Today, the Cherokee Nation government functions under a constitution, but it wasn't always that way.
Though the Nation created a governing document in 1839, the "modern era" tribal constitution dates to 1976 and the convention of 1975.
The 19th century tribal constitution was demolished by Oklahoma statehood. The Cherokees still had chiefs, but they were federally appointed, and sometimes had no other job description than to do the bidding of the U.S. government.
Forming a new sovereign government was more than a necessity for the Cherokees, it was for self-preservation.
Without a government between statehood and 1970, the tribe lost almost all its lands, often through fraud. The population of the Nation was about 40,000 in 1970 - no larger than in 1930.
Under the administration of Richard Nixon, and after many years of heightened Native American activism, the federal government transitioned to a policy of allowing tribes greater self-determination. The Oklahoma Cherokees were recognized by Washington, D.C., in 1970, and the following year, held balloting that resulted in the election of William Wayne Keeler as principal chief.
Keeler was also CEO of Phillips Petroleum Company. Born in 1908 in Dalhart, Texas, he grew up in Bartlesville.
Writing for the Oklahoma Historical Society, Dr. Brad Agnew, local historian and retired professor of history at Northeastern State University, told of Keeler working part-time at Phillips and studying at the University of Kansas. After graduation, Keeler signed on with Phillips full time, overseeing construction of a refinery in Mexico during the Second World War, and rising to manager of refining.
"Keeler, who was one-sixteenth Cherokee, was named vice chair of the tribe's executive committee in 1948," Agnew wrote. "When the appointed chief died in 1949, President Harry S. Truman named Keeler to replace him. For the next quarter century Keeler worked to reestablish Cherokee sovereignty and government. In 1971, after his selection as the tribe's first elected chief since 1903, he presided over the drafting of a new Cherokee constitution, which marked the final step in reestablishment of representative tribal government."
Also instrumental in the creation of the 1976 constitution was Ross Swimmer, elected principal chief in 1975. Swimmer understood that a tribal government organized and operating under a legal document could bring federal funding for programs to help the Cherokees, and all of Northeastern Oklahoma.
The idea of a new constitution was not new, but efforts to fashion a document were initially scattered.
"In 1967 or `68, Bill Keeler had assembled a group of Cherokees in Eastern Oklahoma to look at the formation of a constitution," Swimmer said in a 2001 speech during the Symposium on American Indian Constitutional and Governmental Reform at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "Not necessarily, I think, with the idea in mind of a governing document, but something that would, from a social point of view, give more people the opportunity to focus on the services, the Indian health services, the [Bureau of Indian Affairs] services, and provide some input to the leadership, to the chief, for how those services could be better delivered to tribal members."
The 1975 constitutional convention created the document that was ultimately ratified in 1976.
It included an executive with a principal chief and deputy chief, a legislative branch with 15 elected counselors, and a judiciary with a three-judge appeals tribunal.
The idea of a bicameral legislature with many seats was considered, but Swimmer thought such a large body would be too ponderous for its purposes.
Ratification of the constitution was one of the peaks in the renaissance of Cherokee tribal government.
"… in 1975 if somebody had suggested to me that the Cherokee Nation had tax powers, or that I, as principal chief, had the opportunity to incarcerate my fellow Cherokees for crimes they might commit, I would have said they were crazy," Swimmer said in his Harvard speech. "I would have said there is no such thing. We don't have that kind of sovereignty. In fact, as I recall, we were operating a restaurant and a motel and we were still collecting sales taxes to send to the state. That went on for several years until I finally woke up and said 'Well, why are we doing this?'"
Ambiguity in the language of the 1976 constitution, particularly concerning the document's reform procedures and the need for federal approval of amendments, led to the Nation's constitutional crisis of the late 1990s. The tribal government now functions under the 1999 version of its constitution.
But whatever their flaws, the Cherokee constitutional conventions of 1975 and 1999 have been credited as useful examples of successful self-governance.
Swimmer's speech is cited in a paper by Eric Lemont, a research fellow at the Kennedy School in 2001. He wrote that "During the middle of its own constitutional crisis in 1999, the Nation formed an independent constitution commission and held a nine-day constitutional convention. The inclusiveness and independence of these two institutions - combined with innovative strategies for achieving maximum citizen education and participation in the reform process - provide a model for other nations interested in pursuing constitutional reform."