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Cherokee Nation When Native Values Drive Survival

February 1, 1997
Related Topics: Behavioral Training, Corporate Culture, Values, Candidate Sourcing, Featured Article
The Cherokees begin every meeting with a prayer. First, they bless the elders. Then they pray for their youth. And finally, they pray that everyone will work in harmony and for the benefit of the nation.

"It's just natural for us to do that," says Joe Byrd, principal chief of the Tahlequah, Oklahoma-based Cherokee Nation.

Byrd was elected to the sovereign nation's highest position in 1995. Unlike the CEO in a private-sector company, he's accountable not only to the nation's 1,650 employees, but also to 182,000 registered tribal members—65,000 of whom reside in the 14-county jurisdictional service area, not a reservation. A former educator, Byrd believes the future and legacy of his nation depends on its tribal youth. Last year, for example, Byrd refused a salary increase. Instead, he requested the money be given to a scholarship fund for outstanding Cherokee students. "I want to leave a foundation for our youth," he says. "If we put our investment in our children, in return, they'll be more apt to come back and work for the tribe." For the Cherokees, scholarships mean survival of their nation—not just philanthropy. And survival is something they know a lot about.

Nearly 159 years ago, approximately 17,000 Cherokee men, women and children were displaced from their Georgia homelands by European immigrants seeking gold. In what's today referred to as the Trail of Tears, the Cherokees were rounded up and marched 1,200 miles to Indian Territory, now the state of Oklahoma. More than 4,000 died from exposure and disease along the way. But it was a spirit of resilience and perseverance that led the Cherokees to what they now describe as a new trail—the Trail of Opportunity.

Today, the Cherokees—first spotted by Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto in 1540—belong to a thriving government and organizational enterprise. Their constitution was established on September 6, 1839. Over recent years, the nation's growth has been overwhelming, according to Ervin Rock, director of HR. As more Americans claim Cherokee heritage—because of cultural pride and to seek benefits—the nation barely keeps pace. Adds Lela Ummerteskee, the nation's registrar: "Last year (1995), we processed more than 27,000 applications. These are coming from everywhere—across the United States and overseas. I've been here 19 years, and we've never slowed down."

Since 1987, the nation's employee base has nearly doubled, says Rock. Under Chief Byrd's leadership, HR has been given the green light to hire and fire, and to set up a more comprehensive human resources system. But developing HR for a tribal nation involves more than your standard corporate template. While most American companies are hard pressed to achieve more racial and ethnic diversity, the Cherokees are struggling to retain their own history, language, native traditions and values. Therein lies the unique mission of a growing sovereign nation: "to promote and sustain the self-reliance of its members." At the same time, the nation as an organization must also embrace American business practices, ethics and standards of accountability—issues that Byrd emphasized during his electoral campaign. By giving Rock more authority, HR is better positioned to meet the critical needs of recruiting, training and empowering a growing Cherokee workforce to realize its long-term vision of tribal self-governance. It's not without risks. "The balance is tilted toward the growing side. One of the things we're going to lose is part of our identity," says Rock, who is half Cherokee, part Scottish and Irish. "The people we need to interact with to grow aren't Cherokee. We have to fit into their structure, not the other way around."

For example, Cherokee Nation Industries (CNI)—a business subsidiary—obtains contracts to manufacture cables and fiber-optic accessories from major Fortune 500 corporations. The possibilities for strategic alliances abound. Nevertheless, Rock is committed to proving that HR is fluid and mature enough to bridge organizational necessity with the sacred prayers of his nation. As American companies increasingly search for spirituality and meaning in their jobs, HR will be called on to help reconcile human values and the bottom line. The Cherokee Nation's journey is one thriving example.

What does sovereignty mean?
As a federally recognized Indian tribe, the Cherokee Nation has both the opportunity and the sovereign right to exercise and develop its tribal assets—66,000 acres of land, which includes 96 miles of the Arkansas Riverbed. During the past 20 years, the nation has posted dramatic and steady growth while increasing its asset base.The annual operating budget for the previous fiscal year was $130 million, most of which came from self-determination contracts for federal programs. Other sources of revenue include monies from its legally separated business enterprises and leases.

