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Unconquered and Unconquerable: A Conversation with Governor Bill Anoatubby

Gov. Bill Anoatubby speaks from beneath the great seal of the Chickasaw Nation. Photo courtesy of Chickasaw Nation.
Gov. Bill Anoatubby speaks from beneath the great seal of the Chickasaw Nation. Photo courtesy of Chickasaw Nation.

This story was originally published in “Unconquered and Unconquerable”, a magazine created by Meek School Students and Faculty. 

Q: Where and when did you start in the tribe’s government?
In 1975, I began work with the Chickasaw Nation as tribal health director. A year later Governor James asked me to be the accounting director. He later appointed me as special assistant to the governor, then asked me to be his running-mate in the 1979 election. That was the first election that included lieutenant governor. We were elected as a team and then re-elected in 1983.
Q: When you were elected governor, was it a close race? Why did you run?
When Overton James retired, several people wanted to be Governor.
As lieutenant governor, I was faced with the choice of running for governor or losing my opportunity to serve the Chickasaw Nation.
I felt it was my calling in life to serve the Chickasaw people, so I was compelled to run for governor. In 1987, I was elected governor of the Chickasaw Nation in a fairly close race.
Our leadership team was focused on economic development, healthcare, housing, education, senior services and other services to offer opportunities to the Chickasaw people.

Gov. Bill Anoatubby inducts veteran storyteller and tribal elder Irene Digby into the Chickasaw Hall of Fame. Photo courtesy of Chickasaw Nation.
Gov. Bill Anoatubby inducts veteran storyteller and tribal elder Irene Digby into the Chickasaw Hall of Fame. Photo courtesy of Chickasaw Nation.

Q: Did you have any idea back then that the tribe would grow to such a strong economic position?
Even in those early years, we had a vision of what might be, because we knew the Chickasaw people had always had the focus, determination and resilience necessary to succeed in the face of virtually any challenge.
Chickasaws persevered and adapted throughout our history, including removal from our homelands, allotment of our new territory and an attempt to dissolve our tribal government and assimilate us into mainstream society.
Through all those challenges, we continued to embrace our identity as a nation and our hope that we would once again be self-governing and self-sufficient.
In the 1950s and 1960s, we began to take meaningful action on that vision, as community leaders fought for our right and ability to elect our leaders and govern ourselves.
In 1971, we held our first gubernatorial election since Oklahoma statehood. Twelve years after that election, the Chickasaw people established a new constitutional form of government.
In 1987, we had four tribal businesses and about 250 employees.
Today, we operate more than 100 diversified tribal businesses and have more than 13,000 employees. Our annual outlays now are measured in hundreds of millions.
Q: What do you like most like about your job?
Our mission is “to enhance the quality of life of the Chickasaw people,” so it is
gratifying to see the results of our efforts. Many of our services offer opportunities to pursue a higher education, advance in one’s career, or start a business.
There are countless examples of Chickasaws who have seized those opportunities and achieved success.
It is gratifying to see Chickasaws who have utilized tribal services and make it a point to “come back home” to work for the tribe.
People who have earned degrees from Harvard or other prestigious universities choose to work for the tribe because they believe so strongly in our mission.
We have seen many people who started working for the Chickasaw Nation as part of our summer youth program advance to become part of the leadership team.
They now have the opportunity to mentor young people and help prepare them to be leaders in the future.
Last year, we provided more than $18 million in grants and scholarships to more than 5,000 students.
Chickasaws are enjoying success in the arts, sciences, business, etc.
We have also made great strides in revitalizing our history and culture.
One example is the Chickasaw Cultural Center, which reflects the vision, imagination and spirit of the Chickasaw people. It is a special place where Chickasaw people embrace the culture and heritage which bind us together as a people.
We have also established many programs, camps, events and other initiatives to help us preserve and revitalize our language and culture.
It is essential to revitalize our Chickasaw language and preserve it for future generations, because so much of our culture is bound up in the knowledge of our language. Therefore, we have made a special effort to preserve and teach our language.
One example is our partnership with Rosetta Stone. We believe a collaboration between our fluent speakers and Rosetta Stone will be a significant step toward ensuring our language is documented and accessible for future generations.
Gov. Bill Anoatubby with young friends at Chickasaw Youth Day. Photo courtesy of Chickasaw Nation.
Gov. Bill Anoatubby with young friends at Chickasaw Youth Day. Photo courtesy of Chickasaw Nation.

