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Service and Leadership The Native American Way


By Laura Araujo N


ative American infl uence is clear- ly visible in Oklahoma’s cultural makeup. With 39 federally recog- nized tribes headquartered in the state, it’s fi tting that the name Oklahoma comes from a Choctaw phrase meaning “red peo- ple.” Nearly 9 percent of the state’s resi- dents are Native American, making Okla- homa’s tribal population greater than any other individual state.


It’s not surprising, then, that many of Oklahoma’s rural electric cooperative mem- bers are notable Native American leaders. Three of them, whose stories are shared here, have devoted their lives in service to the state’s native communities.


Serving the state


Lisa Billy has experienced much joy as a result of her Chickasaw and Choctaw her- itage, but she also knows the pain of dis- crimination, both in her own life and in the lives of her forefathers. On one occasion, she and her husband, who is Choctaw, experienced discrimi- nation as they attempted to book a hotel room in another state. Her ancestors were forced to leave their homeland and travel the Trail of Tears to Indian Territory. Her Choctaw relatives came to the land that’s now Oklahoma in 1832 and the Chickasaws in 1837.


“Having been discriminated against as a result of something I can’t change makes me compas- sionate in helping people and empowering them to make good life decisions,” she said. Billy decided to work toward that goal as a state representative. In 2004, she was elected to represent House District 42, the fi rst woman and Native American to hold the seat. However, her campaign was not without its challenges. “Even though I’m half Irish, some people wouldn’t vote for me because I’m Native Ameri- can; others wouldn’t vote for me because I’m a


16 OKLAHOMA LIVING


woman,” Billy said. “So instead of knocking on 100 doors, I knocked on 120.” One of her passions as a leader is to work with young people. She has seen the positive results of youth taking advantage of educational opportu- nities. They often come back into tribal bound- aries and become business owners, city council members, and community leaders, Billy said. The Chickasaw Nation Division of Education has put forth many efforts to promote educa- tional opportunities for the youth. Students are able to go the Chickasaw Nation website and re- view scholarship information online. They also take youth, who are often the fi rst in their fami- lies to go to college, on campus tours. “One of my greatest pleasures as a leader is inspiring young people with the stories of the success God has given to me,” Billy said. “I want them to know that as American citizens, they have so many opportunities and the freedom to choose a successful path in life. I’m grateful for


Billy’s family enjoys playing stickball in the backyard at their home, near Purcell. Lisa and her husband Phillip sit by a bush arbor her husband built with their three children Anoli (left), Masheli (center), and Nahinli (right). In 2004, Lisa was elected to represent House District 42, the fi rst woman and Native American to hold the seat. Courtesy photos


the chance to infl uence their lives.” Though her native ancestry has brought her some trials, living in Oklahoma has affirmed the positive attributes of being Native Ameri- can. One of them is exposure to the Chickasaw language. Although she’s not a fl uent speaker, the family speaks as much as possible at home. When her children were fi rst born, she spent time at home with them so they would hear their na- tive language fi rst. Another benefi t of living in Oklahoma was ex- periencing native traditions as she grew up. As a girl, she knew all of her grandparents. Her fam- ily celebrated Chickasaw and Choctaw holidays, often playing traditional games like stickball. Billy’s Choctaw family continues to gather every Labor Day.


As a leader, she follows in the footsteps of her grandmothers who were strong women. Though not Native American themselves, they married native men. She remembers her paternal grand-


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