Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Cherokee National Holiday is a celebration of history and heritage

If you’ve ever been to the Cherokee National Holiday, I don’t need to convince you that it’s one of the most energetic and spirited weekends to spend in Tahlequah, the capital city of the Cherokee Nation. Every Labor Day weekend, the community bustles with more than 100,000 visitors moving between the Cherokee National Capitol square, the W.W. Keeler Tribal Complex, the Cherokee Heritage Center and other Cherokee Nation properties.

I am proud the Cherokee Nation annually offers our citizens and visitors such an exciting array of entertainment, cultural and athletic events. We have been perfecting one of Oklahoma’s largest spectator events for the past 65 years, and the Cherokee National Holiday has something of interest for everyone. We host a wide array of educational and family-friendly options, including sporting events like softball and a youth fishing derby.  Music will be abundant, with a choir singing and a fiddlers contest. We will be displaying fine arts and crafts by renowned Cherokee artisans, and we will again have a parade with floats, classic cars and marching bands through Tahlequah’s historic downtown before the annual State of the Nation Address. The evening and nights are highlighted by one of the largest contest powwows in the country, with hundreds of traditional dancers and multiple drum groups.

The Cherokee National Holiday was first held in 1953 to commemorate the anniversary of the signing of the 1839 Cherokee Constitution. Many people expect the Cherokee National Holiday to offer a glimpse of traditional Cherokee life, and they are never disappointed. Artists still use ancient imagery in their works, marbles players keep score in a game that has been going on for centuries, and storytellers continue to share old tales of heroes and tricksters. Each activity is a testimony to our Cherokee ways and values.

However, it is also a time to see the modern Cherokee Nation, including the expansion and beautification efforts at the tribal complex, the state-of-the-art Veterans Center, and the renovation and preservation efforts of our historic sites and museums.  Since we last gathered a year ago, Cherokee Nation has achieved a multitude of accomplishments. We broke ground on the W.W. Hastings expansion, which will soon be the largest and most advanced American Indian health facility in the United States. We have created unprecedented job and economic opportunities, and our tribe’s imprint on the Oklahoma economy has grown to more than $2 billion annually.

As we honor our heritage and culture, we know Cherokee National Holiday is about coming home for many attendees. Our friends and family return home to celebrate and reconnect in many meaningful ways.  Special thanks must be given to the hundreds of Cherokee Nation employees and volunteers who work hard to ensure this annual homecoming remains a remarkable experience. We are blessed as a tribal nation, and we look forward to sharing our culture and values with you over Labor Day.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Rare solar eclipse offers chance to share Cherokee heritage

Cherokees have long had origin stories to explain natural phenomena that happen in the world, including in the water, the earth and the sky. As we prepare for the upcoming solar eclipse, we are teaming with NASA for an exceptional opportunity to revive a Cherokee story that explains why the sun was covered up.

Traditional Cherokee tale of the frog who swallowed the sun:
Long ago there lived a giant, hungry frog. Sometimes the giant frog would come out and swallow the sun. When that happened, it got very cloudy or even looked like it was getting dark when the sun was swallowed. Sometimes the frog even swallows the moon. The wise, old men hate this giant frog. Whenever the wise men would find out it happened, they would shoot guns and beat a drum or rattle turtle shell rattlers. The women would bang pots and pans together, scaring the giant frog away that was swallowing the sun up, so that the sun would shine again.
Cherokee Nation is working with the Indigenous Education Institute, which is producing a video for NASA on various Indigenous perspectives of what eclipses are and how they have been interpreted over time. Our eclipse origin story of the giant frog swallowing the sun has now been recorded in Cherokee and will be featured in NASA’s film for the Goddard Space Center in Maryland.
The Cherokee Nation Language Department didn’t just coordinate the video; a new children’s picture book in Cherokee syllabary is also being produced that will be used by the tribe’s Immersion School. An older version of the book was created about 10 years ago, and only one copy remained. I am proud of the work our Language Department put forth in updating the book and helping produce additional copies, so future generations of Cherokee people will always be able to share it. Our language staff have embraced this opportunity to share the Cherokee language and heritage in a fun and educational way. David Crawler translated and recorded the “Frog Eats Sun” story in both Cherokee and English, while Roy Boney, Jeff Edwards and Zachary Barnes illustrated the film and book.

