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March 27, 2014

Meet Native America: Bill John Baker, Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation

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.

Both Principal Chief Baker and Principal Chief Michell Hicks of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians are profiled in Meet Native America this week. The two nations join us in hosting Cherokee Days—a free festival of storytelling, films, dance, music, family activities, and cultural demonstrations at the museum in Washington, D.C., Thursday, April 3, through Saturday, April 5, 2014. Visit the museum's online calendar for the full schedule of festival events. The festival will be webcast live from 11 a.m. to about 3 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. Dennis Zotigh, NMAI 

Chief and Mrs Baker a
Cherokee Nation First Lady Sherry Baker and Principal Chief Bill John Baker, Cherokee Nation, Oklahoma. Photo © Jeremy Charles. Used with permission. 

Please introduce yourself with your name and title. 

Bill John Baker, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation

Where is your nation located?

The Cherokee Nation’s headquarters is in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and our nation’s jurisdiction spans all or part of 14 counties in the northeastern corner of Oklahoma. 

Where were your people originally from?

Where we came from is an important part of who we are as Cherokee people. Our home now is in Oklahoma, but our original and ancestral homelands are in Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky, Alabama, Virginia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. These are the lands we hunted and harvested, the places where our tribal systems of government and education were born, where our ancestors are buried, and where our dances and songs were developed and shared. 

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

Last fall marked the 175th anniversary of the start of the Trail of Tears, when we were forced to leave our homelands. Our ancestors endured unfathomable hardship and tragedy, yet they never gave up, and Cherokee people persevered. We estimate a quarter of the 16,000 Cherokees who started out on the Trail of Tears perished.

Knowing where we come from, and the fortitude and strength our ancestors showed in starting over in Oklahoma, is something deeply personal to each and every Cherokee citizen. That history lies within each of us and is a legacy that is ingrained in us as a people—and as a sovereign nation. After removal, the Cherokee people reestablished our government in Oklahoma. Tribal school systems were created and courts were established; our newspaper informed citizens of events and the day’s news. We rebuilt one of history’s most sophisticated societies.

Today, the Cherokee Nation is a nationwide model for economic, political and cultural sustainability and autonomy. As Cherokee people, we are stronger today than ever before. 

How is the Cherokee national government set up?

The Cherokee Nation has executive, legislative, and judicial branches, with executive power vested in the principal chief, legislative power in the Tribal Council, and judicial power in the Supreme Court and District Court. 

Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?

Ceremonial grounds still exist in several Cherokee communities and follow an ancient leadership and service model. Emphasis is on roles and responsibilities, rather than hierarchy. Each ground has a chief, second chief, community chief, and speaker.

There are seven clans, and each is led by an elder woman. Each clan also has medicine people who work for the wellness and protection of the community. Like in ancient times, the ceremonial grounds are autonomous, each serving and policing its own members and operating independently from the current adopted tripartite government model. However, leaders from the ceremonial grounds are advisors to the chief of the Cherokee Nation. 

How often are elected leaders chosen?

The principal chief, deputy chief, and Tribal Council are elected to four-year terms by registered tribal voters over the age of 18. The Cherokee Nation holds elections every two years, electing seven or eight of the councilors, who serve staggered terms. The principal chief and deputy chief are elected every four years in the same election. 

How often does your council meet?

The Cherokee Nation Tribal Council meets in regular session once a month, with various committee meetings held monthly as well.   

Chief baker at Health roll out 2b
Chief Baker announcing a $100-million commitment to improve health care for Cherokee Nation citizens. The investment of dividends from Cherokee Nation Businesses (CNB) was unanimously approved by the CNB board of directors. Tahlequah, March 28, 2013. Photo courtesy of the Cherokee Nation. Used with permission.

What responsibilities do you have as principal chief?  

As chief, I have taken an oath of office to preserve the history, the culture, and the heritage of the Cherokee Nation. I take my oath very seriously, and every decision I make, I make for the betterment of Cherokee people. I was taught that we honor our ancestors by living healthy, productive lives that leave our world better for the next seven generations. That is a principle that guides me day in and day out as the elected leader of my tribal nation. 

How did your life experience prepare you to lead your nation?

I am uniquely qualified to be the chief of the Cherokee Nation. I have worn many hats as a father, businessman, and Tribal Council member. As a small business owner, I understand budgeting, fiscal responsibility, and job creation. Because my parents and both my grandmothers were teachers, I grew up seeing the value of quality education and how it can shape the lives of young people. As a contractor, I built houses and saw firsthand how important a home is for successful family development. I’ve also farmed and ranched on my family land, which helped me develop an appreciation for conservation and natural resource protection. As the husband of a nurse, I have seen how quality health care can improve the lives of our families and our communities. 

Who inspired you as a mentor? 

I’m inspired by many Cherokee citizens throughout history—the leadership of Chief John Ross, who led the Cherokees during the removal period; the political insight and humor of Will Rogers; and the scholarly work of Sequoyah. However, my mother, Dr. Isabel Baker, is and has always been my moral compass in life. As a lifetime educator, the first mother is dedicated to community and forward progress, ideals guided by her faith and her family. She has always led by example and lived with the greater good in mind. I strive every day to match her work ethic, her priorities, and her spirit. 

Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who?

I am the seventh great-grandson of Nancy Ward—Nanyehi in the Cherokee language—a Beloved Woman of the Cherokee. As a Beloved Woman, she headed the Women's Council and sat on the Council of Chiefs. She, along with the chiefs and other Beloved Women, made important decisions. In this powerful position, her opinion was highly influential in the tribal government and Cherokee history.

Approximately how many citizens are in your nation?

The Cherokee Nation is the largest sovereign tribal government in the United States, with more than 305,000 citizens. As a government, we provide our citizens essential services like health and human services, education, employment services, housing, economic development opportunities, and environmental protection.

What are the criteria to become a citizen?

In accordance with the Constitution of the Cherokee Nation, eligible citizens must trace their ancestry to at least one person listed on the Dawes Rolls. The Dawes Rolls were a federal census of those Indians living in the Cherokee Nation and were used to allot Cherokee land to individual citizens in preparation for Oklahoma statehood. There is no minimum blood quantum for citizens of the Cherokee Nation.

Is your language still spoken on your homelands? If so, what percentage of your people would you estimate are fluent speakers?

There are between 2,000 and 4,000 fluent Cherokee speakers, and many more who are second-language learners of Cherokee. Increasing these numbers is imperative and the primary reason for the Cherokee Nation language immersion school, a language preservation program designed to revitalize the Cherokee language, beginning with our children.

Through the efforts of our Cherokee translation department, the Cherokee language has been embraced by new technology. Now our tribal syllabary, or alphabet, is available on Apple, Microsoft, and Google products. The new generation of speakers we are educating will be able to text, email, produce documents and spreadsheets, and talk all in Cherokee. 

What economic enterprises does the Cherokee Nation own?

Sovereign tribal governments are among the biggest contributors to Oklahoma’s economy. The Cherokee Nation’s economic impact on Oklahoma is more than $1.3 billion. At Cherokee Nation Businesses, our holdings cover multiple sectors, such as gaming and hospitality, construction, aerospace and defense, manufacturing, technology, environmental services, real estate, and health care. In the coming year, we will continue to be aggressive in our approach to job creation and strategies for business growth. 

What annual events does the nation sponsor?

Cherokee National Holiday, held annually on Labor Day weekend, is a celebration of Cherokee heritage and cultural awareness, and a homecoming for our families. Every year tens of thousands of Cherokees and visitors return to our historic capital in Tahlequah to renew friendships and celebrate the Cherokee spirit. The holiday has been observed annually since 1953 to commemorate the signing of the 1839 Cherokee Constitution. Our entertainment, cultural, and athletic events have propelled Cherokee National Holiday into one of the largest festivals in Oklahoma, attracting more than 100,000 visitors from across the world.

What attractions are available for visitors on your land?

Cherokee Nation is located in northeast Oklahoma’s Green Country. With more than 66,000 acres to explore, the area is home to an abundance of lakes, rivers, state parks, and nature trails.

In the Cherokee Nation’s capital city, Tahlequah, and nearby Park Hill, Oklahoma, cultural-tourism efforts have led to the preservation and restoration of four historic sites, three of which are now Cherokee-owned and -operated museums. The Cherokee Heritage Center, one of Oklahoma’s most prestigious tourist attractions, operates in a joint partnership with the Cherokee Nation and recently opened a new outdoor village named Diligwa, reminiscent of the Cherokee Nation in the very early 1700s. Other sites include the Cherokee National Prison Museum, the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court Museum, and the John Ross School.

Cherokee Nation also operates two welcome centers and seven gift shops and partners with other tourism sites, museums and entities throughout the state.

How does your nation deal with the United States as a sovereign nation?

The Cherokee Nation has a well-cultivated relationship with the federal government. In fact, many of the United States’ government-to-government trust responsibilities to Native tribes are the direct result of federal treaties and court decisions involving the Cherokee Nation.

We strive to preserve our self-determination and exercise our sovereign right to govern in our jurisdictional boundaries in northeast Oklahoma. We provide the same critical services to our citizens that the federal government does, including health care, housing, and education.

As tribal citizens, we are blessed to live under three distinct governments: the Cherokee Nation, the United States, and the state of Oklahoma. Our tribal leadership diligently and regularly meets with elected leaders in Washington, D.C., and with members of the administration to ensure our inherent rights to govern ourselves and provide for our citizens remain intact.   

What message would you like to share with the youth of your community?

Cherokee young people are the tribe’s most valuable asset. To them I would say, “Always be proud to be Cherokee. Your government is here to serve you. We will always be here for you to ensure you are healthy, have a home, and have access to a quality education. As your tribe nurtures you, one day you will give back to your people. You are our hope for a brighter future. The strength of our government and preservation of our culture mean that generation after generation of Cherokees have taken on that responsibility to lead. As a people, we have shown time and time again that we will not only survive against all odds, but we will also thrive.” 

Is there anything else you would like to add?

I will borrow a phrase from the great Will Rogers: “I am a Cherokee, and it's the proudest little possession I ever hope to have." 

Thank you. 

To read other interviews in this series, click on the banner below. 

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 images used with permission. 


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