Thursday, March 15, 2018

Raising wages for our teachers is the right thing to do

As the Chief of the Cherokee Nation and the son of public schoolteachers, it has troubled me to see the inaction at the state level as teachers across our great state struggle. The time for action is now, and Cherokee Nation is taking the lead by granting our certified teachers the pay raise they deserve.

Recently, I proposed—and the Cherokee Nation Tribal Council approved—a lump sum payment of $5,000 to all certified teachers, effective immediately. Additionally, certified teacher pay will increase by $5,000, effective the beginning of teacher contracts in FY18-19.

Over the past decade, the state of Oklahoma has made drastic budget cuts to public education. At the same time, teachers continue to meet additional demands beyond simply fulfilling the daily lesson plans.  From monitoring student safety to test preparation to finding ways to help students in need of food or school supplies, Oklahoma teachers go above and beyond the call of duty each day and with fewer resources each year.

We have the best colleges in Oklahoma (several in our jurisdiction like Northeastern State University and Rogers State University), which train our brightest minds for the educational workforce. Yet, sadly, when they graduate, they often leave to teach in other states or are forced to leave the children they love teaching for higher-paying jobs. The state absolutely must address teacher pay this legislative session because we are in a crisis. However, Cherokee Nation will not wait any longer.

This pay raise is in keeping with Cherokee Nation’s longstanding commitment and support of public education. We started the first institution of higher learning for females west of the Mississippi River.  We established a system of free public education well before Oklahoma statehood. We continue to achieve excellence today at Sequoyah High School, the Cherokee Nation Immersion School and through our support of public schools and students across northeastern Oklahoma.

In addition, we recently issued $5.4 million to 108 schools through our car tag compact. The amount given annually has doubled since 2010, and since 2003, Cherokee Nation has contributed more than $50 million to public education through the compact.

Cherokee Nation is unwavering in its commitment to public schools, students and teachers. Our pay raise reaffirms that commitment and, I hope, sends a message to state leaders that they should follow Cherokee Nation’s lead and raise pay for all certified teachers in the state. The Cherokee Nation understands the role of teachers. It is a profession that we know is of extreme value and importance. Teachers impact so many lives and should be rewarded as such.


Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Cherokee National Youth Choir earns prestigious Governor's Arts Award

The Cherokee National Youth Choir recently won the Governor’s Arts Award. It is the most prestigious arts award in the state of Oklahoma. It was my honor to nominate the Cherokee National Youth Choir for the Community Service Award from the Oklahoma Arts Council, an award annually issued by the governor.

This particular honor recognizes Oklahoma individuals or groups for significant contributions to the arts in the areas of leadership and volunteerism. Without a doubt, the youth choir acts as ambassadors for the Cherokee Nation, as their beautiful voices show the strength of the Cherokee Nation and our culture.

The group is active in the community through volunteer efforts, and it raises awareness to important causes. Members often lead fundraisers or donation drives when community members are in need.  Their dedication does not end with music.

Typically, the choir consists of 30-40 young Cherokees from northeast Oklahoma communities. The members, who perform traditional Cherokee songs in the Cherokee language, are middle and high school youth, usually in the sixth through 12th grade. The students compete in rigorous auditions every year for inclusion in the group, which is funded solely by the Cherokee Nation and is directed by Mary Kay Henderson and Kathy Sierra.

The goal of the choir is to increase awareness of Cherokee culture and it is an important tool to keep our young citizens involved in the Cherokee language and heritage.

A staple at Cherokee Nation events and ceremonies, the choir’s music has a special way of connecting its audience to Cherokee Nation’s history, culture and language. That success is not limited to the tribe’s borders.  Over the years, the group has performed around the United States, including two appearances at the Macy’s Day Parade in New York. Founded in 2000, the choir has recorded 13 CDs and has performed with legendary artists like Foreigner, Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Roy Clark, Kenny Rogers and the Oak Ridge Boys.

It has been a remarkable year for the Cherokee National Youth Choir. In addition to the recent state award, it also won the award for Best Pop Recording during the 17th annual Native American Music Awards this past year. Another impressive honor the youth choir secured in 2014 was its selection for a GRAMMY Foundation award worth $10,000 for stressing the importance of music in school. More than 120 other vocal groups were considered for that effort.

The Cherokee National Youth Choir is part of the long tradition of excellent musical talents in Oklahoma, and they have brought acclaim and accolades to the Cherokee Nation and the state. The talent represented each year within the Cherokee National Youth Choir is impressive, and I could not be more proud of their contributions. These young people represent the best of the Cherokee Nation and remain the future of our communities.

