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.

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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.

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Where:
The Exchange Center at Expo Square
4145 E 21st St
Tulsa, OK
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Where:
Hard Rock Casino - Cabin Creek
777 W Cherokee St
Catoosa, OK
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Where:
Bad Ass Renee's
6373 E 31st St
Tulsa, OK
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Where:
Crystal Skull
1005 S Sheridan Rd
Tulsa, OK
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Where:
Bistro at Seville
10021 S Yale Ave
Tulsa, OK
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Cost: $5

Where:
Centennial Lounge at VFW Post 577
1109 E 6th St
Tulsa, OK
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Where:
Blackbird on Pearl
1336 E 6th St
Tulsa, OK
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For only January and February - four-legged family members can join you for a walk at the Botanic Garden - Fridays and Saturdays in January and February only.  Dogs must be on a leash (no...

Cost: FREE for Garden members and member dogs; Regular admission for non-members and $

Where:
Tulsa Botanic Garden
3900 Tulsa Botanic Drive
Tulsa, OK  74127
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Sponsor: Tulsa Botanic Garden
Telephone: 918-289-0330
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2-WEEK SPECIAL EXHIBIT ON OKLAHOMA-BORN ASTRONAUT WILLIAM "BILL" POGUE AT TASM TULSA, Okla. – From Jan. 22 through Feb. 3, the Tulsa Air and Space Museum & Planetarium...

Cost: Free with Admission

Where:
Tulsa Air and Space Museum & Planetarium
3624 North 74th East Ave.
Tulsa, OK  74115
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Sponsor: Tulsa Air and Space Museum & Planetarium
Telephone: 918-834-9900
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Opening to the public on Thursday, Nov. 16, the 110th anniversary of Oklahoma statehood, “The Art of Oklahoma” celebrates the Museum’s outstanding and...

Cost: Free with admission

Where:
Oklahoma City Museum of Art
415 Couch Dr.
Oklahoma City, OK  73102
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SWENext DesignLab is a half-day event on Saturday, January 27, for middle schoolers in grades 6-8 who want to experience the creative and innovative facets of engineering....

Cost: $5-$7

Where:
Renaissance Tulsa Hotel & Convention Center
6808 South 107th East Avenue
Tulsa, OK  74133
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Sponsor: Society of Women Engineers
Telephone: 630-305-0003
Contact Name: Jenny Balogh
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All children ages 13 and under, accompanied by an adult, will be allowed in to all 2017-18 ORU Athletics ticketed sports. ALL KIDS – IT’S FREE! is strictly a promotion. These tickets have no...

Cost: $12, $17, $22

Where:
Mabee Center
7777 S Lewis Ave.
Tulsa, OK  74171
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Sponsor: Mabee Center
Telephone: 918-495-6000
Contact Name: Box Office
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Hear pieces by Bizet, Monteverdi, Mozart, Puccini, Verdi, Wagner, and Tobias Picker, Artistic Director of Tulsa Opera.

Cost: $12-$37

Where:
Van Trease PACE
10300 E 81st St
Tulsa, OK
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The Oklahoma Swing Syndicate (TOSS) hosts a Swing dance and lessons  The Oklahoma Swing Syndicate (TOSS) is the only UNESCO recognized dance organization in Oklahoma.  We are a 501c3...

Cost: $7

Where:
Community Center - South Minister Presby Church
3500 So Peoria
1/2 west of Peoria, on 35pl behind the church
Tulsa, OK  74102
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Sponsor: The Ok Swing Syndicate
Telephone: 918-450-691
Contact Name: Rita Robbins
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Dear Diary: Adults reading their teenage diaries Ok, So Tulsa Story Slam presents a show you will not want to miss. Local Tulsan's break out those embarrassing teenage diaries … in...

Cost: 12.00

Where:
Rabbit H
2504 E. 14th Pl.
#B
Tulsa, OK  74114
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Sponsor: Ok So Story Slam
Telephone: 918-264-9915
Contact Name: Ryan HOwell
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The Symphony of Northwest Arkansas (SoNA) continues its 2017-18 Season on Saturday, Jan. 27, with Masterworks II: Mozart & Mendelssohn, featuring Mark O’Connor’s Appalachia Waltz; Mozart’s...

