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.