The choir’s latest album, “Just Jesus,” is available through Cherokee Nation’s Gift Shops or online at


Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Federal diabetes program for Indians is saving lives in Cherokee Nation

The recent federal budget extension includes funding for the reauthorization of the Special Diabetes Program for Indians. This is significant for the Cherokee Nation and all of Indian Country. The budget for SDPI has been renewed at the current funding level of $150 million until the end of FY 2019.

Sadly, one in four Cherokees over age 50, and one in three over age 60, has diabetes. But through the federal investment in SDPI, Cherokee Nation has received the resources needed to address our disproportionate burden of diabetes. SDPI is a lifesaving program and continues to play a significant role in improving health care quality and access for Cherokee families.

Established in 1997, SDPI currently supports more than 300 diabetes programs in 35 states that have led to significant advances in diabetes education, prevention and treatment. Last year, more than 10,000 diabetes patients in the Cherokee Nation Tribal Jurisdictional Service Area benefited from SDPI.

SDPI funds have been utilized to support nearly 30 schools and Cherokee community organizations in increasing physical activity levels and healthy nutrition for schoolchildren and community members.  It’s critical we begin the education process with our youngest citizens to ensure they grow up eating healthy and getting plenty of physical activity.

Cherokee Nation’s program, one of our most successful public health programs, targets Type 2 diabetes through collaborations with coalitions that include the state, municipalities and communities to implement programs such as Farm-to-School efforts to reduce diabetes risk factors. We have served 527 participants with prediabetes education and activities, which resulted in a loss of 4,478 pounds and an average weight loss of 8.5 pounds per Cherokee Nation participant.

Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published data that shows some diabetes rates are improving for tribal citizens. Native people have experienced a 54 percent decline in rates of end-stage renal disease due to diabetes, which represents the steepest decline of any ethnic group. These kinds of improvements have resulted in significantly more patients with controlled blood sugar, blood pressure and cholesterol. These health indicators are associated with the reduction of diabetic complications, including heart attack, strokes, blindness, amputations and kidney failure.

Simply put, SDPI is saving lives in Cherokee Nation, transforming communities and saving our federal health care system dollars. We are pleased congressional leaders did the right thing and continued its funding.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Efforts in health care financial management equate to more services, more assistance for Cherokees

Cherokee Nation Health Services offers our citizens some of the best care available in Indian Country. Folks in northeast Oklahoma know this, but recently we changed a few things that are creating more and better health services for Cherokee families. I am proud to say we are reaping the benefits of those efforts.

When someone comes to a Cherokee Nation health center and needs something that our own clinics do not provide, like a knee replacement for example, we send them to a specialist who is outside our network of Cherokee Nation doctors and health care providers. Under that system, we negotiate with insurance companies, hospitals, doctors and other vendors and pay for those services.  When patients have a primary insurance, Medicare Part A and Part B, or Medicaid we are able to spend significantly less on the required service and then spend those dollars on other patients.

In our recent history, the growth of referrals for care like this have been dramatic. In 2004, our system averaged 87 of these referrals per day. In 2017, those referrals had grown to an average of 410 per day. Because of this growth in needed referrals, our programs have had to manage their available resources. Some of the services that were being declined over the past year include elective orthopedics and some of the related diagnostic tests to those procedures.

To help address some of the recent limitations we had on issuing referrals for outside costly, nonlife-threatening treatments, we changed our records system, moving all patient health and medical records to a digital format. When a patient comes in, our newly installed software communicates with all payment systems, including IHS, private insurance companies, Medicare and Medicaid.

The new efficiency has helped enable the tribe to collect almost $9.5 million in the first three months of FY2018 in third-party billing. Those additional funds will translate to more contract health dollars to approve referrals for surgeries, MRIs and other related tests and help cover a portion of more elective orthopedic referrals for our patients, who visited Cherokee Nation Health Services more than 1.2 million times last year.

It also allowed us to measure quality outcomes and efficiency, so doctors can earn more incentives when patients are treated and get what they need. The strategic changes in the physician salary structure reward our doctors for the quality and quantity of patients they see. Quality is up across the board at Cherokee Nation Health Services, and we have more funds dedicated to contract health needs.

I am proud of the strategic efforts we made to modernize our health system and collect more from private insurance, Medicaid and other third-party billing streams. The increase in collections also comes from our successful outreach to sign up more patients for Affordable Care Act marketplace insurance, SoonerCare and Medicare. These aggressive efforts to enroll more Cherokee Nation Health Services patients have been successful and are helping provide better health care services for our people.