Charles Head, self-governance coordinator, explains three concepts that define the nation's unique relationship to the U.S. government: "Direct services is when the U.S. government funds and runs various programs, such as a health clinic or hospital, with federal employees. Self-determination refers to federal contracting with agencies, such as the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Indian Health Services, the Department of Labor. Under a contract basis, the agency maintains the responsibility of oversight and tribal members carry out the actual workload. Self-governance, on the other hand, refers to the government-to-government relationship between the tribes and the Secretary of the Interior, for example, or Indian Health Services. The difference is in the level of responsibility assumed by tribal governments for its services. Self-determination, based on contracts, is step one. Self-governance, based on compacts, is step two."

Although the nation isn't bound by the same U.S. regulations as other business organizations (the ADA, FMLA, affirmative action, etc.) the nation still adopts such standard corporate and legal policies, according to Rock, a member of the nation's executive committee—equivalent to a company's board of directors. In fact, sovereignty doesn't set the nation apart from mainstream America—as some might think. "It actually makes us more like everyone else," says Head. By assuming more control over its human services, the nation will be freer to interface with Corporate America and apply the most appropriate HR practices to its own business environment. Interestingly, the HR learning curve began 20 years ago—more than a century after Cherokee statehood. Modern human resources practices, such as registration and recruitment, have enabled the nation to track its demographics more accurately.

HR evolves from payroll to registration and recruitment.
Alana Casteel is half Cherokee and half Chickasaw. She is one of 70 HR employees who can remember the department's beginnings. A former participant in the Summer Youth program in 1977, she handled payroll for the 300 employees. When a fellow worker went on maternity leave, she remained as a temp. About the same time, another Cherokee was hired to set up a personnel department. Casteel was at the right place at the right time. Again, she stayed on—as a regular employee. "I saw our growth from the ground up," she says. The first year, she and a federal consultant administered extensive job analysis questionnaires and conducted salary surveys. "We established a system of placing various jobs in a particular salary range. Before that, we didn't have any system set up."

The next step was to create a hiring process. Again, being a sovereign nation impacts how HR approaches recruitment and hiring. The nation continues to need employees with a variety of skills. It needs teachers, health practitioners, clerical staff, computer operators, doctors and lawyers. Non-Indians are welcome, but HR primarily practices Indian preference. (Executive-level positions are appointed by the Chief). For most positions, however, HR will conduct its searches within a 50-mile vicinity or search for higher-level professionals in the Tulsa area—perhaps even further to Dallas and Denver. About 90 percent of today's employee base is of Cherokee background, says Ummerteskee. The proof of Indian blood, however, is a registration process supervised under the human resources department.

"We established our registration department in 1978 for membership purposes, which allows individuals to vote for Principal Chief, Deputy and Tribal Council members, as well as amendments to the constitution," she says. But before an individual may become a member and vote, he or she must prove Indian blood. "We don't have a blood quantum limit, though," she explains. "A lot of other tribes have a quarter-degree requirement." The Cherokees, she notes, also allow dual membership—a privilege most other tribes deny.

In order for an individual to receive a Certificate Degree of Indian Blood (CDIB), one must verify an ancestor's name on the Dawes Commission Roll. The roll is a census recorded between the years of 1899 and 1906 of Natives who lived on Indian Territory for at least 10 years, among other requirements, she explains.

Mission Statement

The mission of the government of the Cherokee Nation is to promote and sustain the self-reliance of its members. All programs will strive to develop and individual's independence by enhancing his or her knowledge, skills and self-responsibility. Inherent in this objective is the recognition that needs are best defined and met by individuals and the communities in which they live.

