TulsaPeople Q&A: Bill John Baker
Principal Chief, Cherokee Nation
Principal Chief Baker, in his Tahlequah office, is a native of Tahlequah and is the fourth generation of his family to reside in Cherokee County.
To say that last year’s election for principal chief of the Cherokee Nation was contentious is to dramatically understate it.
What began as one election in late June became two when the original results were invalidated amid challenges, appeals and recount requests. A second vote was held in late September. When the smoke cleared, longtime Tribal Council member Bill John Baker defeated incumbent Chad Smith to take leadership of the more than 300,000 Cherokee citizens who make up the largest federally recognized tribe in the United States.
With six children and nine grandchildren, Baker, 60, now finds himself at the helm of a jurisdiction encompassing all or part of 14 counties across northeastern Oklahoma, including the northern parts of Tulsa County, as well as Washington, Rogers, Craig, Nowata, Muskogee and eight others.
The tribe’s economic engine, Cherokee Nation Businesses, includes eight casinos, as well as interests in hospitality, personnel services, telecommunications, distribution, manufacturing and environmental services. All total, the Cherokee Nation’s annual economic impact in Oklahoma and surrounding areas is estimated to be more than $1.3 billion.
Baker took office in October and was formally inaugurated in early November.
You are a native of Tahlequah and represent the fourth generation of your family in Cherokee County. What is your favorite childhood memory?
Growing up as the youngest son of schoolteacher parents could not have been any more “Ozzie and Harriet.” It was absolutely a joy. I have memories of building tree houses and turkeys roosting in the next tree. Of being able to ride a horse out to the river. We were so fortunate. We had college football, college basketball and high school sports, and we thought it was the center of the universe.
You earned an education degree from Northeastern State University but bought a furniture business just out of college. Are there lessons you learned as a businessman that have stayed with you?
Absolutely. Being a businessman is really about finding opportunities to serve people. And every problem that comes to you is really just an opportunity to fix something or to create another product.
To be in business in a small town, if you don’t treat people right, you don’t stay in business. The pool of customers is just too small to not solve problems.
I think over 40 years — I’ve been in many businesses, like retail, construction, motel, developed condos — all of those things have given me experiences that are invaluable. Every one of them is something I can draw on as chief of the Cherokee Nation.
You are a past PTA president, a former youth sports coach, a charter member of the Tahlequah Rotary Club and past president of the Tahlequah Area Chamber of Commerce. What drove that level of community involvement?
My grandmother taught me at an early age that you have to give back, to volunteer. I think that every parent ought to coach a little league soccer team at least once. If you’re going to complain about the schools, or complain about education, then you need to get in there, roll up your sleeves and try to make a difference.
What was your strength as a coach?
When I coached soccer, I had never played soccer a day in my life and I knew nothing about it. But I knew that I could hire one of the college soccer players who needed extra money to be my assistant. By hiring his talents, it made my whole team much better. He knew what to teach them, and I learned from him.
I feel the same way about the tribe. I hire talent with skills that I don’t have.
How important is family?
Very. I’m blessed that my mother is still living and extremely active. We stick together. We come from a family that believes in one another and cares for each other. At the end of the day, family is always there.
What prompted you to run for chief?
I thought we could better serve our people, and I was somewhat frustrated by the constant passing up of good ideas that would really help people in need. When we got to a point where we were just all business and not thinking about how we can serve our people, I got frustrated.
So you believe a business approach to political office can help, but within limits?
No, business works. But it would be like me running my furniture store and not taking care of my kids. The business is just a means to an end.
As a private businessperson, the money is not what it’s about. It’s about being able to raise your family, to make them comfortable, to have the means to see that they get college educations, to see that they have the opportunities.
The tribe is no different. It’s not about the bottom line. But we have to have business to be able to afford to do the things that we should for our people. So there has to be a balance.
Were there those close to you who encouraged your run?
Many of my supporters on the council, and many community people, asked me to run for chief — eight years ago, four years ago. I didn’t think the timing was right.
I really enjoyed being on the Tribal Council, and my heart is still over there, where you have time to deal with individuals and take care of them one at a time and you can follow up on their problems.
As long as I was over there, and we could identify a problem, and we could find a permanent fix for not only that person but everybody else who was similarly situated, I was happy.
And then, like I said, I got unhappy in the past four years because I felt we were not given the resources that were really needed. So a lot of people asked me to run. And a lot of people wished I hadn’t.
The election was drawn out and fairly divisive. Did that take a personal toll?
No, it really didn’t. I truly enjoy campaigning. I enjoy getting out and meeting people and listening to their hopes and dreams and fears. I was blessed that every night, the second I put my head on my pillow, I went to sleep. And I slept extremely well the entire campaign. I had so many volunteers who would lift me up every day and so many people praying for me.
Is spirituality a big part of your life?
I think faith is everything. I don’t think I have ever accomplished anything but by the grace.
Are your beliefs going to be obvious during your tenure as chief?