Our patients have more health needs than we could ever possibly meet, so we are evolving with the times. There is constant growth in health care, especially as the “baby boomer” generation matures and needs more and more care. We want all our patients—Cherokees as well as other Natives in northeast Oklahoma—to live healthier lives. To address these growing challenges, we have been resolute in committing more gaming revenue dollars specifically for contract health services, which now is an annual commitment of about $7 million.

We feel that these changes will set Cherokee health on a path for unprecedented financial security and open up more dollars for specialty care, including visits to cancer doctors and heart doctors and a return to covering a range of bone and joint surgeries.

Soon we will open the largest tribal health care facility ever built in America. A topping out ceremony is planned on March 9, and in 2019, when the facility (located at the W.W. Hastings campus in Tahlequah) is opened, it will house more health care specialists of our own and have two MRI machines. Currently, Cherokee Nation does not have either of those specialty services in-house, and we use contract health dollars to help pay for citizens needing those medical services.

Patients can get more information about additional coverage options by contacting their patient benefits coordinator at any Cherokee Nation Health facility or visiting

Monday, February 5, 2018

Cherokee Nation seed bank preserves Cherokee food history

Preservation of Cherokee heritage comes in a wide array of forms. We have Cherokee Nation preservationists in areas like language, which is spoken and written. We have song and dance traditionalists, and we have master artisans devoted to traditional Cherokee arts like carving, pottery and basket weaving. However, during my tenure as Principal Chief, one of the most popular and highly participatory efforts has been food preservation through the Cherokee Nation seed bank program.

Our effort, led by Senior Director of Environmental Resources Pat Gwin, is something that just about any Cherokee nationwide can do and enjoy with their family. For Cherokee Nation citizens, it is a way to perpetuate crops that Cherokee people have relied on for generations.

Despite a difficult growing season in 2017, Cherokee Nation’s seed bank will offer an assortment of seeds this year. In 2017, we issued about 3,785 seed packages to tribal citizens and estimate to do about 5,000 this year. Requests for heirloom seeds will run through the end of April.

The heirloom seeds possess traits that any grower desires, including being drought and pest resistant and having low fertilization needs. The seed bank, which originally started in 2006, has a supply stock that is healthy, strong and unique to the Cherokee people.

Historically, our people have always been exceptional agriculturalists, and our ancestors farmed these same crops for hundreds of years. It connects who we are today as Cherokee people to our rich history, is something we can share with our kids and grandkids, and promotes healthy food consumption and physical activity. Anything we can do to encourage a new generation of Cherokees to connect with their tribal heritage is worth pursuing.

Applicants are limited to two varieties of seeds, and each request must include a copy the Cherokee Nation tribal citizenship card, as well as proof of age and address.

To submit an order, visit and create an account. Follow the instructions to see a complete list of available seeds and to place and track orders. For more information, email or call 918-453-5336.

The seeds that are available this year include:


Cherokee Flour (a large flour corn)

Colored (multicolored)



Cherokee White Eagle (a dent corn)


Cherokee Long Greasy

Trail of Tears (a small jet black bean)

Turkey Gizzard Black

Turkey Gizzard Brown


Georgia Candy Roaster (a long storing squash that can be prepared as squash, sweet potatoes or pumpkin)





Buffalo Gourds

Trail of Tears Beads

Indian Corn Beads


           Native Tobacco (ceremonial tobacco, not smoking tobacco; restricted to those at least 18 years of age)

 Native Plants


Cutleaf Coneflower



New Jersey Tea

Possum Grape

Purple Coneflower

Rattlesnake Master



Wild Senna






Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Inter-Tribal Council plays important role for Five Tribes

The Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes is an organization that unites the tribal governments of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole nations, and it represents approximately 750,000 Indian people throughout the United States. Together our tribes represent about a quarter of the entire population of American Indians throughout the United States. This year, I proudly serve as president of the council. The other executive board members are Seminole Nation Principal Chief Greg Chilcoat, Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby, Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton and Muscogee (Creek) Nation Principal Chief James Floyd.

The ITC meets quarterly at revolving locations hosted by member tribal governments. Its mission is to protect our tribal sovereignty and advance issues critical to our people. It is one of the oldest and largest tribal organizations in America.