On Aug. 21, according to scientific reports, a total solar eclipse will be visible across the entire contiguous United States. It is expected to be the largest and most visible eclipse in America since 1918. At Cherokee Nation, we will have a watch party with employees and utilize the 500 safety glasses issued to the tribe from NASA as part of our unique partnership to celebrate this day. At Cherokee Nation’s One Fire Field, we will watch the eclipse and share traditional Cherokee storytelling.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Community Language Program allows citizens to learn in person and online

For Cherokee Nation, like most tribes in America, language is the vital thread that holds our heritage together. Our language is embedded with unique concepts and knowledge that are purely Cherokee and do not exist in other cultures. That’s why we continue to aggressively develop programs and educational opportunities for all our people, so that they are able to connect with and learn the Cherokee language. We know strong language programs help boost Cherokee identity and ensure our citizens have a chance to be culturally connected.

One of the most popular efforts is the Community Language Program, an effort spearheaded through Cherokee Nation’s Language Department. The Community Language Program has three full-time staff members. In addition to those full-time staff, about 15 fluent Cherokee speakers are contracted annually to teach language classes throughout the tribe’s 14-county jurisdictional area. All of the instructors have been certified and have passed the Cherokee Language Teachers test. Today, we have more than 60 instructors certified to teach for the Community Language Program, and they are contracted with as needed.  Many elders who serve in this capacity are teaching Cherokee cultural knowledge just as much as they teach the words and pronunciations.

Community participation is the biggest challenge in maintaining a vital and thriving tribal language. The Community Language Program typically hosts 30 to 35 classes annually, and they are scheduled according to community demand across the 14 counties. All classes, which are 10 weeks long and follow a fall/spring schedule that lines up with the public school calendars, remain free of charge and open to the public.

If a northeast Oklahoma community desires a Cherokee language class, organizers contact our staff, and a schedule determined by the availability of instructors is set. Most of our classes are hosted in partner spaces like community buildings, schools and churches.

We teach about 1,000 citizens per year in the Community Language Program. They come in all ages, from youth to elders. Additionally, the Community Language Program hosts online Cherokee language classes throughout the year. The tribe’s at-large community is served through the online classes. Online class attendance reaches about 2,000 per year but the completion rates vary, and we often get international students. Additionally, the online classes are archived so some people sign up and watch all the archived lessons.

Keepsake certificates, which feature Cherokee syllabary, are given to students who attend at least 80 percent of the class’s meetings. These certificates of completion are also issued to online students. Last year we issued more than 130 certificates.

We allocate funding and hire elders and traditional teachers, and we have developed an award-winning curriculum to help ignite the desire to learn the Cherokee language. We are using modern technology to the best of our abilities to share these lessons, and our ultimate desire is to ensure the Cherokee language will never be lost. In fact, these efforts mean it is thriving, growing and being used every day.

For more information about the Cherokee Language Program, email or call (918) 453-5420.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Fighting for Justice in Cherokee Nation

When the U.S. Surgeon General visited Oklahoma last year, he declared the “prescription opioid epidemic that is sweeping across the U.S. has hit Indian Country particularly hard.” This is absolutely felt in the Cherokee Nation, where opioid-related overdoses have more than doubled in recent years and more Cherokee Nation citizens suffer from opioid addiction.

This epidemic has affected every aspect of our society: our economy, our hospitals, our schools and our homes. Our children are especially threatened by the epidemic, putting the future of the Cherokee Nation at risk.

When I was elected Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation, I made a commitment to protect the health and welfare of our nearly 350,000 citizens about half of whom live inside our tribal boundaries in northeast Oklahoma. We are made up of many communities and we feel the impacts of the opioid epidemic every day, as we watch our friends and loved ones grapple with the consequences of addiction. I take this epidemic seriously and that’s why we have taken proactive measures to fight it. To curb abuse at the point of care, our doctors and hospitals implemented a prescription monitoring program. Long before it was required, our health care system also adopted technologies to stop illegal distribution of opioids.

Despite our best efforts, the crisis is still ravaging our communities. This is a matter of life and death, which is why we are doing everything in our power to prevent bad actors from flooding the Cherokee Nation with prescription opioids.

Large distributors and retailers like McKesson Corporation, Cardinal Health, Inc., AmerisourceBergen, CVS Health, Walgreens Boots Alliance, Inc., and Walmart Stores, Inc., have fueled this epidemic by saturating our communities with these highly-addictive painkillers, ignoring warning signs that these drugs are not landing in the right hands. This epidemic has cost Cherokee Nation health services millions of dollars, not to mention the thousands of lives lost and ruined. That’s dollars we could use for our schools, college scholarships, hospitals, roads or housing. I will not allow Cherokee Nation citizens to suffer while these companies make huge profits at our expense. 

