In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native peoples today.
Both Principal Chief Bill John Baker and Principal Chief Michell Hicks of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians are profiled in Meet Native America this week. The two nations join us in hosting Cherokee Days—a free festival of storytelling, films, dance, music, family activities, and cultural demonstrations at the museum in Washington, D.C., Thursday, April 3, through Saturday, April 5, 2014. Visit the museum’s online calendar for the full schedule of festival events.
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
Bill John Baker, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.
Where is your nation located?
The Cherokee Nation’s headquarters is in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and our nation’s jurisdiction spans all or part of 14 counties in the northeastern corner of Oklahoma.
Where were your people originally from?
Where we came from is an important part of who we are as Cherokee people. Our home now is in Oklahoma, but our original and ancestral homelands are in Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky, Alabama, Virginia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. These are the lands we hunted and harvested, the places where our tribal systems of government and education were born, where our ancestors are buried, and where our dances and songs were developed and shared.
What is a significant point in history from your nation that you would like to share?
Last fall marked the 175th anniversary of the start of the Trail of Tears, when we were forced to leave our homelands. Our ancestors endured unfathomable hardship and tragedy, yet they never gave up, and Cherokee people persevered. We estimate a quarter of the 16,000 Cherokees who started out on the Trail of Tears perished.
Knowing where we come from, and the fortitude and strength our ancestors showed in starting over in Oklahoma, is something deeply personal to each and every Cherokee citizen. That history lies within each of us and is a legacy that is ingrained in us as a people—and as a sovereign nation. After removal, the Cherokee people reestablished our government in Oklahoma. Tribal school systems were created and courts were established; our newspaper informed citizens of events and the day’s news. We rebuilt one of history’s most sophisticated societies.
Today, the Cherokee Nation is a nationwide model for economic, political and cultural sustainability and autonomy. As Cherokee people, we are stronger today than ever before.
How is the Cherokee national government set up?
The Cherokee Nation has executive, legislative, and judicial branches, with executive power vested in the principal chief, legislative power in the Tribal Council, and judicial power in the Supreme Court and District Court.
Is there a functional, traditional entity of leadership in addition to your modern government system?
Ceremonial grounds still exist in several Cherokee communities and follow an ancient leadership and service model. Emphasis is on roles and responsibilities, rather than hierarchy. Each ground has a chief, second chief, community chief, and speaker.
There are seven clans, and each is led by an elder woman. Each clan also has medicine people who work for the wellness and protection of the community. Like in ancient times, the ceremonial grounds are autonomous, each serving and policing its own members and operating independently from the current adopted tripartite government model. However, leaders from the ceremonial grounds are advisors to the chief of the Cherokee Nation.
How often are elected leaders chosen?
The principal chief, deputy chief, and Tribal Council are elected to four-year terms by registered tribal voters over the age of 18. The Cherokee Nation holds elections every two years, electing seven or eight of the councilors, who serve staggered terms. The principal chief and deputy chief are elected every four years in the same election.
How often does your council meet?
The Cherokee Nation Tribal Council meets in regular session once a month, with various committee meetings held monthly as well.
What responsibilities do you have as principal chief?
As chief, I have taken an oath of office to preserve the history, the culture, and the heritage of the Cherokee Nation. I take my oath very seriously, and every decision I make, I make for the betterment of Cherokee people. I was taught that we honor our ancestors by living healthy, productive lives that leave our world better for the next seven generations. That is a principle that guides me day in and day out as the elected leader of my tribal nation.
How did your life experience prepare you to lead your nation?
I am uniquely qualified to be the chief of the Cherokee Nation. I have worn many hats as a father, businessman, and Tribal Council member. As a small business owner, I understand budgeting, fiscal responsibility, and job creation. Because my parents and both my grandmothers were teachers, I grew up seeing the value of quality education and how it can shape the lives of young people. As a contractor, I built houses and saw firsthand how important a home is for successful family development. I’ve also farmed and ranched on my family land, which helped me develop an appreciation for conservation and natural resource protection. As the husband of a nurse, I have seen how quality health care can improve the lives of our families and our communities.
Who inspired you as a mentor?
I’m inspired by many Cherokee citizens throughout history—the leadership of Chief John Ross, who led the Cherokees during the removal period; the political insight and humor of Will Rogers; and the scholarly work of Sequoyah. However, my mother, Dr. Isabel Baker, is and has always been my moral compass in life. As a lifetime educator, the first mother is dedicated to community and forward progress, ideals guided by her faith and her family. She has always led by example and lived with the greater good in mind. I strive every day to match her work ethic, her priorities, and her spirit.
Are you a descendant of a historical leader? If so, who?
I am the seventh great-grandson of Nancy Ward—Nanyehi in the Cherokee language—a Beloved Woman of the Cherokee. As a Beloved Woman, she headed the Women’s Council and sat on the Council of Chiefs. She, along with the chiefs and other Beloved Women, made important decisions. In this powerful position, her opinion was highly influential in the tribal government and Cherokee history.
To read the full interview, visit the NMAI series here.