These quarterly gatherings are a unique opportunity for our tribal governments to convene and share ideas and best practices. We are stronger as tribes when we share in one another’s success and hear the important things we are all working on for our citizens. As tribal leaders and senior staff working for our respective nations, we all benefit from this time together. It strengthens Cherokee Nation’s efforts when we are able to collaborate with other tribal governments to promote an agenda at both the federal and state levels.

A spirit of cooperation fuels our collaborative work at ITC, and the joint resolutions we create support issues that ensure we continue to protect our inherent tribal sovereign rights. At the staff level, multiple committees—including housing, education, health care, cultural preservation, government relations and communications—offer an opportunity to share best practices and ideas between the five tribal governments. ITC ensures our five tribes remain united in important decision making on issues important to our collective populations.

The council, which was originally founded in 1949, had gone dormant for many years, but in 2012, we worked hard to rejuvenate the ITC and fulfill the mission of the original founders, who created a constitution with a clear and noble goal for the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole:

“…to secure to ourselves and our descendants the rights and benefits to which we are entitled under the laws of the United States of America, and the State of Oklahoma; to enlighten the public toward a better understanding of the Indian race; to preserve Indian cultural values; to enhance and promote general educational opportunity among members of the Five Civilized Tribes; to seek equitable adjustments of tribal affairs; to secure and to preserve rights under Indian Treaties with the United States; and other-wise to promote the common welfare of the American Indians…”

Tribal issues are both national and statewide, and that means our tribal governments must work as equals with both the federal and state governments.

We have taken a formal position on a wide range of issues on the federal and state spectrum, including funding issues, voting rights, cultural preservation and increased access to quality health care. We believe in protecting our tribal rights and will always be an advocate for our tribal sovereignty. Through the ITC, we have in the past, and will again in the coming year, create a progressive legislative agenda for our five tribal nations. In 2018, that is just as important as it was in 1949 when this organization was founded. A spirit of togetherness and unity defines the council. We are all very distinct tribal governments with unique histories and cultures, but the five tribes have similar issues and concerns, including protecting our right to self-govern and providing critical services to our citizens.

I look forward to working for this organization this year as its president. Together, we can do more good for our people, our governments and our state.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

CNB investment allows Cherokee language program to expand

Preserving the Cherokee language is preserving Cherokee identity, as the heritage and traditions of the tribe are rooted in our language. Our language allows us to pass along traditional Cherokee knowledge and values to our children and grandchildren. That is why I am so proud that Cherokee Nation Businesses has pledged unprecedented financial support to the Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program.  

Through a signed memorandum of understanding, CNB is providing $180,000 to cover the costs of a language program called the 14th Generation Master Apprentice Program, a pilot program designed for students who originally learned to speak Cherokee at the tribe’s Cherokee Immersion Charter School.  We hope it encourages language usage as they progress through junior high and high school. CNB’s monetary commitment will further advance the preservation and usage of the Cherokee language, as graduates of the adult master apprentice program are placed in supervised teaching and mentoring roles. 

The new endeavor can be a bridge that unites the mission of our Cherokee Immersion Charter School and the Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program, which has graduated six students since it began three years ago and is expected to graduate six more students in 2018 and another eight students in 2019. Both programs have proven successful in their respective area, and now we can connect their goals and participants.   

This multigenerational effort will help preserve and promote the use of the Cherokee language for generations to come and fill the gap between the immersion school and high school. Our youth, who have been educated in the immersion school, are among the most valuable Cherokee language assets going forward. We have made significant investments in these children, and we must keep exposing them to language-learning opportunities after completing the sixth grade.

Now that we have graduates of the Cherokee Language Master Apprentice Program, we have developed an expert pipeline and grown the personnel to keep our youth engaged after immersion school graduation. That means language lessons can be utilized at Sequoyah High School as well as within community settings.

Creating new Cherokee speakers, and in turn letting them pass along what they have learned, will keep our language flourishing for generations to come. Supporting cultural education and growing the language curriculum will help Cherokee children succeed on their lifelong journey and allow them to reach their God-given potential in school, in life and as Cherokee speakers.

The 14th Generation Master Apprentice Program already has about a dozen Sequoyah High School students gathering for lessons after school. Plans are in place for a summer program with participants gathering from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. for 10 weeks. Those students, if they participate over multiple summers, could potentially get about 2,000 hours of language education just through summer participation.

CNB continues to support the tribe in its pursuit of preserving Cherokee culture and heritage. Without the aggressive commitment from our tribal government and our business endeavors, the future of the Cherokee language would be in jeopardy.