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.

(page 1 of 2)

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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Cost: $12.50 adult entry

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More information

Men and women from across the American West played critical roles — both “over there” and on the home front — in helping the Allies win World War I. The American Expeditionary Force (AEF)...

Cost: $12.50 adult entry

Where:
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
1700 NE 63rd Street
Oklahoma City, OK  73111
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The Museum’s Dickinson Research Center is home to more than 700,000 photographs, 44,000 books, and perhaps unexpectedly, at least 1,000 horses. Meet some of the herd in Horseplay, the new...

Cost: $12.50 adult entry

Where:
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum
1700 NE 63rd Street
Oklahoma City, OK  73111
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Pain Management Class Non-medical Treatments for Pain Non-medical treatments may be used to treat chronic pain, along with pain medicines. They might also be used alone for mild pain or...

Cost: Free and Open to the Public

Where:
Glenpool Library
730 E. 141st Street
Glenpool, OK  74033
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Sponsor: Success Skills
Telephone: 405-401-3519
Contact Name: Ron Watkins

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Winter's Grace Publishing, of northeast Oklahoma, is holding its inaugural Dead of Winter Flash Fiction Contest. It opened January 1 and it closes February 28. It's open to all creative writers...

Cost: $15 per story

Where:
, OK


Sponsor: Winter's Grace Publishing
Telephone: 918-852-6311
Contact Name: C.D. Smart
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Youth members of the six area Boys & Girls Clubs compete for college scholarships in the Annual Youth of the Year competition. The winners are announced at this banquet. Volunteers making a...

Cost: $75

Where:
ORU Global Learning Center
7777 S Lewis Ave
Tulsa, OK  74171
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Sponsor: The Salvation Army
Telephone: 918-587-7801
Contact Name: Samantha Knappen
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Cocktails, dinner and program;  silent and live auctions followed by a Casino and dancing.

Cost: $200 per person, sponsorships available

Where:
The Mayo Hotel
115 W. 5th Street
Tulsa, OK  74103
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Sponsor: Tulsa CASA, Inc.
Telephone: 918-584-2272
Contact Name: Paula McKay
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America’s LARGEST interactive comedy murder mystery dinner show is now playing at the Hilton Garden Inn Tulsa Broken Arrow! At The Dinner Detective, you’ll tackle a challenging crime while you...

Cost: 59.95

Where:
Hilton Garden Inn Tulsa- Broken Arrow
420 W Albany St.
Broken Arrow, OK  74012
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Telephone: 866-496-0535
Contact Name: The Dinner Detective
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COOKING UP COMPASSION FACT SHEET ABOUT THE EVENT:  Long time donors Margo and Kent Dunbar are Honorary Chairs for the event. Now in its fourteenth year, Cooking Up Compassion raises funds for the...

Cost: $250

Where:
Tulsa Ballroom at the Cox Business Center
3rd & Houston
Tulsa
Tulsa, OK  74135
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Sponsor: Catholic Charities
Telephone: 918-508-7115
Contact Name: Jennifer Allen
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Support youth leaders emerging from Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Tulsa. Each candidate is competing for higher education scholarships. Our goal is for youth leader to be a winner and advance with...

Cost: $50 Individual Tickets and Sponsor Levels

Where:
Global Learning Center at ORU
7777 S Lewis Avenue
Tulsa, OK  74171
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Sponsor: The Salvation Army Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Tulsa
Telephone: 918-587-7801
Contact Name: Samantha Knappen
Website »

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Dancing, cocktails, Cajun and jazz...all of the goodies that Mardi Gras has!  Come join New Hope Oklahoma in a night of Mardi Gras fun! New Hope Oklahoma strives to end generational incarceration,...

Cost: TBD

Where:
The Bond Event Center
608 E 3rd St
Tulsa, OK  74120
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Cocktails, dinner and program with live and silent auctions followed by a Casino and dancing.

Cost: $200 per person, sponsorships available

Where:
The Mayo Hotel
115 W. 5th Street
Tulsa
Tulsa, OK  74103
View map »


Sponsor: Tulsa CASA, Inc.
Telephone: 918-584-2272
Contact Name: Paula McKay
Website »

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6-10:30 p.m. Southern Hills Country Club, 2636 E. 61st Street. The 2019 Lunar New Year Gala at Southern Hills Country Club will be an elegant evening of candlelight, fine dining, children’s party...

Cost: $150, individual tickets; $1,000-$25,000, sponsorships.

Where:
Southern Hills Country Club
2636 E. 61st Street
Tulsa, OK  74136
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Sponsor: Dillon International
Telephone: 918-748-5613
Contact Name: Marcia Graham
Website »

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Dancing, cocktails, Cajun and jazz...all of the goodies that Mardi Gras has!  Come join New Hope Oklahoma in a night of Mardi Gras fun!  New Hope Oklahoma strives to end generational...

Cost: TBD

Where:
The Bond
608 E 3rd St
Tulsa, OK  74120
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Winterset is an annual formal event of the Osteopathic Founders Foundation which brings together the osteopathic profession and their community partners to benefit projects which improve the health...

Cost: $300

Where:
Hyatt Regency Tulsa
100 E 2nd St
Tulsa, OK  74103
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Sponsor: Osteopathic Founders Foundation
Telephone: 918-551-7300
Contact Name: Michele Caine
Website »

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Sunday in the Park with George follows painter Georges Seurat in the months leading up to the completion of his most famous painting, "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." Consumed...

Cost: $25.00 for adults, $22.50 for students & seniors with ID

Where:
Tulsa Performing Arts Center
110 E. 2nd St.
Tulsa, OK  74103
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Sponsor: American Theatre Company
Telephone: (918) 747-9494
Contact Name: Meghan Hurley
Website »

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TULtalk


7 strategies to help you make the A-LIST

The competition is tough for small businesses on our annual readers' choice survey, but a few smart strategies can help you get ahead.

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“Sunday in the Park” is no walk in the park

American Theatre Company prepares for the Oklahoma premiere of the very technically challenging “Sunday in the Park with George,” Feb. 15-24

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2.3: Get that “Woo!” — Tom Basler

A conversation with dueling piano phenom Tom Basler about his many reinventions, both personal and professional.

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February Charitable Events

How to support great causes at fun events in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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From the editor: What I did for love

But as far as doing uncommon things for love, I’m actually in great company. Just look at our February issue.

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