Monday, February 22, 2016

Making history by curing hepatitis C

At our world-class Cherokee Nation health care centers, we are committed to the well-being of our patients. One of the most progressive initiatives we have today is the Hepatitis C Elimination Project. This is a pilot program to screen patients for the disease, with an end goal to cure all those who test positive. I am proud our tribal health department is doing everything possible to eliminate this debilitating disease many of our Cherokee families face.

We are committed to fighting this disease because it touches so many here in the heart of Indian Country. It is a viral infection that can cause serious liver damage, liver failure and even death. About 3.2 million people in America live with hepatitis C, and 75 percent of them don’t even know they are carriers because they are symptom free.

Like with many poor health signifiers, the issue is in even more prominent in our tribal communities. According to the Urban Indian Health Institute, based in Seattle, Indian people are twice as likely to be diagnosed with hepatitis C. Sadly, substance abuse is another contributing factor and critical escalator of our rates with hepatitis C. Opiate abuse is a significant part of the problem, as 73 percent of cases involve intravenous drug use. Unlicensed tattoo artists reusing ink or not sanitizing needles properly are also contributing.

The rates are not good but there is hope, and that’s why we are tackling this issue head on. So far in the Cherokee Nation’s health system there have been 12,000 patients screened, with 4 percent of women and 7 percent of men testing positive. Of those, roughly 300 patients have taken the medicine, which is non-invasive and allows patients to continue a normal routine, and have been cured. We have seen a high success rate with treatments, and our hope is to eliminate this disease entirely through Cherokee Nation Health Services. As Native people and as Cherokee Nation citizens, we must keep striving to eliminate hepatitis C from our population.

Staying ahead of the rate of infection requires vigilant testing, screening, treatment and creative strategies to prevent future cases. We are now screening all tribal health department patients over the age of 20, which avoids the problems of determining which patients to test, and will help identify a carrier even if the virus is dormant.  

Through diligent counseling and public awareness programs, I am confident we will drive down exposure to this infection. In the past, a positive hepatitis C test could be crippling to an individual or family, both physically and financially.

We have dedicated leaders within our Cherokee Nation Health Services department who partnered with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Oklahoma Department of Health and the University of Oklahoma on this effort. Additionally, Gilead Sciences, a biopharmaceutical company, donated $1.5 million to this unique partnership that enabled the creation of a prevention and treatment plan. The Cherokee Nation is the only entity in the country working on an elimination project with the CDC.

Our partners are just as committed as we are to cure patients with hepatitis C and work to reduce the incidents of new infections. The historic joint effort between federal, state and tribal governments will help lay the foundation of a national strategy to fight hepatitis C.

A diagnosis doesn’t have to be a death sentence.  I hope you will join us in this battle and help us drive out hepatitis C once and for all. Please ask your medical provider to screen you for hepatitis C. It’s not often we can say a disease can be completely eliminated from a citizenry, but it’s something we can absolutely achieve in the Cherokee Nation.  

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

On the passing of Bill Rice, legal scholar

With the passing of renowned attorney and law professor Bill Rice, we have lost a tireless warrior and advocate for tribal sovereignty and the rights of Indian people to determine their own paths. Because of Bill's work, Indian Country and all of us are forever changed. 

It was Bill who successfully argued one of the most important tribal sovereignty cases in modern history-- Oklahoma Tax Commission v. Sac and Fox Nation, which made its way all the way to the Supreme Court of the United States. The high court ruled 9-0 in favor of tribal sovereignty, due in large part to the painstaking work of Bill. It was that case which affirmed our right to levy taxes on our own citizens, and recognized tribal independence from many state tax laws.

Bill poured his heart, his soul and his life into protecting and affirming our rights as sovereign nations. He was also a family man. Our thoughts and prayers are with his many loved ones as they face this terrible loss. 

