On Jan. 30, more than 100 Washington area Cherokees filed into a small office in the shadow of the Capitol. Most had never met one another, but as visitors thawed in the warmth of the lobby, so did initial anxieties. Guests began to chatter, drawn together by a shared history and culture. The first meeting of the Cherokee Nation’s Washington area community group was about to begin.
The night’s main attraction was Principal Chief Bill John Baker, the chief executive of the Cherokee Nation — a sovereign nation of nearly 300,000 Cherokee citizens based in northeast Oklahoma. Baker, 60, had taken a handful of trips to Washington since taking office almost a year ago, but most had been for business meetings with lawmakers, not constituents.
Baker discussed his administration’s policies, including Cherokee-specific initiatives on health care, education and housing. His 2011 Corporate Health Dividend Act, also addressed, had routed an additional 5 percent from Cherokee casino profits to cover special surgeries — namely ophthalmological and dental surgeries — not covered by federal funds.
“Folks, we’ve got hope at the Cherokee Nation that we’re going to take care of health care,” said Baker, addressing the room. “And we’re going to put our people in houses.”
But while the talk was political, the meeting was anything but politics as usual. Many in attendance had spent years living apart from the Cherokee Nation’s 14 counties. Some had never visited. By many accounts, the night was a chance to connect with a culture from which many felt distant.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re a Cherokee in Washington, D.C., or a Cherokee in the capital of the Cherokee Nation,” Baker said. “We’re all family.”
It’s a sentiment he hopes to build upon at the National Congress of American Indians’ Executive Council Winter Session, a series of legislative meetings being held March 4 through 7 at the L’Enfant Plaza Hotel. Cherokee Nation delegates will be in attendance to discuss laws concerning violence against native women and child custody rights, among others.
Another of Baker’s initiatives allowed attendees to get involved. Members from the Tribal Registration Department were on hand to combine Cherokee citizens’ identification cards with an additional card stating the degree of Indian blood of the cardholder, a fact determined by 1898 Census records known as the Dawes Rolls. These cards are used to prove Cherokee citizenship and receive Cherokee Nation services.
“People really love this card,” said Linda O’Leary, 62, one of several registrars manning computers and a photo booth for card consolidations. “These people are so proud of their heritage, so they want this card. It links them.”
As the night moved on, everyone from lawyers to army officials to single parents filed in to take photos with Chief Baker and consolidate their cards. Others talked about the latest news coming out of Oklahoma while children sipped sodas at their parents’ feet.
“This is how Cherokees look,” Chris Smith remarked of the crowd. “This is who we are. We’re not the stereotypes. We’re not the people who put on headdresses and run around on horses.”
A native of Tahlequah, Okla., Smith, 26, said such meetings are important to preserve the culture and raise awareness of the Cherokee Nation’s resources for non-Oklahomans. “If I’m going to be invested in my culture, my language, my people, the government is what drives those programs,” he said.
Non-Oklahomans such as Mike Beidler, who drove from Fairfax County, feel no less of a connection with the Cherokee Nation, despite its physical distance.
Beidler, 42, grew up hearing about his Cherokee ancestors. His great-grandmother was born in the Cherokee Nation in the 1930s but settled in northern California. Beidler waited years before investigating his roots.
“I wanted to learn more about the history and culture and reclaim that identity, and reclaim that pride,” he said. “I’m a Cherokee citizen, but I’m not immersed in Indian culture so I don’t claim that. I want to be able to eventually.”
Several months ago, Beidler visited Oklahoma with his three children, Mikaela, 13, Joshua, 10, and Lukas, 6. A museum exhibit on the Trail of Tears, the deadly trek resulting from forced relocations under President Andrew Jackson’s 1830 Indian Removal Act, brought “a lot of anger,” Beidler said. But it’s part of a history he believes will make his children better people for knowing in full.
Meetings such as the one held Jan. 30 bring “a lot of good ideas out here of increasing cultural awareness, such as teaching the Cherokee language,” Beidler said. His sons, he added, are interested in taking lessons.