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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Founded in 2004, the Green Country Watercolor Society promotes awareness and interest in water media, with a focus on excellence in technique and materials, while encouraging and assisting water...

Cost: free and open to the public

Where:
McKeon Center for Creativity
910 S. Boston Ave.
TCC Metro Campus
Tulsa, OK  74119
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Sponsor: McKeon Center for Creativity
Telephone: 918-595-7339
Contact Name: Cindy Barton
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DON'T BE LATE......for the most FUNdraiser in town, chaired by Katie Mabrey, of Mabrey Bank. Featuring live music by Charlie Redd and Full Flava Kings. Silent auction featuring student art and much...

Cost: 150

Where:
Cox Business Center
100 Civic Center
Tulsa, OK
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Sponsor: Benefits Street School, Inc
Telephone: 918-833-9813
Contact Name: Sandra Thornton
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For First Friday Feburary 3rd Back Gallery has been invited to come in out of the cold and have a show at Mainline Bar. We've asked local wiz photogrphers Western Doughty, Amy Rockett-Todd, and...

Cost: free

Where:
mainline art bar
111 n main street
tulsa, OK  74103
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Sponsor: mainline art bar
Telephone: 918-704-3330
Contact Name: katy eagleston

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Honoring 10 fearless Tulsa leaders who are creating real change for women and girls, this year's gala is themed for fiction's most powerful and enigmatic female heroines.

Cost: $150-$250

Where:
Cox Business Center
100 Civic Center
Tulsa, OK
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Sponsor: Benefits YWCA
Telephone: 918-858-2343
Contact Name: Mandie Rowden
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Andrew Lippa’s Wild Party evokes the glamour, sensuality, and decadence of Manhattan in the roaring twenties. The story chronicles an evening in the life of Queenie and Burrs, lovers and...

Cost: $25-60

Where:
IDL Ballroom
230 East 1st Street
Tulsa, OK  74103
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Sponsor: Theatre Pops
Telephone: 918-902-6339
Contact Name: Meghan Hurley
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Signature Symphony at TCC  Presents A Night at the Oscars Music from Oscar winning movies February 24 & 25, 2017    7:30p.m. Something magical happens when the...

Cost: $32-$58

Where:
VanTrease PACE
10300 E. 81st Street
Tulsa, OK  74133
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Telephone: 918-595-7777
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BROKEN ARROW COMMUNITY PLAYHOUSE Presents Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park”   The Broken Arrow Community Playhouse is excited to present “Barefoot in...

Cost: $10-$15

Where:
Broken Arrow Community Playhouse
1800 S Main St
Broken Arrow, OK  74012
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Sponsor: Broken Arrow Community Playhouse
Telephone: 918-258-0077
Contact Name: Sherry Hacker
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Where:
American Legion Post 308
11328 E Admiral Pl
Tulsa, OK
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Cost: $16-$56

Where:
BOK Center
200 S Denver Ave
Tulsa
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Where:
Yeti
417 N Main St
Tulsa
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Telephone: (918) 936-4994
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Cost: $18-$23

Where:
Expo Square - Ford Truck Arena
4145 E 21st St
Tulsa, OK
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Where:
Hard Rock Hotel and Casino - Riffs
777 W Cherokee Street
Catoosa, OK  74105
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Signature Symphony performs pieces from the scores of Oscar-winning films.

Cost: $32-$47

Where:
VanTrease Performing Arts Center for Education
10300 E 81st St
Tulsa, OK
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Telephone: (918) 595-7752
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Cost: $10

Where:
Comedy Parlor
328 E 1st St
Tulsa, OK
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Telephone: (918) 921-3535
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Where:
River Spirit Casino - Margaritaville Stage
8330 Riverside Pkwy.
Tulsa, OK  74137
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Cost: $18-$20

Where:
Cain's Ballroom
423 North Main Street
Tulsa, OK  74103
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Telephone: 918.584.2306
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Cost: $10

Where:
Vanguard
222 N Main St
Tulsa
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Telephone: (319) 804-9727
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Where:
Hunt Club
224 N Main St
Tulsa
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Telephone: (918) 599-9200
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Where:
Hunt Club
224 N Main St
Tulsa
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Telephone: (918) 599-9200
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Where:
Soul City
1621 E 11th St
Tulsa
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Telephone: (918) 607-6005
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Cost: $10

