The State of the Cherokee Nation: A Tale of Two Chiefs

It is anation within a nation and now the new chief’s policies highlight what works—and what doesn’t—in the second largest Indian tribe in the country

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Jeff Lautenberger / The Tulsa World / AP

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker and First Lady Sherry Robertson Baker hold hands with others during a peace dance to conclude his ceremonial inauguration at Sequoyah High School in Tahlequah, Okla., Nov. 6, 2011.

Tahlequah, Oklahoma is a bucolic swatch of storefronts and brick bungalows nestled among rolling hills and lazy rivers. Situated in northeast Oklahoma, it is the capital of Cherokee Nation, which, with nearly 300,000 members (189,000 of whom live in the state), is the second-largest Indian tribe in the country, and a domestic dependent nation with its own court system and government. Many members of Cherokee Nation, like many Native Americans nationwide, are poor. A 2011 political battle between two chiefs, and the policies enacted since then, offer a peek inside just how intractable this problem is.

After an election in June 2011, four recounts and a second election in September 2011, Cherokee businessman Bill John Baker unseated incumbent Principal Chief Chad “Corntassel” Smith, who had led the tribe since 1999. The campaign and election had been contentious and, even after Baker was declared a decisive winner, Smith contested the results, but the Cherokee Supreme Court denied his appeal. When Baker took office, the central issue facing him was the same one that had faced Smith when he led the tribe—how to tackle the community’s endemic poverty.

Income per capita in Cherokee County, where Tahlequah is located, was a mere $13,436 in the 2010 U.S. Census. Neighboring Adair County, also one of the 14 counties under Cherokee jurisdiction, was just $13,560 per capita. (In the state of Oklahoma, per capita income was $23,094. Cherokees in each of the 14 counties under the tribe’s jurisdiction represent 10% to 40% of the population there.) Beyond Tahlequah’s historic district, streets are cracked and lack adequate signage. More than a quarter of the Cherokee County residents live below the federal poverty line, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

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This poverty might seem odd, since, in 2005, the Nation signed a compact with the state of Oklahoma allowing the tribe to run Las Vegas-style casino games. The casino deal caused revenue to explode and Cherokee Nation estimates it now has a $1.5 billion annual impact on the local economy.

Baker’s predecessor, Smith, considered the tribe too large to pay a share of casino profits to each member. He took a longer view of what the tribe needed to break the cycle of poverty that had engulfed many Cherokees for generations. Smith, author of Leadership Lessons from Cherokee Nation, a business book describing how Smith’s team stewarded Cherokee Nation from a “chaotic and dysfunctional entity” to a billion-dollar organization, poured money into school improvements, creating casino jobs and buying businesses. Wanting to instill pride in members of the tribe and preserve Cherokee culture, he encouraged Cherokees to learn their native language and script. “What I tried to do was develop a 100-year plan,” says Smith.

In contrast, the first piece of legislation that Baker signed was a bill that directed five percent of all casino income to Cherokee Nation’s overtaxed health care system. He also created a program that directly aids the elderly. “We give them a stipend every couple of months and we pay it on their utility bill, so that they don’t have to choose between eating and medicine and utilities,” says Baker.

Baker contends that many of Smith’s investments with casino money ended up outside of the 14 Cherokee counties. “What do we gain in creating 100 jobs in Colorado?” asks Baker, referring to an out-of-state investment he alleges Smith made. Baker, on the other hand, is making significant direct investments in upgrading the health care infrastructure and housing.

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“And if you give them a way to achieve the American Dream that they can do within their means,” says Baker, “then they immediately start building wealth.” Baker began building homes, the first ones built by the Nation in ten years. Not only will the new homes improve the lives of the Cherokees who live there, they will also employ local workers.

After the 2012 presidential election, the tension between stewarding the future by fostering better education and more native culture, and providing direct assistance to constituents has a familiar ring to many citizens of Cherokee Nation. Some Cherokees accuse Baker of using entitlements to buy votes. They say he has squandered tribal sovereignty—whose first right should be to define its own membership—by reaching out to Cherokee Freedmen, the descendants of African slaves owned by the Cherokees in the 1860s —and groups of Cherokees outside of Oklahoma. (Baker has doubled the Nation’s budget for outreach.)

Baker is, above all, a practical man. Another early change he made was announcing that citizens of Cherokee Nation could opt for a single photo ID instead of two separate documents identifying themselves as members of the tribe. To an outsider, replacing two unlaminated pieces of white and blue cardboard (the Certificate Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB) card issued by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Cherokee Nation’s tribal citizen card, respectively) might seem like a mere bureaucratic convenience, but to some citizens of Cherokee Nation, this was an important change. Losing or destroying one of the flimsy cards had previously meant enduring long lines and red tape and, potentially, an interruption in government services (a lifeline in such a poor area). Combining them into one meant one less card to lose, but more than that, suggested that perhaps the best changes a government can make aren’t ideological at all.

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