Principal Chief Bill John Baker: NMAI’s Meet Native America Series
In the interview series Meet Native America, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian invites tribal leaders, cultural figures, and other interesting and accomplished Native individuals to introduce themselves and say a little about their lives and work. Together, their responses illustrate the diversity of the indigenous communities of the Western Hemisphere, as well as their shared concerns, and offer insights beyond what’s in the news to the ideas and experiences of Native peoples today.
Both Principal Chief Bill John Baker and Principal Chief Michell Hicks of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians are profiled in Meet Native America this week. The two nations join us in hosting Cherokee Days—a free festival of storytelling, films, dance, music, family activities, and cultural demonstrations at the museum in Washington, D.C., Thursday, April 3, through Saturday, April 5, 2014. Visit the museum's online calendar for the full schedule of festival events.
Please introduce yourself with your name and title.
Bill John Baker, principal chief of the Cherokee Nation.
Where is your nation located?
The Cherokee Nation’s headquarters is in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and our nation’s jurisdiction spans all or part of 14 counties in the northeastern corner of Oklahoma.
Where were your people originally from?
Where we came from is an important part of who we are as Cherokee people. Our home now is in Oklahoma, but our original and ancestral homelands are in Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky, Alabama, Virginia, South Carolina, and North Carolina. These are the lands we hunted and harvested, the places where our tribal systems of government and education were born, where our ancestors are buried, and where our dances and songs were developed and shared.
What is a significant point in history from your nation that you would like to share?
Last fall marked the 175th anniversary of the start of the Trail of Tears, when we were forced to leave our homelands. Our ancestors endured unfathomable hardship and tragedy, yet they never gave up, and Cherokee people persevered. We estimate a quarter of the 16,000 Cherokees who started out on the Trail of Tears perished.
Knowing where we come from, and the fortitude and strength our ancestors showed in starting over in Oklahoma, is something deeply personal to each and every Cherokee citizen. That history lies within each of us and is a legacy that is ingrained in us as a people—and as a sovereign nation. After removal, the Cherokee people reestablished our government in Oklahoma. Tribal school systems were created and courts were established; our newspaper informed citizens of events and the day’s news. We rebuilt one of history’s most sophisticated societies.
Today, the Cherokee Nation is a nationwide model for economic, political and cultural sustainability and autonomy. As Cherokee people, we are stronger today than ever before.
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