I ask for guidance every morning. I think it will define my tenure.
In what way?
Every decision I make, I’m going to look at how is this going to best serve the Cherokee people, and I’m going to ask God for guidance on how to do that.
Post-election, how do you plan to reunify the tribe?
We’ve started that process already. Even at the inauguration, we were able to bring together what used to be the Cherokee adult choir but was split several years ago between the Methodists and Baptists.
And it was the first time in history that we’ve been able to get the chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, the chief of the Cherokee Nation and the chief of the (United Keetoowah band of Cherokee Indians) together in a ceremony.
My whole campaign was based on the vision that, if you are Cherokee, we all came from one fire. When the Cherokee were just a very small group, all of our ancestors were literally around one fire.
Are the Cherokee people hungry for unity?
Fifty-six percent of them are. I have my detractors, but I think the majority are ready to get about the business of being nice and taking care of each other and not fussing and spending money on lawsuits.
What are your primary objectives as chief?
We have not built significant housing in 10 years. I have a plan to build affordable housing for as many Cherokees as have the need. This will create a lot of jobs for a lot of Cherokees. We can build these homes all over the 14 counties.
We can use our advantage as a tribe to not only buy materials cheaper and not pay sales tax on them, but we can also help the school districts that these homes are built in because building through the housing authority of the Cherokee Nation, which oversees the tribe’s housing programs, we have the advantage of what’s called Impact Aid.
So significant housing is one goal. What else?
Before I got off the council, I was able to present a piece of legislation that takes 5 percent of the profits from our casinos to use for contract health, where we actually pay for health services for our people. That’s going to help a lot of folks get their needed surgeries and get the health care they need. That was the very first piece of legislation that I signed as principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.
There are also job needs. My entire adult life I’ve been on economic development commissions and on the Tahlequah Chamber of Commerce, where we’ve been trying to create jobs in Tahlequah and Indian country for the last 40 years. I’m going to do my darndest to actually deliver on some of these good jobs.
What types of jobs are you targeting?
The world economy is such, and the mood of America is such, that a lot of things that were outsourced to India and to Mexico may be brought back. There’s some manufacturing, some assembly.
There are call centers that went to India 10 or 12 years ago, and they’re finding that they can take advantage of some of the tax breaks and incentives that we have available here in Indian country, so all of a sudden they can in-source to Oklahoma or the Cherokee Nation and that will really make economic sense.
Our people are extremely intelligent, and we are committed to helping our people with education, but we need to bring the jobs to the 14 counties, and we’re putting a lot of time and energy into making that happen.
If you had to describe your governing philosophy in just three words, what would they be?
Praise the Lord. All things are possible through Him.
What’s the most common misconception about the Cherokee Nation?
Probably the amount of money the casinos make. I think there is a perception that we are rolling in billions of dollars a year and that there is just so much money there that we can be all things to all people.
The casinos do well, but they don’t make the kind of dollars that we could do a per capita or anything like that.
And I think the other misconception is that the federal government gives us all of these dollars. That they are taxpayer dollars and they just give them to the Cherokee Nation and it is wasted.
The truth is, almost every dollar the federal government sends to Cherokee Nation is for programs like food distribution centers that we bid on that the government would have to do if we didn’t. But people think they just give us that money. They don’t just give it — we earn it.
And it’s the same with our nine clinics around the 14 counties. If we didn’t have those, think about how many more people would be going to the emergency rooms at city hospitals. We served more than a million patient visits last year. If we didn’t do it, it would be at the expense of places like Hillcrest and St. John. It’s a unique balance of taking a specific population and saying, hey, we think we can serve these people better on less money.
Speaking of money, the Cherokee Nation employs more than 8,200 people. Is that commonly known?
The Cherokee Nation does everything that the federal government does except we don’t have an army.
We have welfare, donated foods, roads, housing, health care, education.
According to a recent economic impact study, we are the fourth-largest employer in Tulsa County because of the economic impact of the Cherokee Nation and through the jobs created in the small businesses with which we do business.
As far as tourism goes, the state of Oklahoma has welcome centers, and the No. 1 asked-for brochure is about the Cherokee Nation. From all over the world, if they are asking for tourism info, it’s about us. We bring in a lot of dollars to northeastern Oklahoma, and to Tulsa specifically, because of cultural tourism.
Your great-great grandmother, Sarah Tackett, came to Indian Territory after her parents died on the Trail of Tears. If she could see you now, would she be surprised?
I don’t think so. She came from a long line of chiefs before they came to Oklahoma.
Is that a big legacy to live up to?
People ask me if I’m busy. And I say yeah, and I don’t know if it’s just easy to be busy or if I’m good at it. Being chief is not hard work. It’s a joy to get up and come in every day, and very few days do I get home before 7 or 8, but it’s not tiring, and it’s not anything to dread. Every day when I go home, I think, I wish I had gotten a little more done today. But every day we are taking care of some stuff. And for some people, that stuff is life-changing.