Investing in local schools and a brighter future in northeast Oklahoma

As the son and grandson of lifelong educators, I know how important investing in public education is. It’s critical for young Cherokee students so they can grow into everything God intended them to be. It’s also important for all of northeast Oklahoma to continue developing a diverse economy with an educated workforce.  

Expanding the sale of Cherokee Nation license plates to Cherokee Nation citizens statewide has created a lifeline for public education in northeast Oklahoma. As the state allocates fewer dollars to education, the Cherokee Nation is poised to once again make a record-breaking contribution to area schools. This year we gave $4.7 million to public education through our car tag program, which puts us over the $40 million investment mark since 2002.

When our tribal citizens across Oklahoma purchase a Cherokee Nation tag for their car, truck boat or recreational vehicle, we earmark 38 percent of each of those dollars and invest it back into classrooms. That’s something every one of our tribal citizen can take great pride in. We are investing in our children, investing in our communities and investing in our future as Cherokees and as Oklahomans.

The partnerships we have carefully cultivated with area school districts are some of our most important, because together we are creating a positive and long-lasting effect in northeast Oklahoma.

School districts have complete spending discretion with these funds. The funding will enable schools to execute their strategic plans. At Okay Public Schools in Wagoner County, the financial award will be utilized for much needed technology upgrades, like iPads and laptops, which will enable more advanced learning opportunities. In Nowata, Muskogee and Bartlesville, the funding will help pay teacher salaries, while at Adair Public Schools that money will be used this year in the school’s general fund to offset its $60,000 cut in annual state education funding.

Across Oklahoma, we are doing more with less this year in public classrooms. Our kids should be a top priority, but Oklahoma is cutting investments to education, and, sadly, that is a trend we have seen over the past few years. That means teachers and administrators are conducting our most important business venture for a better future with fewer resources and more pupils than ever. Collectively, we seem to be going backward, not forward, when it comes to making our youth and their education a priority.

To all the Cherokee citizens who have purchased a new Cherokee Nation tag, I say thank you, because that decision makes our academic partnerships possible and keeps them flourishing. As a sovereign government, we are blessed to be able to make such a positive and long-lasting impact on Oklahoma’s future.


Cherokee Nation supports public schools by the numbers:

·         $4.7 million awarded this year to 106 school districts.
·         $40 million since the program began in 2002.
·         $165 dollars per Cherokee student this year.
·         370 percent increase since program began in 2002.
·         40 percent increase since 2011.
·         15 percent increase in Cherokee Nation at-large purchases in the past year.
·         38 cents of every dollar spent on a Cherokee Nation tag sold is earmarked for public education.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Challenging legislative session ahead for Oklahoma

The new state legislative session is one we will all be watching closely. Our policymakers in Oklahoma City have a challenging task ahead as they try to create an operational budget for the state while being millions of dollars in the hole. Unfortunately, most state agencies remain funded at more than 20 percent below pre-recession funding levels because budgets have not kept up with inflation.

It’s a tough situation, and state leaders must make difficult decisions to balance the budget. Consecutive years of making tax reductions, coupled with low oil and gas prices, will hamper what can be achieved. Collectively, Oklahoma’s elected leaders have some hard decisions to make on critical issues like education and health care. I hope they leave all the options on the table this year.

In contrast, Oklahoma’s tribal governments are investing more and more every year in education, while the state decreases its investment. I think Oklahoma would be wise to look at tribal governments as a model for growth and deliverables. Robust Indian nations add to the vitality of life in our great state, and our tribal governments are investing in Oklahoma’s future.

When you look closely at what Cherokee Nation and all tribal governments in Oklahoma are doing, you will see we are fighting poverty, expanding business, creating jobs and offering better health care. At Cherokee Nation we have raised paychecks to a living wage while providing paid maternity leave and expanding opportunities for our citizens to go to college. 

Through gaming compacts over the past decade, tribes have invested more than $1billion in Oklahoma education. From 2005 to 2015, the Cherokee Nation has allocated $159.9 million to Oklahoma through gaming fees.