Cherokee Nation

In 1984, the nation's leadership reasserted its drive toward self-determination. It finally succeeded in contracting the CDIB function from the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Now, HR can process registration and membership applications simultaneously and more efficiently. "We are the only office issuing CDIBs for the Western Cherokees. We wanted the responsibility because the BIA wasn't a good record keeper. A lot of people who shouldn't be getting cards were [getting them]. And the BIA didn't have the staff and resources to research everything back [to original documents]," says Ummerteskee.

Today, her staff visits 12 field sites once a month to help those who can't come to the nation's headquarters. But keeping up with the numbers increasingly is difficult.

HR, she says, faces the big challenge of refining the process of issuing CDIBs over the counter. But there are too many applicants and not enough staff. As an indication of her frustration, she mentions that Windows® 95 has been available for two years, yet her department is still operating with DOS. Ummerteskee would like more money allocated for staff and better computer equipment.

In addition, the software industry hasn't created a program tailored to the needs of the nation's registration functions. Existing programs, she says, don't provide the necessary fields. "We've looked into that. It's touch-and-go all the time. We've had to build our own computer database. We're getting so big, the database is getting unstable."

Her frustrations haven't been ignored. "We're pushing everything we can to upgrade our technology. What we need is upgrading and connectivity," says Rock. The nation's current database, he says, is incomplete. Much of the registration information still resides on file cards and in books, and searches are processed manually. Rock would like to purchase something off the shelf. But until a useful program is created, the nation must rely on its own staff to build its own database. "But that makes us too dependent on the person who develops it to stay here. It holds us hostage," he says. Once the technology capabilities are stabilized, however, HR will be able to access more detailed demographic information. And with the addition of a newly hired CFO, Rock is more optimistic about identifying additional sources of funding. Meanwhile, human resources is addressing other issues as well: For example, why the nation must develop competent business managers and establish strict business and legal codes of ethics. Otherwise, tribal members won't be able to exercise their cultural sovereignty in today's business world.

Growth drives training and ethics guidelines.
The Cherokee Nation began its formal employee-training programs in 1992, according to Ben McCollum, a native of Tahlequah and former Army captain. In the early '90s, the nation's employee population had more than doubled from 400 to 900. Also, home health-care agencies in Oklahoma were deregulated. This change created the potential for additional job opportunities and services. HR needed to hire those who could provide the services and administrative support—all of which required training in such areas as customer service, bilingual proficiency and team-building. Also, mid-level managers and employees needed to be trained to make decisions—a necessary skill that often feels uncomfortable for some Cherokees. "Most Native Americans have a tendency to not [face] issues head on. They prefer to talk about something, leave it for a while and come back to it later—until it's solved or goes away," says Rock. "That won't work well today. I want to pitch decision making as a virtue, not an option."

Managers, he says, have attended special seminars equivalent to "Basic Management 101." The curriculum emphasizes various employee behaviors and how to measure productivity and team-building. "We're trying to get away from a top-down style of management and [move] more toward employee involvement." One example of team-building is the administrative policy-planning committee. Its mandate is to establish a set of policies and work procedures for each major department of the government. Members of the team include representatives from accounting, health, law and justice, the inspector general's office, HR, education and human services, the chief of staff's office and community development. The committee meets once a week. "HR's policies, articulated for each task, have been disseminated as a model for other divisions," says Rock. In the health division, for example, there are five clinics. Employees need to follow the same procedures in order to provide consistent health services. Some training is conducted onsite. And very often, HR will hire outside vendors for specialized training in such areas as CPR and other emergency medical support procedures. "Some employees may have to pick up and take an individual to the grocery store or doctor. They need to know basic first aid because many of our customer population are elders."

