CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker is here to help nominate President Barack Obama for a second term, and he doesn't hold anything back in his praise for the president.
Obama, Baker said here Tuesday, “is the best president for Indian Country in the history of the United States.”
Through the years, Indian tribal chiefs have met a lot of U.S. presidents, but the meetings with Obama have been more than just superficial photo opportunities, Baker said.
“This president has made promises to Indian Country, and he's kept them,” Baker said. “He is a promise keeper. And that needs to be recognized and rewarded.”
Baker, who was elected principal chief last year to the largest Indian tribe in the nation, is a delegate to the Democratic National Convention this week.
It could not be determined Tuesday whether the chiefs of other Indian tribes had ever served as delegates to national party conventions, but it is, at the least, extraordinary.
Baker's mother, Isabel, a retired college professor, is a longtime Democratic activist from Tahlequah who has served as a delegate to national conventions and run for Congress; this year, Isabel Baker is one of Oklahoma's electors who cast votes for president in the Electoral College after the national popular vote.
Since his election, Obama has directed his agencies to incorporate tribal input on a broad range of issues.
The Obama administration made Indian Country a significant part of the stimulus and health reform legislation.
And it resolved long-running lawsuits involving Indians and the federal government, including the one involving the mismanagement of individual Indian trust accounts.
The administration also helped push major legislation on tribal justice through Congress, has worked to streamline the leasing process for Indian trust land and launched an initiative to improve Indian schools.
Other top Indian leaders have echoed Baker's remarks. Rep. Tom Cole, a Moore Republican who is a member of the Chickasaw Nation and arguably the top advocate for Indians in the U.S. House, also has praised the administration's efforts for tribes.
“In all fairness, I wish I had 400 Tom Coles” in the U.S. House, Baker said Tuesday. “He gets it. He understands that the federal government isn't just giving money to the tribes. The tribes are bidding on it, doing things that are trust responsibilities of the United States government.
“We just believe we can do it cheaper, more efficiently and more culturally sensitive. We believe we can make services go further than the federal government doing it. And it's obviously working.”
The son of teachers, Baker, 60, ran his own furniture store in Tahlequah for 40 years after graduating from Northeastern State University. The father of five has nine grandchildren.
Though a lifelong Democrat, Baker said some of his best friends are Republicans, and the tribe donates money to both parties. The Tahlequah headquarters of the tribe is in the 2nd congressional district, where Republican Markwayne Mullin and Democrat Rob Wallace are expected to wage a heated battle this fall.
The race puts Baker in a tough spot: Mullin is a Cherokee citizen. So Baker said he'll stay out of it.
Here in Charlotte, where there are American Indian meetings and all manner of other gatherings, Baker said he's “hoping to make a lot of contacts that will further the progress of the Cherokee Nation. I'm hoping to be part of history. And have a good time while I'm at it.”