TAHLEQUAH — On the 180th anniversary of Chief John Ross leading the Cherokee Nation tribe on the Trail of Tears Principal Chief Bill John Baker used his State of the Nation speech to honor Ross’ great-granddaughter — an aerospace engineer.
The theme for Saturday’s 66th Annual Cherokee National Holiday was “Family: A Bridge to the Future, A Link to the Past.”
“Our partners at Google recognized the late Mary Golda Ross,” Baker said, to a thunderous applause.
Ross was a Cherokee citizen and a NASA aerospace engineer and played a critical role in the space race in the 1960s, he said.
Several hundred people were seated in the newly built Peace Pavilion, which is located behind the tribe’s courthouse, a departure from the Cherokee Nation Square where so many State of the Nations speeches had been heard over the years.
Baker spoke about the tribe’s accomplishments in economics, health care and housing under his leadership. “We have achieved these goals,” he said.
Cherokee Nation government and businesses have 11,000 employees.
“We are an economic force in northeast Oklahoma,” Baker said. “Almost as big as the oil and gas industry.”
The tribe’s economic impact is more than $2 billion, he said.
“We want our children to know ‘You don’t have to leave Oklahoma to make a change in the world,’ ” Baker said.
Growing up in a family of educators, Baker said investing in public education has always been a top priority.
Funding for college-bound students has doubled from $8.5 million to almost $16 million during Baker’s tenure.
Cherokee Nation needs students studying everything from law to medicine to technical skills.
The tribe has donated almost $5.5 million to local school districts from the sale of tribal car tags — more than $50 million since the program was started in 2002, he said.
Baker announced more than 800 Cherokee families are living in affordable and safe homes.
“My goal was to start building houses again,” Baker said referring to when he was first sworn in. “This hadn’t been done for a decade.”
The housing boom not only benefited families moving into the new home, but hundreds of jobs were created — bricklayers, roofers, heating and air workers, electricians and carpet layers.
Other projects include a 469,000-square-foot outpatient health facility under construction in Tahlequah, which is expected to bring in 800 new health-related jobs.
“The crown jewel of our (health) facilities will soon be the largest tribal health center in America,” Baker said.
“Our people suffer from higher rates of cancer, heart disease, suicide and alcoholism, and Hepatitis C than other populations,” Baker said. “We are more than a number, these are our husbands, wives, children — we are more than statistics.”
The tribe has invested $100 million from casino profits for health care, Baker said.
The tribe has added two regional health centers, Baker said.
Not only does Cherokee Nation invests in schools, roads, bridges and water lines but also helps with first responder units. “Relief was sent to flood victims in Houston, Joplin tornado survivors, and the California wildfires,” Baker said.
Other accomplishments were ending the Freedman citizens dispute, filing a lawsuit against opioid retailers and manufacturers and other legal recourse defending the tribe’s natural resources and assets.
“So I ask you, what will our legacy be seven generations from now?” Baker said.