. It’s the pursuit of the dream that heals you.”
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From left to right: Representative Ponka-We Victors (Tohono O’odham/Southern Ponca) taking the oath of office in the Kansas House of Representatives; photo courtesy of Kansas Rep. Scott Schwab. Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache) at the Sundance Film Festival; photo courtesy of WireImage. Sergeant Debra Mooney (Choctaw) at the powwow in Al Taqaddum Air Force Base, Iraq, 2004; photo courtesy of Sgt. Debra Mooney. Councilman Jonathan Perry (Wampanoag) in traditional clothing; photo courtesy of Jonathan Perry. Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee) at Blackhorse et al. v. Pro Football, Inc., press conference, U.S. Patent and Trade Office, February 7, 2013; photo courtesy of Mary Phillips. All photos used with permission.