Where:
Comedy Parlor
328 E 1st St
Tulsa, OK
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Telephone: (918) 921-3535
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Cost: $15-$20

Where:
Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame
5 S Boston Ave
Tulsa
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Telephone: (918) 928-5299
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Where:
VFW Post 577 - Centennial Lounge
1109 E 6th St
Tulsa, OK
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Where:
Soundpony
409 N Main St
Tulsa
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Telephone: (918) 582-7669
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Where:
Hard Rock Hotel and Casino - Cabin Creek
777 W Cherokee Street
Catoosa, OK  74105
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Where:
Utopia Bar & Lounge
3508 S Sheridan Rd
Tulsa, OK  74145
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Where:
Dusty Dog Pub
5107 S Harvard
Tulsa
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Telephone: (918) 933-5473
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Where:
Fassler Hall
304 S. Elgin Avenue
Tulsa, OK  74120
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Telephone: (918) 576-7898
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See Philbrook as never before, thanks to acclaimed artist HOTTEA's large-scale yarn installation.

Where:
Philbrook Museum of Art
2727 S Rockford Road
Tulsa, OK
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Where:
River Spirit Casino - 5 O'Clock Somewhere Bar
8330 Riverside Pkwy.
Tulsa, OK  74137
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Where:
The Colony
2809 S Harvard Ave
Tulsa, OK
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Telephone: (918) 794-4208
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Please join us for the 57th Annual Holland Hall Book Fair! Saturday, February 25, 2017 8:00 am – 5:00 pm Holland Hall Middle School Gym (5666 East 81st Street, Tulsa, OK 74137) Open...

Cost: $1, 18 and under free

Where:
Holland Hall Middle School
5666 E. 81st St.
Tulsa, OK  74137
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Sponsor: Holland Hall
Telephone: (918) 879-4738
Contact Name: Christy Zahn
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Bring the family for a walk to explore trees - inside and out. We'll look at tree shapes, make bark rubbings, and count rings. Meet at Children's Discovery Garden entrance. Tulsa Botanic...

Cost: FREE for Garden members; $8 for ages 13+; $4 for ages 3–12. 2 and under are free

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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ALL KIDS 13 & UNDER – IT’S FREE! All children age 13 and under, accompanied by an adult, will be allowed in to all 2016-17 ORU Athletics ticketed sports for free. This is strictly a...

Cost: $9

Where:
Mabee Center
7777 S Lewis Ave.
Tulsa, OK  74171
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Sponsor: Mabee Center

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For First Friday Feburary 3rd Back Gallery has been invited to come in out of the cold and have a show at Mainline Bar. We've asked local wiz photogrphers Western Doughty, Amy Rockett-Todd, and...

Cost: free

Where:
mainline art bar
111 n main street
tulsa, OK  74103
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Sponsor: mainline art bar
Telephone: 918-704-3330
Contact Name: katy eagleston

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Fly Me to the Moon' Lunar New Year Gala. We will be celebrating the music of Frank Sinatra. Reception, dinner, raffle and live auction items. Sponsorships Available

Cost: 125

Where:
Southern Hills Country Club
2636 E. 61st Street
Tulsa, OK
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Sponsor: Benefits Dillon International
Telephone: 918-748-5613
Contact Name: Steffanie Bonner
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Cost: $7

Where:
Mabee Center
81st Street and South Lewis
Tulsa, OK
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Mardi Gras in Tulsa includes: Live Auction and Dinner with appetizers from Tulsa area guest chefs, and entree by Chef Devin Levine. Then, dance the night away to the live Zodiac Band. All of the...

Cost: $150 per person/ $100 per person (under 40)

Where:
Tulsa Ballroom at the Cox Business Center
100 Civic Center
Tulsa, OK
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Sponsor: Benefits Catholic Charities
Telephone: 918-5087115
Contact Name: Jennifer Allen
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Your evening begins with a fun-filled reception. Mix, mingle, and shop while you enjoy great cocktails and tasty hors d'oeuvres. Experience our Native American culture as our Drum Group calls you...

Cost: Single: $150; Couple: $250

Where:
Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Tulsa
777 West Cherokee
Catoosa, OK
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Sponsor: Benefits Indian Health Care Resource Center
Telephone: 918-382-1203
Contact Name: Debbie Starnes
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The Miró Quaret returns for their fourth appearance on Chamber Music Tulsa's series with an extraordinary performance of all 16 of Beethoven's string quartets in six concerts over...