No one has felt the impact of the opioid crisis more than our children. For children born into families struggling with opioid addiction, their lives are a tragic cycle of abuse and neglect. A recent study found pregnant Native American women are up to 8.7 times more likely to be opioid dependent. This means more Cherokee babies born with lifelong physical, mental and emotional deficiencies.  Many babies are hospitalized for weeks and some are immediately transferred to Tulsa-area hospitals to receive life-saving care. Sadly, these infants are then immediately placed in our foster system. Cherokee families are torn apart before they ever have a chance to be whole, and our entire tribe suffers as a result.

The drug distributers and retailers have avoided their duty as a “check” on the system by failing to monitor, report and prevent illegal opioid activity. Enough is enough. This epidemic is ripping apart families, straining our tribal resources and wreaking havoc across the Cherokee Nation. We’ll ensure distributors and corporate pharmacies are held accountable for their negligence and greed. My hope is that this case will bring justice to our nation and serve as an example to other communities fighting the opioid epidemic.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Culture-keepers in a digital age, OsiyoTV is recognized with two Emmy Awards

Osiyo. Not only is this how we say hello in Cherokee, it’s also how we’ve been saying hello to the world for the past two and a half years through our award-winning television and online program, “Osiyo, Voices of the Cherokee People.” This past weekend, the show was honored by the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences with two Heartland Emmys after being nominated for a whopping 10 awards overall. OsiyoTV, as we fondly refer to it, was recognized with its first Emmy last year after being nominated for five. The Heartland chapter of the Emmys recognizes outstanding television programming in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming, and heartfelt congratulations go out to the entire OsiyoTV team for their outstanding work and accomplishments.

Since this show launched in February of 2015, we’ve told the stories of more than 100 Cherokees, past and present, who truly embody what it means to be Cherokee. We’ve profiled artists, professional athletes, coaches, opera singers, Grammy-winning recording artists, MMA fighters, models, pageant winners and even a trick rider who starred in a hit movie.

But OsiyoTV has also introduced our audiences to quieter moments, such as our Cherokee language radio show and gospel music, cooking kanuchi, families digging for wild onions or gigging for crawdads, or even Cherokees speaking to their struggles with substance abuse and how they found the will to overcome and help others who are also struggling. For history lovers, the Cherokee Almanac tells the stories you won’t usually find in the history books. The “Let’s Talk Cherokee” language lessons featuring our Cherokee immersion school students inspire us that our youth will keep the Cherokee language alive for the future.

Produced, directed and hosted by an all-Native staff, we couldn’t be more proud of what they’ve achieved. But more importantly, we’re so pleased with what these stories have meant to our people. No matter where I travel, people always make a point to tell me how much they enjoy the show. Many times they’ve seen a story about a relative or a friend, but more often they tell me it reminds them of someone who was special to them who is no longer with us. Other times they tell me it harkens them back to their childhood and experiences they shared with their parents or grandparents growing up. For our Cherokees who’ve left the 14 counties of the Cherokee Nation, it’s a connection they may have been missing for many years they’ve been longing to reestablish.

When I took the oath of Principal Chief, part of that duty and responsibility was to protect and promote the Cherokee culture. So while these stories and shows are entertaining and heartwarming, they’re also meant to be a historical record and a way to keep our Cherokee heritage thriving.

No culture can survive unless it is carefully preserved and passed down to the next generation, and that’s what OsiyoTV is doing. The show and its team comprised of Emmy-winning journalist and Cherokee Nation citizen Jennifer Loren, along with Cherokee producers, directors, researchers and editors behind the scenes are culture-keepers in a digital age. They take great care to research, verify and document our culture, customs, language and the wisdom of today’s elders, so that it all may be passed to the next seven generations.

If you aren’t already a fan of the show, please take the time to see what you’re missing. Visit to watch full episodes of this Emmy-winning program from anywhere in the world, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The website also displays television showtimes for Oklahoma, northwest Arkansas, southwest Missouri and southeast Kansas. We’ll have more exciting news to announce soon about the show, so as they say in the TV business, stay tuned.



Friday, July 7, 2017

New Cherokee Nation policy offers employees paid leave for fostering Cherokee children

Cherokee Nation has created a workplace policy emphasizing the importance of protecting our children, one of our core values as Cherokee people and part of our history and heritage going back generations. I am so proud we created a new opportunity for our tribal employees who choose to open their homes as foster parents. I recently signed a human resources policy that will offer Cherokee Nation full-time employees five additional days of paid leave when a Cherokee child is placed in their Cherokee Nation Indian Child Welfare certified home. 