Q: Which of the tribe’s achievements are you especially pleased with?
We have made great progress in several areas. Our economic development and business diversification efforts have a great impact.
Growth in business revenues has allowed us to create new jobs and increase the number of services we offer.
In 1987, we operated 33 programs. About 99 percent of the funding for those programs came from the federal government.
Today, we operate nearly 300 programs and services. Tribal business revenue provides the majority of funding for those services.
In 1987, higher education funding was about $200,000 annually and provided scholarships to 157 students.
Today, in addition to providing grants and scholarships totaling more than $18 million to more than 5,000 students, we operate four early childhood centers serving more than 330 students. We have also implemented a STEM initiative to introduce students to the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. We believe it is vital to show students how their classroom studies apply to real world career options.
We have also made significant strides in health care. We invested more than $150 million of tribal revenue to build a state-of-the-art 370,000 square foot medical center that opened in 2010.
We also built new health clinics in Ardmore and Tishomingo. Our investment in those new clinics helps ensure we will be able to deliver high-quality health care for years to come.
We also opened a new cultural center in 2010. Almost 500,000 people from around the world have visited to learn more about Chickasaw culture and history.
We are currently involved in a tourism initiative which is bringing hundreds of thousands of tourists to Oklahoma.
Q: What’s the biggest disappointment?
Regardless of how hard we work, everyone makes honest mistakes from time to time.
While it is always disappointing to make mistakes, we do our best to learn from them and move on to the next opportunity.
There is always much to be done. Sometimes we must choose from several good options to find the “best” option.
That can be difficult at times, but we try to determine what is best for the people we serve and move forward.
Q: You are known for working with state and local governments. Could you give examples and tell us why that sort of cooperation is so important?
We make it a point to work closely with city, state and local governments, because we know that we can all do more by working together. We believe it is important to be a good neighbor.
Our cross-deputation agreements with state, county and municipal law enforcement agencies are one example.
Cross-deputation agreements enable all officers to enforce the law, investigate and prosecute crimes without jurisdiction becoming an issue.
Our compact with the state of Oklahoma to offer Chickasaw Nation license plates to Chickasaw citizens is another example.
Our compact keeps funding for schools, roads, employee retirement, wildlife conservation and other programs intact while offering our citizens a visible way to demonstrate their pride in being Chickasaw.
We also work closely with cities and counties to help maintain roads and bridges, which helps local governments stretch budgets and makes roads safer for everyone.
Q: Is it true that relations between the federal government and the tribes have never been better? Are there bridges still to be crossed?
While we have a positive relationship with the federal government we must protect the rights of our citizens. A recent settlement rooted in the allotment process that took place more than a century ago helps illustrate both points.
The case centered on more than one million acres of Chickasaw and Choctaw tribal lands the U.S. took control of on the eve of Oklahoma statehood.
As federal trustee, the government held those lands for the benefit of the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations, but the government had not provided a proper accounting of the management and disposition of those lands.
Over a period of many years, we made numerous requests for an accounting. In December 2005, we filed suit requesting an accounting of the management of that land and restoration of the value of that trust.
After nearly a decade of litigation, we reached a $186 million settlement with the federal government.
The fact that the government was willing to acknowledge the serious nature of our concerns, and take steps to resolve those, represents a significant milestone in helping solidify our relationship with the U.S.
The fact that we had to file suit illustrates the importance of continuing efforts to protect and defend our tribal sovereignty.
The WinStar World Casino complex, arguably the world's largest, is a big piece of the business empire the tribe has built under Anoatubby. Photo courtesy of Chickasaw Nation. The WinStar World Casino complex, arguably the world’s largest, is a big piece of the business empire the tribe has built under Anoatubby. Photo courtesy of Chickasaw Nation.Q: Why is it so important to defend tribal sovereignty?
The exercise of sovereignty is the foundation of virtually every action we take. Our sovereignty is inherent. While it is recognized in the U.S. Constitution, it is not given or taken away by the federal government.
The federal government does, however, have the capacity to limit our ability to exercise tribal sovereignty.
Our ability to exercise our sovereignty is something we should never take for granted.
One example of the importance of defending tribal sovereignty is seen in recent decisions by the National Labor Relations Board.
In June 2015, the NLRB dismissed a complaint alleging the Chickasaw Nation had violated the National Labor Relations Act.
The board ruled the NLRB does not have jurisdiction over the Chickasaw Nation.
That case was never as much about the NLRA as it was about our sovereignty as a tribal nation as recognized in our treaties with the federal government.
We were pleased that the Board understood that our treaties remain the bedrock of our relationship with the federal government.
Q: Tell us about your “listening sessions” and what you learn from them.
Listening conferences are a formal way of communicating directly with people we serve so we are able to tailor our services to best meet their needs. Some of our listening conferences were conducted when we began offering services outside the Chickasaw Nation jurisdictional area – the 13 counties in south-central Oklahoma. Those sessions were intended to give citizens more input into the development of new tribally-funded services.
We also hold meetings designed to offer information about services, and to receive feedback from citizens.
While we publish annual programs and services guides, it is often helpful to meet with citizens in person, because that gives us the opportunity to explain the services in more detail, answer questions.
Q: Where does the Chickasaw Nation go from here, economically and in terms of service to tribal citizens. What challenges remain?
While we are on a much more stable financial foundation than ever before, it is essential to continue to focus on economic development and business diversification.
While we plan to continue reinvesting in our established businesses, our corporate development team is also evaluating a wide range of new business opportunities.
One example is our strategy to develop a diverse portfolio of high-tech companies with tremendous growth potential.
We have invested in innovative companies such as Ekso Bionics, iRpowr, Capstone metering and Corvid Technologies, which are creating new markets in their respective industries.
We are also engaged in economic development initiatives designed to have a positive impact on the state and local economy.
Designed to bring more tourism to Oklahoma, the Adventure Road initiative generated more than 385,000 new trips to the area last year, bringing in
approximately $647 million in spending from March to September.
Business diversification and economic development efforts contribute to our mission by providing employment opportunities and allowing us to offer more programs and services. We remain committed to offering a wide range of services to help meet the need for housing, health care, education, aging services, career development, family services and more.
We also plan to continue our efforts to embrace, preserve and revitalize our culture and language.
As we move forward, we will continue to implement programs that meet the ever-changing needs of Chickasaw people.
Q: And finally, what message would you like to send to people?
Our mission “to enhance the overall quality of life of the Chickasaw people” is at the core of everything we do.
Quality of life includes meaningful employment, safe, secure housing, quality affordable health care, access to higher education and more, so when we evaluate a business opportunity, develop a new policy, or consider a new service, we ask ourselves how it will affect the Chickasaw people.
We will only move forward when we truly believe it will help us meet our mission.