Cost: $35

Where:
Tulsa PAC - Westby Pavilion
110 E 2nd St
Tulsa, OK  74103
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Sponsor: Chamber Music Tulsa
Telephone: 918-587-3802
Contact Name: J.J Cody
Website »

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Andrew Lippa’s Wild Party evokes the glamour, sensuality, and decadence of Manhattan in the roaring twenties. The story chronicles an evening in the life of Queenie and Burrs, lovers and...

Cost: $25-60

Where:
IDL Ballroom
230 East 1st Street
Tulsa, OK  74103
View map »


Sponsor: Theatre Pops
Telephone: 918-902-6339
Contact Name: Meghan Hurley
Website »

More information

Signature Symphony at TCC  Presents A Night at the Oscars Music from Oscar winning movies February 24 & 25, 2017    7:30p.m. Something magical happens when the...

Cost: $32-$58

Where:
VanTrease PACE
10300 E. 81st Street
Tulsa, OK  74133
View map »


Telephone: 918-595-7777
Website »

More information

BROKEN ARROW COMMUNITY PLAYHOUSE Presents Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park”   The Broken Arrow Community Playhouse is excited to present “Barefoot in...

Cost: $10-$15

Where:
Broken Arrow Community Playhouse
1800 S Main St
Broken Arrow, OK  74012
View map »


Sponsor: Broken Arrow Community Playhouse
Telephone: 918-258-0077
Contact Name: Sherry Hacker
Website »

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Six internationally acclaimed artists come together for this concert of opera and pop favorites: sopranos Leona Mitchell, Alyson Cambridge, and Sarah Joy Miller; tenor David Miller (of Il Divo);...

Cost: $25-$118

Where:
Tulsa Performing Arts Center - Chapman Music Hall
110 E. 2nd St.
Tulsa, OK  74103
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Telephone: 918.596.7122
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Where:
Hard Rock Hotel and Casino - Riffs
777 W Cherokee Street
Catoosa, OK  74105
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Where:
Gypsy Coffee House
303 Martin Luther King Jr Blvd
Tulsa
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Telephone: (918) 295-2181
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Where:
River Spirit Casino - 5 O'Clock Somewhere Bar
8330 Riverside Pkwy.
Tulsa, OK  74137
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Website »

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Where:
The Fur Shop
520 E 3rd St
Tulsa, OK
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Telephone: (918) 949-4292
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Where:
Soul City
1621 E 11th St
Tulsa
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Telephone: (918) 607-6005
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One of the country's leading children's and maternity consignment events.

Cost: $10

Where:
Expo Square - Exchange Center
4145 E 21st St
Tulsa, OK
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Cost: $10

Where:
Comedy Parlor
328 E 1st St
Tulsa, OK
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Telephone: (918) 921-3535
Website »

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Cost: $5

Where:
Reynolds Center
3208 E 8th St
Tulsa, OK
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Where:
Magoo's
5002 S Memorial Dr
Tulsa
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Telephone: (918) 663-3364
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Cost: $10

Where:
BOK Center
200 S Denver Ave
Tulsa
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Cost: $45-$55

Where:
River Spirit Casino - Paradise Cove
8330 Riverside Pkwy.
Tulsa, OK  74137
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Website »

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Where:
Hard Rock Hotel and Casino - Cabin Creek
777 W Cherokee Street
Catoosa, OK  74105
View map »


Website »

More information

Where:
River Spirit Casino - Margaritaville Stage
8330 Riverside Pkwy.
Tulsa, OK  74137
View map »


Website »

More information

Where:
Soundpony
409 N Main St
Tulsa
View map »


Telephone: (918) 582-7669
Website »

More information

Cost: $10

Where:
Vanguard
222 N Main St
Tulsa
View map »


Telephone: (319) 804-9727
Website »

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From 1940 to 1976, Philbrook hosted The Oklahoma Artists' Annual Exhibition, a juried competition featuring work by dozens of Oklahoma artists. With a wide range of styles, subjects, and points of...

Where:
Philbrook Museum of Art
2727 S Rockford Road
Tulsa, OK
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Where:
Uncle Bently's Pub & Grill
4902 S. Sheridan Rd.
Tulsa, OK
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Telephone: (918) 664-6800
Website »

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Where:
The Colony
2809 S Harvard Ave
Tulsa, OK
View map »


Telephone: (918) 794-4208
Website »

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