The past eight years have been the pinnacle of my public service career. Nothing has been more important to me than serving the Cherokee people.
I had the privilege of working side by side with a man of great moral integrity, Deputy Principal Chief S. Joe Crittenden. It has been the blessing of a lifetime, and I am so proud of the monumental things we achieved. They are not only making life better for Cherokees today, but will be empowering our tribe generations from now.
My grandparents had a saying: "If you leave the woodpile a little higher than when you started, it benefits all of us." I think we have done that - left the tribe in a better spot than when we assumed office. We have created policies and developed ideas that will have a positive effect well into the future. We have focused on homes, health and hope, and by doing so, we have built stronger Cherokee families. We have:
• Increased opportunities for our citizens to thrive. We continue to diversify and expand our business interests, creating good, quality jobs. The Cherokee Nation's economic impact has doubled in the past eight years, growing from $1.06 billion to over $2.16 billion.
• Re-established the new home construction program and built about 700 new homes for Cherokee families, and we increased the amount available through the Mortgage Assistance Program, which has eased the burden of purchasing a new home for more than 1,800 families so far.
• Issued more academic scholarships than ever before and nearly doubled the scholarship funding, from $8.5 million to almost $16 million. Since 2010, more than 27,000 scholarships have been awarded through the Cherokee Nation higher education program. We have increased the number of scholarships awarded by nearly 45 percent.
• Created a renewed focus on health care. The Cherokee Nation now operates health centers in Tahlequah, Muskogee, Jay, Nowata, Salina, Sallisaw, Stilwell, Vinita and Ochelata, which means no Cherokee citizen within the tribe's 14 counties has to drive more than 30 miles for quality health care. In our capital city of Tahlequah, we have expanded the W.W. Hastings Campus and are opening a new 469,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art health care facility, as well as the first medical school in the country built on tribal land through a partnership with the Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine.
• Awarded more than $13.5 million in small-business loans, and with those dollars, more than 1,250 jobs were created within our tribal jurisdiction. Close to 300 Native-owned businesses were launched, expanded or stabilized. Our tribal resources are allowing these unique business ideas to bloom in full.
We have partnered with others to better our infrastructure, improve public schools, expand health care access and bolster education for the benefit of all Oklahomans, not just Cherokees. We are also expanding our Cherokee language revitalization efforts, which includes developing new Cherokee speakers of all ages.
Our most vulnerable and valuable citizens - elders, young children, military veterans, domestic violence survivors and Cherokee youth in the foster system - have been the inspiration for many of the things we accomplished together.
I am proud we have a government that is responsive and protective of its citizenry. That's the Cherokee way.
We have laid a strong foundation for our people going forward, and I know the next administration - led by Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. and Deputy Principal Chief Bryan Warner - will continue this progress. I believe they, too, will leave the woodpile a little higher.
The best is ahead of us, and our future is brighter than ever. May God continue to bless the Cherokee Nation.
Bill John Baker is the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.