Cost: $30-52

Where:
Walton Arts Center, Baum Walker Hall
495 W. Dickson Street
Fayetteville, AR  72701
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Telephone: 479-443-5600
Contact Name: Symphony of Northwest Arkansas
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Making plans for this weekend? You can't do better than The Drunkard & The Olio at the historic Spotlight Theater. You know you've always wanted to go, and now's your chance. And if...

Cost: Adults $20, kids $12, seniors & military $17

Where:
Spotlight Theater
1381 Riverside Dr.
Tulsa, OK  74127
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Where:
Soundpony
409 N Main St
Tulsa, OK
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Where:
River Spirit Casino - Volcano Stage
8330 Riverside Pkwy
Tulsa, OK
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Cost: $5

Where:
The Colony
2809 S Harvard Ave
Tulsa, OK
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Where:
The Fur Shop
520 E 3rd St
Tulsa, OK
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Where:
The Max Retropub
114 S Elgin Ave
Tulsa, OK
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Where:
The Hunt Club
224 N Main St
Tulsa, OK
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Where:
River Spirit Casino - 5 O'Clock Somewhere Bar
8330 Riverside Pkwy
Tulsa, OK
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Where:
Osage Casino Tulsa - NINE18 Bar
951 W 36th St N
Tulsa, OK
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Where:
Hard Rock Casino - Riffs
777 W Cherokee St
Catoosa, OK
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Where:
Hard Rock Casino - Cabin Creek
777 W Cherokee St
Catoosa, OK
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Where:
Lot No. 6
1323 E 6th St
Tulsa, OK
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Where:
Mercury Lounge
1747 S Boston Ave
Tulsa, OK
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Where:
Magoo's Billiards
5002 S Memorial Dr
Tulsa, OK
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Where:
The Pit Stop
816 S Sheridan
Tulsa, OK
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Where:
The Run
3141 E Skelly Dr
Tulsa, OK
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Where:
Centennial Lounge at VFW Post 577
1109 E 6th St
Tulsa, OK
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Cost: $5

Where:
Reynolds Center
3208 E 8th St
Tulsa, OK
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Cost: $10-$40

Where:
Mabee Center
7777 S Lewis Ave
Tulsa, OK
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Where:
Tulsa Rugby Pitch
3772 Riverside Dr
Tulsa, OK
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Where:
Tulsa Rugby Pitch
3772 Riverside Dr
Tulsa, OK
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Where:
Yeti
417 N Main St
Tulsa, OK
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Cost: $15

Where:
Woody Guthrie Center
102 E M.B. Brady St
Tulsa, OK
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Cost: $10-$20

Where:
The Vanguard
222 N Main St
Tulsa, OK
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Cost: $24.50-$52.50

Where:
Cox Business Center
100 Civic Center
Tulsa, OK
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MUSED. Organization hosts an evening of poetry performance based on Maya Angelou's Phenomenal Women. Local women entrepreneurs, nonprofit leaders, and artists read poems written by women.

Cost: $40

Where:
The Brooksider
1332 E 35th St
Tulsa, OK
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Cost: $5

Where:
Reynolds Center
3208 E 8th St
Tulsa, OK
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Cost: $10-$40

Where:
Mabee Center
7777 S Lewis Ave
Tulsa, OK
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Where:
Cimarron Bar
2619 S Memorial Dr
Tulsa, OK
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TULtalk


What are you doing this weekend?

Stumped on what to do this weekend in Tulsa? Take this short quiz and we'll plan the weekend for you, January 18-21.

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QUIZ: Which Iconic Tulsa hat are you?

Find out whether you're a wide-brimmed wonder or ten-gallon titan.

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QUIZ: What kind of soup are you?

Are you more of a sassy sweet potato curry or a cool cucumber gazpacho? Find out in this fun quiz, then get the recipe!

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2018 Charitable Events Calendar

A comprehensive look at at Tulsa's charitable events of 2018.

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GIVEAWAY: Win 2 tickets to NYE at the Mayo!

Take an intergalactic journey into 2018 at the Mayo Hotel's Interstellar Soiree!

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