Chief Gary Batton delivers virtual 2023 State of the Nation Address
By Kellie Matherly
October 2, 2023
On September 4, 2023, Chief Gary Batton of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma (CNO) delivered his State of the Nation Address virtually.
This year, Chief Batton gave updates on several important initiatives like the Choctaw Landing construction project in Hochatown and shared program highlights, including Youth Outreach, NAGPRA, the Wildland Fire Module and more. The video also told the story of Ridge Bond, a Choctaw tribal member who influenced the adoption of the state song, and Kelbie Kennedy, the first ever National Tribal Affairs Advocate for FEMA.
The address began with an excerpt from Chief George Harkins’ “Letter to the American People.” Written in 1832 while facing removal from their homelands in modern-day Mississippi, the letter is often seen as a symbol of strength, solidarity and resilience among the Choctaw people.
“…my destiny is cast among the Choctaw people. If they suffer, so will I; if they prosper, then I will rejoice. Let me again ask you to regard us with feelings of kindness.”
Chief Batton noted that although the letter was written nearly 200 years ago, it is still relevant to the Choctaw Nation today.
One of the most crucial services CNO offers is housing. Not only does the Housing Authority oversee the construction of homes for tribal members, but it also governs a variety of programs that assist tribal members with repairs, air conditioning, storm shelters and more.
Batton referenced the rising cost of rent in the area and the shortage of market-rate housing.
“To combat this issue, we have begun work on three new apartment complexes that will be completed in 2024. In total, these multi-family complexes will provide over 400 units, and our tribal members and Choctaw Nation associates will be able to pre-lease apartments.”
In addition to these multi-family units, 98 homes have been built across the reservation over the past year, bringing the Tribe closer to its goal of 600 units for the 2023-2024 fiscal year.
Another of CNO’s most comprehensive services is ensuring quality healthcare for Native Americans. Chief Batton praised the implementation of support services, particularly those addressing diabetes, which disproportionately affects people in Indigenous communities.
On the whole, Choctaw Nation Health Services Authority had over 800,000 health encounters as of June 30, 2023.
Elder care was an important topic in this year’s address as well. Chief Batton pointed to two important programs designed to keep elders healthy and active as they age.
“We also extended the Elder and Disability Food Security programs for a year to give our tribal members access to healthy food. Another way we support our elders is through the Healthy Aging program, where case managers work to improve the quality of life for seniors through wellness programs, social services and behavioral health resources.”
From healthcare, Batton moved on to address culture and sovereignty, particularly through language initiatives and CNO’s Peacemaker Court.
“One way we promote and preserve Choctaw culture is through our language revitalization programs. When we first began teaching the Choctaw language in 1998, we had one class by satellite at the University of Oklahoma, and now we teach thousands of people every week.”
According to the Chahta Anumpa Aiikhvna, CNO’s language school, more than 3,000 people participate in classes each week.
The Language Department also began an apprenticeship program, offering tribal members the opportunity to learn the Choctaw language and help teach it to others. According to Chief Batton, “It’s not only important to our sovereignty, but it’s also a huge part of who we are as a strong tribal nation.”
Since the Choctaw Nation adopted the Peacemaking Act in 2015, tribal members have had a forum to resolve disputes with the help of tribal elders.
Chief Batton said, “Using traditional Choctaw practices, ceremonies and cultural beliefs sets our Peacemaker Court apart from the typical judicial process and allows us to exercise our sovereignty in a truly unique way. Oftentimes, tribal elders help settle disputes through traditional practices that help heal those involved and repair relationships moving forward.”
Another way the Tribe has exercised its sovereignty is through the establishment of the Office of Wildlife Conservation, which helps maintain the balance between wildlife and mankind through responsible practices.
Batton also pointed out that CNO has put tribal codes in place to protect tribal members’ rights to hunt and fish on the reservation.
Finally, Chief Batton addressed challenges with Oklahoma’s governor, Kevin Stitt, and lauded efforts by the Oklahoma House and Senate to maintain partnerships with the tribes, despite the governor’s opposition.
“The Choctaw Nation is a good friend and partner to the State of Oklahoma. Each year, we impact the state’s economy by more than two billion dollars through compacts, which help create jobs, infrastructure projects and law enforcement services. We believe in collaborating with legislators to do what’s best for all Oklahomans, and I want to take a moment to thank those in the Oklahoma House and Senate for recognizing our ongoing partnerships by continuing to work with us toward our common goals.”
In his closing statement, Batton said, “Our story is nowhere near finished. In fact, it has just begun. We rely on the past for wisdom, the present for action, and the future for hope. Yesterday, today and always, we are the Chahta people. Yakoke, and God Bless.”