Many of the elders, he says, don't speak English. By speaking their own language—a syllabary codified by a Cherokee named Sequoyah in 1821—tribal members can obtain faster customer service. "A lot of positions are bilingual, so we have a large number of staff who speak Cherokee," says Rock. HR also has helped to enforce clearer business ethics and guidelines so the tribal nation can prevent conflicts of interest and nepotism. For example, last June, Bob Powell was sworn in as inspector general for the Cherokee Nation. As a certified criminal investigations inspector in the state of Oklahoma, his primary duties will be to ensure the nation and its citizens have access to fair and objective reviews of their problems. In addition, the nation established a nepotism policy. According to Rock, no spouse, parent or child of an elected official may be employed by the nation. Nor can second-degree relatives (nephews, nieces) be supervised by a family member. Given the fact that the nation's external customers are the same as its internal customers, the risk of nepotism could be higher than what most other organizations face. Chief Byrd, especially, is mindful of the need for such ethics policies. "As an elected official, he must respond to the wants and needs of an electorate. Some people might come to him and want a job because [they] voted for him," explains Rock. "To the chief's credit, one of the things he campaigned on was integrity."

Under Byrd's leadership, the nation recently instituted its first employee- appeals process. The Tribal Council passed the legislation which entitles employees to present their grievances before an impartial committee composed of three outside attorneys. "That way, we take controversy out before it gets to the top," says Byrd. "We may even add some who aren't attorneys to give balance." Clearly, the nation is learning from its corporate counterparts to promote fairness and accountability. Rock praises the mandate. In fact, HR will oversee the appeals process for grievances and terminations, he says. But there also are long-term issues: the benefits of those who will eventually retire. Until recently, tribal employees weren't allowed to save for their retirement. Then Congress signed pension simplification into law, and Native Americans rejoiced. HR at the Cherokee Nation could now recruit and retain tribal employees with financial incentives as well as cultural ones.

Tribes allowed to provide retirement benefits.
Last year, when Congress passed the Small Business Protection Act, most HR professionals celebrated because it meant pension regulations would, at last, be simplified. One item that didn't receive much press attention was a provision that finally allowed tax-exempt organizations and Indian tribes to establish 401(k)s. "The minute legislation was passed, we jumped on it," says Edna Shade, manager of compensation and benefits. HR staff members researched the law, called for bids, screened the main players and promoted the option to its employees.

"This is great news here," says Chief Byrd. In less than two months, the nation's human resources department enrolled more than 90 percent of those qualified to apply. "Our goal was to get 50 percent." The nation will match—dollar for dollar—up to 5 percent, he says.

According to Shade, the Cherokees and other tribes have been trying to put such provisions in place for years. She also credits Sen. Ben Knight Horse Campbell (D-Colo.), a Northern Cheyenne, as a major advocate of the provision. Before the legislation passed, her employees were very demoralized because they didn't have enough money for retirement. "With the option of employee contributions, now they can build a nest egg faster than what we could put in for them." Because of the nation's age and large pool of long-term employees, many of them will be retiring within the next few years. Therefore, ongoing education will include quarterly meetings and dispatching staff to the clinics and outlying areas—simply getting the word out. If it seems like a little too late, it isn't. In the long run, younger employees will gain more incentive to stay. And that's something Chief Byrd and Rock think about every day.

Growth and sovereignty walk hand in hand.
Most American companies expect turnover, attrition, layoffs and terminations. But somehow, there's always a pool of employees to choose from. You might even say it's an employer's market. Less so with the Cherokee Nation and presumably, other tribes as well (there are more than 500 North American Indian tribes). Faced with growth-rather than extinction-the Cherokees' HR recruitment and retention function is critical. Indeed, the nation is more than an employer. It's a tribe whose history is recorded as far back as the 16th century. It's also a government that struggles to represent those connected by the same tribal blood. Says Byrd: "We don't want to become just another corporation that just brings in revenue. [As a sovereign nation], we have the best of both worlds. I look at it as having both the medicinal and spiritual arms of the Cherokee Nation. And we have these other entities that also play a vital role in the operations of the Cherokee Nation."

For HR, the role is to amplify that uniqueness to ensure survival and growth —even if it means some short-term sacrifices. "We have to work on economic growth first—to provide jobs for our talented youth to come back," says Rock. Today, this earnest desire is best expressed in the word Tahlequah, which means "where we meet."

Workforce, February 1997, Vol. 76, No. 2, pp. 59-66.

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