We continue to lead the way in Oklahoma and across Indian Country when it comes to progressive policies. Cherokee Nation is one of just a handful of entities across the country making this commitment to our workforce, but the commitment is really aimed at Cherokee children in need. When a foster placement is made into a family, it is often an emergency situation and can be at all hours of the day or night. We do not want our workers struggling to juggle work as they attend to the needs of a foster child and the required doctor appointments, school transfers or daycare enrollment and, most importantly, the bonding and trust time that must develop during placement. If parents are unable to take time off work, the child is yet again negatively impacted. 

I have talked and written about the need for more foster and adoptive parents for Cherokee Nation children since my first day in office. Sadly, the need today is just as strong as it was in 2011. Right now, the tribe has 15 employee-led families that are open for foster placement through Cherokee Nation’s Indian Child Welfare. We need more. I know the job of a foster parent is rewarding, and I know it does come with some unique and trying challenges. However, lack of workplace support should never be a reason a family closes their home to foster children.

At Cherokee Nation, we made a decision that if we asked our people to step up as foster parents, then we must step up as an employer and support the service our foster families are providing. This is an important way we can support our workforce and grow our database of foster parents. The five additional days of paid leave for full-time employees can be used during the first full year after placement. 

Our ICW department is one of the strongest programs in the state and in the nation. As the largest tribe in the United States, we have more children involved in these kinds of cases than any other tribal government. Cherokee Nation Indian Child Welfare has custody of approximately 80 children during any calendar year but intervenes as a party and participates in more than 1,600 cases per year throughout the United States. Nationally, Native children are overrepresented in the nation's foster care system, and we have to address those statistics. We must ensure our children have safe, stable homes and remain connected to their Cherokee culture. 
At Cherokee Nation, we strive to be the employer of choice in northeast Oklahoma. During my tenure as Principal Chief, we have raised minimum wage to $9.50 an hour and created an eight-week paid maternity leave program for mothers and six weeks of paternity leave for fathers. 

For more information on Cherokee Nation’s Indian Child Welfare programs and services, visit

Friday, June 23, 2017

Environmental protection ensures fresh water, better future

Protecting the environment and practicing conservation principles have always been important to the Cherokee people. Our close relationship to the land, and our traditional knowledge about our natural surroundings, has always been a part of who we are. Cherokee values and knowledge about ecological preservation, acquired over multiple generations, can benefit all of northeast Oklahoma.

Today, the Cherokee Nation Office of Environmental Services oversees the programs and services related to preservation and conservation of our air, land, water, and animal and plant life.
Recently, the tribe earned a $75,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency that will help support the critical environmental work that we do at the local level. The partnership between Cherokee Nation and the EPA benefits our people, our environmental endeavors, and the health and beauty of northeast Oklahoma.

Together with the EPA’s federal dollars, we can sustain the environmental protection efforts that preserve our clean air, healthy land and fresh water. The Cherokee Nation’s five-person Environmental Protection Commission, with the leadership of Secretary of Natural Resources Sara Hill, administers the Nation’s environmental programs and develops community and education programs.

The Cherokee Nation is also a founding member of the Inter-Tribal Environmental Council, an organization that helps protect the health of Native Americans, tribal natural resources and the environment. This intertribal organization was created to provide support, technical assistance, program development and training to member tribes nationwide. Today, almost 50 tribal governments are members and share best practices.

An excellent example of our renewed conservation efforts was a recent federal court decision naming Cherokee Nation the court-appointed steward of restoration efforts of Saline Creek in Mayes County. David Benham, a Cherokee Nation citizen originally from the Kenwood area and a property owner along the creek bank, personally sued Ozark Materials River Rock for the extreme damage done to the water. The company, who will pay for the restoration effort, mined at the foot of the creek, removing the gravel at the lower reaches. Erosion upstream redirected the creek and eroded vegetation, which in turn increased stream temperature and algae growth.

It is fitting and appropriate that the court appointed Cherokee Nation to manage the recovery of these damaged areas. Saline Creek has spiritual as well as historical significance to Cherokee Nation citizens, and it is one of the most beautiful creeks in northeast Oklahoma. Cherokee Nation is always willing to serve as stewards of our lands and waters so they will be protected for generations to come.

Our tribal government strives to build a better future for our people. Protecting the environment through Cherokee Nation’s active and progressive conservation programs is one of the most important things we can do to ensure we achieve that goal.