Cherokee Nation Councilor Keith Austin, who represents District 14, covering most of Rogers County, spoke about the Cherokee Nation’s greatest point of pride across centuries – self-government.
“The important people and the important events of Cherokee history, that’s what motivates me,” Austin said.
Austin provided some history saying, the Cherokee Nation existed as an organized society long before Europeans landed in North America.
In their original homeland, parts of present day Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee, the Cherokee people lived in permanent settlements.
He said both regional and tribal leadership existed, and because property was held in common, the Cherokees had a working judicial system long before they kept record.
“We didn’t measure wealth through what we acquired, we measured wealth by what we contributed to society,” Austin said.
After European contact, the Cherokee nation made small changes to their government so that it would look more like the European trilateral system.
He continued in saying that in the colonial days, Great Britain recognized the Cherokees as a sovereign tribal nation and invited their leaders to a conference with King George before the United States was ever conceived.
“Our footing for modern governance has always been there,” Austin said.
When the U.S. came into being, one of the first Supreme Court decisions was on the status of the relationship between the federal government and the tribes.
It was decided that indigenous tribes should be considered domestic dependent nations, a legal status meaning that while the tribes would exist in the borders and under the rule of the U.S., negotiations between the federal government and each of the tribes would be similar to government to government negotiations with foreign nations.
However, over the decades, the states and federal government slowly encroached on tribal land and sovereignty.
Deals were struck to give the tribes land in Oklahoma, widely considered ‘No Man’s Land,’ at the time.
Those tribes that did not take the deal were forcibly removed.
The Cherokee Nation reformed after the Trail of Tears.
But then, in 1907, the Dawes Act and the assimilation efforts of the new State of Oklahoma and the United States took effect.
“What happened to us in 1907 really was unfortunate,” Austin said, of this forced dismantling of tribal government. “But we can’t turn that clock back.”
From 1907 to 1974 the Cherokee people were not able to choose their own leaders.
“The right to self-government was essentially denied our people,” Austin said.
The right to self-determination was eventually returned, thanks in large part to a Rogers County man named J.B. Milam, who was a resident of Claremore in the 1940s and was one of the founders of RCB bank.
He was appointed Chief of the Cherokee people by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and was the first to be given a term of office instead of a temporary appointment. Milam held office for 8 years until he passed away.
During that period of time he worked to establish the back bone of what was to become the Cherokee modern government.
“Because of his efforts in the 1940s, we were able to successfully get the president and the federal government to recognize the need to return self-government to the Cherokee people,” Austin said. “That did not just affect Cherokee people, it affected all Native Americans throughout the U.S., because every tribe’s right to self-government was also returned after that fight.”
Austin said it was incredibly special that a man born in Chelsea, who lived in Claremore, had such a profound impact on the survival of tribal sovereignty.
“I love the fact that we have the ability to choose our own leaders. I cherish that,” Austin said. “When I was a born in 1962 we didn’t have that.”
Austin’s grandmother was also active in facilitating that change, by making calls to her representative and attending federal meetings.
Austin recounted, from when he was about 12 years old, “My grandmother and my mother put me in the car and said ‘We’re going to Tahlequah to witness history.’ We went to the Cherokee Capital Square in downtown Tahlequah and saw Ross Swimmer announce he was running for Chief. That was the first freely elected Chief of the Cherokee Nation since 1907.”
“That’s an important story that I hope people understand, but it goes back to say … we are people who govern ourselves, and it only works when the people choose to participate,” Austin said.
In addition to having the largest Native American population, Cherokees have a larger voter participation rate than most tribes.
Citizenship in the Cherokee Nation is based on the ability to document one’s lineage to the Dawes Rolls.
Of more than 355,000 citizens, about two-thirds are eligible to vote, and around 70,000 are registered to vote in Cherokee Nation elections.
“Elections are a big deal in the Cherokee Nation, and that’s because we celebrate self-governance,” Austin said.
When it comes to political participation, Austin traces his love of public service to his grandmother.
“Three years ago I took an oath of office to be an elected tribal leader in the Cherokee Nation,” Austin said. “I felt my Grandma’s presence very heavy that day.”
The Cherokee Nation oath of office requires Councilors, Chiefs and Justices to promise to protect and defend the constitutions of the United States and the Cherokee Nation and to do everything in their power to promote and protect the history, culture and the language of the Cherokee people.
Today the Cherokee Nation assists in several projects.
In Austin’s district, recent projects include: a partnership with RSU to increase student opportunities; improvements to the Chelsea animal shelter; a new storm siren in Talala; new downtown lighting in Oologah; new parking lot improvements in Foyil and Sequoyah; new air conditioning in the Sequoyah gymnasium and connecting Justus-Tiawah schools to Claremore water and sewage.
District 14 has more young Cherokees taking advantage of scholarships than any other district, with about 500 students.
“A really big portion of the kids going to college from this area are receiving Cherokee Nation scholarships right now,” he said. “That is a game changer for the next generation of folks.”
The Cherokee Nation is also the largest employer in Rogers County, stimulating the economy.
“Cherokees here in Rogers County make up somewhere around 20 percent of the population, but they drive on 100 percent of the roads, they go to 100 percent of the schools, they 100 percent benefit if there is a storm coming and they get notified about it. Every Cherokee benefits from every program that we offer,” Austin said. “Many Cherokees are married to non-Cherokees, most Cherokees live in communities where they are surrounded by non-Cherokees. They live in the greater world, they don’t live in isolated communities. So it’s important that we are supporting the entire world that they live in.”
Austin thinks the Cherokee Nation’s biggest achievement in District 14 is The Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Catoosa.
“Great Cherokee leadership then is the reason that it exists today. I hope that Cherokee leadership today will mean that the things that we believe impossible, our kids and grandkids, will look back and say thank goodness for good Cherokee leadership then,” Austin said.
Austin is also confident in the Cherokee leadership of the future.
“I feel so much more certain of the future than I ever have in my life,” Austin said, highlighting several young leaders in the Cherokee Youth Tribal Council and education initiatives in the works to educate the youngest Cherokees about their history.
“One thing we should celebrate as Cherokees is that we have a history and a heritage of leadership,” Austin said. “And we have no shortage of young people preparing to lead in the future.”
The biggest challenge for the nation’s future, however, is the same challenge as the nation’s past.
“We must always fight to make sure that federal lawmakers are recognizing the distinction of our people,” Austin said. U.S. leaders must constantly be reminded, “the reason that we have sovereignty and self-governance, why we were recognized before the U.S. as a sovereign people, why we were recognized by the Supreme Court as a sovereign people, and why it is important that that continues to happen today.”
“That fight is eternal. We must always be vigilant about that fight. We owe that to those who fought so hard 200 years ago. They fought for our people to have the rights we have today, and we want to make sure that those rights are never lost,” Austin said. “To me that is the single most important thing we do.”