By TEDDYE SNELL
When Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker was inaugurated last November, he never thought about the challenges he might face. He saw only opportunities.
“I see opportunities every single day,” said Baker. “[We have] opportunities to change the system, opportunities to fix things that may have been broken for years, and opportunities to help Cherokee people.”
Baker believes that during his first year in office, the tribe has made great strides in housing, health care and job growth.
“We successfully reactivated the Cherokee Nation Housing Authority, and have built the first homes for citizens in decades,” said Baker. “We’re providing citizens safe, sanitary homes that have three bedrooms, central heat and air, a garage and a yard for $350 a month, including insurance.”
And that means lives are being changed.
“One [home recipient], the single mother of two sons, had been living in an apartment for 18 years. The utilities [costs] were high and the place wasn’t well-maintained,” Baker said. “Once we did the math, adding up what she previously paid in rent and utilities, she now has an extra $500 per month she can use to raise her family. She went from no dream of home ownership to owning her own home, having extra money in her pocket, and $25,000 to $30,000 equity in her property.”
Baker considers it the tribe’s responsibility to aid its citizens in any way possible.
“I’ve always said, for the first Americans to be the last Americans to achieve the ‘American dream’ is just wrong,” said Baker.
He’s also been pleased with the progress in health care services over the past year.
“I was able to present legislation as a tribal councilor to provide a 5 percent dividend from the casino profits to our contract health services to take care of Cherokees who often fall through the cracks,” said Baker. “It’s the first piece of legislation I signed as principal chief, and since then, we’ve put abut $8 million to $9 million into contract health services, which has come from casino profits and the sale of the [private] airplane.”
Baker indicated the tribal council has also approved continued construction at CN W.W. Hastings Hospital, a new clinic at Jay, a rebuild effort at the Sallisaw clinic, a clinic at Bartlesville, an add-on facility at the Mankiller Clinic in Stilwell, and a new surgical hospital in Tahlequah.
“Instead of building a $100 million hotel tower in Tulsa, we’ll take our funds and serve our people,” said Baker.
During the first few months of his taking office, Baker made a number of appointments to Cherokee Nation Businesses Board of Directors, including Chairman Sam Hart, Gary Cooper, Jerry Holderby, Rex Starr, Brent Taylor, Michael Watkins and Tommye Sue Wright.
“I’m very proud of the new board appointments we’ve made at CNB, and we’ve generated an extra $14 million in profits, which is the highest net increase CNB has ever experienced,” said Baker. “We bid on and received over $1 million in 8(a) [government] contracts, and we’ll begin to see the profit in that over the next year. Our economic impact is $1.3 billion in direct funding, and we anticipate it will be $1.5 billion next year.”
Tribal profits equate to more Cherokees being hired, Baker added.
“We’ve had 1,000 Cherokees hired since I’ve taken office,” said Baker. “We’ve also positioned ourselves to create more jobs with the purchases of [commercial] property in Pryor, and most recently, the American Woodmark property. The Pryor site is at 80 percent capacity, and we believe we’ll attract companies that will create jobs for Cherokees.”
Baker is also looking to the future, and hopes to further expand health care, and jobs and services for citizens.
“We’re trying to lock down plans for major hospital construction, and nothing is built in 30 days, but we believe all the construction projects should be completed within the next three years,” said Baker. “We plan on focusing on job creation and gaining more 8(a) contracts. We’re also working on forming a medical school so we can fill our clinics with quality Cherokee professionals.”
Baker said the Cherokee Nation has been collaborating with a couple of groups about the medical school, which is part of the new Hastings Hospital plan.
“The goal is to produce eight physicians a year,” said Baker. “Once we accomplish that, we can look at expanding to dentistry, which is something we really need to work on. Research shows health care costs can be greatly reduced if oral health is maintained. We want to focus on preventive and corrective dentistry.”
Overall, Baker is pleased with what his administration has accomplished in a year.
“It’s amazing what my team has been able to accomplish in the first year,” said Baker. “For 12 years, we’ve worried about security at the Claremore Indian Health Services Hospital. If something happened, our marshals were not allowed on the premises, as they didn’t have jurisdiction. I’m proud to say now, through cross-deputization, our marshals have access, and we’ve also cross-deputized Claremore law enforcement employees to work with us. The same was true at Sequoyah High School. Despite our marshal service being located on the campus, they could take no action if a situation had arisen. Now they’ve been cross-deputized and can respond.”
Baker still holds true to the two mandates he set down for employees when he first took office.
“I gathered everyone together and told them I had two orders of the day: First of all, keep me legal,” he said. “If there’s ever a question, err on the side of caution. The second is to try to find a way to say ‘yes’ instead of ‘no.’”
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