Locally, we also invest in education through our car tag compact. Thirty-eight cents of every dollar in tag sales goes to public education. Last year, 109 schools received $4 million from the Cherokee Nation’s license plate sales. Our contribution to education from car tag sales has increased 34.2 percent since 2008. During that same six-year period, the state’s investment in education has declined by 11 percent. A new record contribution to local schools from car tags will be announced in the next week or two.

While we are contributing more, it may not seem like it because state tax cuts offset those dollars. As more tribal gaming and car tag dollars go into state coffers, less is invested at the state level. In essence, tribes help fill the gap created by the tax cuts. As tribal governments, it’s disappointing to see our investments in education eroded by the state budget process as we are trying to build a better future within our communities.

Sadly, the state budget is being balanced at the cost of our children. We need more education funding, not less. In Oklahoma, we rank 49th in teacher pay, 44th in pupil funding and 41st in K-12 achievement rates. Success for Oklahoma public education means success for all our children, not just Cherokees, so proper funding is imperative. 

Our legislature is responsible to the will of the people, so while tax cuts sound fine to the average citizen, they are devastating to the programs that build a healthy state with an educated workforce. The sweeping tax breaks have not spurred growth and have hurt Oklahoma.

At Cherokee Nation we have invested our funds into education, health care and the well-being of our people. Our gaming and business profits stay in Oklahoma. A full 65 percent is reinvested into our diverse business portfolio, and 35 percent goes to services for the people.

That means our citizens are able to live in decent housing and become homeowners, raise their children safely, and ensure their kids get a quality education. Being able to contribute to the local economy and community is an empowering feeling. Cherokee Nation citizens are able to share in the tribe’s prosperity.

What if state leaders worked off that blueprint? What if a bold, new path were forged? I hope state leaders look at the richness and diversity of Oklahoma’s tribes and say, “We should be more like that; we should invest more money in education, health care, infrastructure and the social programs that lift people up.”

I believe that if we want to build a better Oklahoma, we must work together. I hope our leaders at the state level think about our collective, long-term future. Implore them to do so, and we will all see a greater return on investment and people leading brighter and better lives.


Monday, February 1, 2016

Newest Cherokee Casino will create jobs, build up destination community

Cherokee Nation Entertainment will soon break ground on the tribe’s 10th gaming complex when work begins this spring on the Cherokee Casino near Grove. By constructing this new facility, we will create more than 175 quality jobs in Delaware County. 

The tribe’s minimum wage is well above the federal minimum wage and full-time jobs come with insurance, retirement and a full benefits package. As the new dollars circulate in the community it will improve the lives of so many people in the area. Our goal is to fill as many of these good-paying jobs with Cherokee Nation citizens as possible. Right now, there are more Cherokees working for our government and business enterprises than at any time in history. These paychecks will raise the quality of life for many people and create a brighter future for all people living in Delaware County.

We look forward to working with local officials in Grove, including the chamber of commerce, and elected leaders, to grow the local economy and enhance the area as a true destination point near beautiful Grand Lake. The tribe’s entertainment expertise, coupled with the stunning natural landscape and the opportunity to enjoy family activities on the lake, will truly drive visitors to this area of the Cherokee Nation. We are proud to a play a critical role in that potential economic growth.

As jobs and visitors increase, the local schools and government will reap the benefits. Additionally, that will mean more money flowing into infrastructure needs like roads and bridges, water and sewer lines, and first responder services.

At the Cherokee Nation, we have made historic investments to improve health care by utilizing our casino profits. We have invested millions of dollars to expand clinics and build new ones, creating a better quality of life for our people and for all of northeast Oklahoma. I am so proud this new economic effort will be such a boon as it builds the local economy and provides the additional funding to expand services to the Cherokee people.

Our tribal businesses, like the forthcoming casino, play a vital role in our future as a tribe, as well as our home state. The tribe is the economic engine of this region, and we must keep pursuing opportunities to grow that impact, create jobs and further economic development for our friends and family.