A Sovereign (And Successful) Chickasaw Nation

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About 'We Shall Remain'

We Shall Remain

In conjunction with the television series We Shall Remain, airing Mondays on PBS in the coming weeks, NPR is presenting four radio stories reporting on contemporary Native American lives. This story is the second of four that will air within the next month.

Map: Chickasaw Nation i

Chickasaw Nation Division of Housing & Tribal Development
Map: Chickasaw Nation

Chickasaw Nation Division of Housing & Tribal Development

If we think of the Chickasaw as a nation, their No. 1 foreign policy priority is trade. Their No. 1 trading partner? Texas.

The WinStar casino is right across the border in Oklahoma, and it's the closest legal gambling to Dallas, so even on a Tuesday night, the vast parking lot is filled with Texas tags.

Like many Indian tribes, the Chickasaw rake in huge sums from their casinos. But there's a certain nervousness here about basing a whole nation's fortunes on gambling.

"My mom used to say, 'Don't put all your eggs in one basket,' and that's the essence of what we try to do with our businesses," says Bill Anoatubby, who has been the governor of the Chickasaw Nation since 1987. He is now serving his sixth elected term. "There's always this resistance to gaming — it's in the community, it's in the Congress — so you really, you're not sure what the direction might be. Congress, with very little notice, could change the rules on us, and if they did, we would be — we could have problems."

Anoatubby has spent much of the past 20 years working to strengthen the nation's foundation by diversifying the tribe's economy.

"We shouldn't rely strictly on gaming, and we should invest as much as we can while the dollars are there," he says. "We will take the profits from gaming, and we will invest those in new things."

Those new things have ranged from radio stations to banks to a chocolate factory.

"[If] you ever want to go swimming in chocolate, this is where you go," says Niclas Carlsson, the general manager of Bedre Chocolates, a Chickasaw-owned business that makes high-end confections.

Bedre has expanded in recent years by adding corporate clients and selling to upscale department stores. If you've bought chocolates from Bloomingdales or Nieman Marcus, odds are you've eaten candies made by the Chickasaw Nation.

"Being owned by the Chickasaw Nation — all of the revenues that we have from the company actually goes back into the tribe, and ultimately to the citizens of the Chickasaw Nation," Carlsson says.

And Anoatubby has transformed all that trade revenue into considerable power for his nation's government.

"When I first came to work for the nation, there were 25 employees, maybe one or two more, and we had a budget of somewhere around $1 million or a little less, primarily federal funds," Anoatubby says. "We've been able to increase our revenues from, at that point was basically nothing, to now we have available to us somewhere around $750 million a year. Today we have 10,500 employees."

With such deep pockets, the governor has been able to pursue an ambitious domestic agenda. Every member of the tribe has access to extended education benefits and scholarships. For working parents, there is free child care, and even a care center for mildly ill children.

And Anoatubby has been able to achieve something President Obama can currently only dream of — universal health care.

"There's no co-payment required for any of the services that we provide," says Bill Lance, the administrator for the Chickasaw Nation Health System. "In fact, there's no third-party resources that are required. We're just, per law — we're able to bill for those third-party resources to help provide more health care for the patients we're responsible for."

The Chickasaw Nation is actually adding new health care services. To address high rates of diabetes among the native population, for example, a state of the art comprehensive care facility was recently established. And Lance is overseeing construction of a new $147 million hospital.

"If you note, there's kind of a random order to that pattern of windows," Lance says, pointing to a building at a construction site. "And that's a predominant theme that you see in Chickasaw art. You know, there's a random order to the art. So they actually took those elements and even used it on the exterior design of the building."

For Anoatubby, being able to provide such infrastructure and services out of the tribe's own budget, rather than relying on federal assistance, has been crucial to the Chickasaw idea of sovereignty.

"When you are under the federal guidelines and the dollars that you get are from the federal government, there are a lot of strings — they tell you what you can do," he says. "If you're generating dollars that are yours, you're operating under your guidelines and the direction that you wish to go. We need to be so self-determined that we could stand on our own two feet."

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