LEFT TO RIGHT: Ariel Cobbert, Mrudvi Bakshi, Taylor Bennett, Lana Ferguson, SECOND ROW: Tori Olker, Josie Slaughter, Kate Harris, Zoe McDonald, Anna McCollum, THIRD ROW: Bill Rose, Chi Kalu, Slade Rand, Mitchell Dowden, Will Crockett. Not pictured: Tori Hosey PHOTO BY THOMAS GRANING
LEFT TO RIGHT: Ariel Cobbert, Mrudvi Bakshi, Taylor Bennett, Lana Ferguson, SECOND ROW: Tori Olker, Josie Slaughter, Kate Harris, Zoe McDonald, Anna McCollum,
THIRD ROW: Bill Rose, Chi Kalu, Slade Rand, Mitchell Dowden, Will Crockett. Not pictured: Tori Hosey PHOTO BY THOMAS GRANING

The Meek School faculty and students published “Unconquered and Unconquerable” online on August 19, 2016, to tell stories of the people and culture of the Chickasaw. The publication is the result of Bill Rose’s depth reporting class taught in the spring. Emily Bowen-Moore, Instructor of Media Design, designed the magazine.
“The reason we did this was because we discovered that many of them had no clue about the rich Indian history of Mississippi,” said Rose. “It was an eye-opening experience for the students. They found out a lot of stuff that Mississippians will be surprised about.”

For questions, email us at hottytoddynews@gmail.com.

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