Editor’s note: Durant Daily Democrat staff writer Dan Pennington interviewed Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton and this article is presented in a question and answer format.
“You’re definitely a prominent man in the community and I’ve really looked forward to talking with you, Chief Batton.”
“That’s one thing I want you to do, is realize that I’m as common as anyone you could meet. That’s what’s always been a goal of mine. I know you don’t wake up every morning and say, ‘I’m the Chief,’ but when you do have one of those moments where you realize the magnitude and the responsibility on your shoulders and you’re leading the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, that’s a lot of people. How many are in the Choctaw Nation? About 200,000, but I think for me it’s a greater responsibility for me other than the tribe, meaning that me in Southeastern Oklahoma that I think that I feel the weight on my shoulders because I feel like the Choctaw Nation, if we don’t lead and grow Southeastern Oklahoma, nobody else is going to make it grow.
“Now, don’t get me wrong, I think there’s other people, I’m meaning who will look locally, individually in a community but they won’t look collectively at all of Southeastern Oklahoma and the unemployment rates we are dealing with. It’s kind of sad, the drug abuse, the domestic violence and if you look at all the indicators in Southeastern Oklahoma, is really facing some tough things. Of course it’s me who always said if you provide people with good opportunities, they will choose those instead of taking the other path.
“Where there are drugs, people will take a good paying job over drugs, if it’s fulfilling and worthwhile. To me when I do have those ‘chief moments,’ it is one of the things of, I don’t know, I’m one of those eternal optimists because when I do, I see nothing but opportunity too. I think we live in a wonderful part of the state of Oklahoma.
“We have many wonderful things we can build on. I mean, our wonderful scenery, our people. I think the people and the landscape are two things that we have nobody else has. I shouldn’t say no one else has, because, I think of northwest Arkansas and different places but with our lakes and our streams and all the things that we have and our hunting, I just think we have a great opportunity and like I said, with our people, I think we have a good-hearted people. We have good people and that means a strong workforce. To me, I’d probably approach it from an opportunistic perspective than a pessimistic perspective.
“There are those concerns but I think we can overcome them. What’s the coolest ‘chief moment?’ I mean you wake up and tell yourself, ‘I get to go do this today.’ This is exciting. Probably for me, it’s our elders and our young. Meaning that our elders, I always revered them, and respect them and they have such wisdom. Whenever we can honor them, one way or another, whether it’s through service. For example, I give blankets away to our elders. It’s just one of those ‘Ahhh moments’ because, I don’t say anything as chief. I’m the listener.
“I come there to honor them and just see what they have to say. For me it’s no different than listening to my mom or grandpa when you could just sit there all day long and just hear story after story after story, and those are great. And for our youth, it’s to see them, whether it’s the simple things as passing a grade, to see them advance, or see them growing up proud to be Choctaw.
“For me, it’s one of those things when a little four year-old comes up to me and says ‘Hali-to’… it’s like, ‘Wow, they’re getting it.’ We are making those generational changes because it is generational changes we are trying to make so. Those are probably two of the coolest moments I can think of. The people of the Choctaw Nation have been through a lot of turmoil and a lot of mistreatment at the hands of I guess their brothers, people who came in and shoved them off the land. How do you deal, how do you tell your people how to forgive.
“People who came in and did them wrong, previous generations, their ancestors, when you do feel a little grudge, how do you counsel them? What do you tell them to feel better? It goes back to our history and our culture. I mean, you are aware of the story of the Irish Potato Famine (Batton references the situation where immigrants came to America because their primary crop, potatoes had failed. This caused the poor from that country to come to America by the thousands). We went through one of the toughest times and they forgave and they turned around and gave to the people who needed it. So for me, it’s just trying to remember people.
“That’s why I try to focus on our history and our culture so much. I do believe history repeats itself. I do believe those are core values we as Choctaw people are no different than a family. If they live by those, it will sustain them for many generations. So for me, we just have to remember who we are and what has been set for us and if we will live that same way today, it’ll happen. Don’t get me wrong, we do get wrapped up and we want to fight that good fight and you know everybody does.
“The federal government they’re not doing this, or the tribal government or the state government .But there’s a point where you have to become inherently, I don’t mean to quote him (John F. Kennedy) but ‘It’s not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country,’ and that’s the bottom line it boils down to us to how we are going to change the world. I don’t know if you see my saying sign over there? ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’ That’s one of my favorite saying because I can sit here and gripe and moan and carry on, but at the end of the day, it’s me, what I do to make it better.”
“What are two of your best moments? Say when you retire, you can’t predict all this, theoretically, you look back and you say ‘I got to do that while I was chief. I got to go here or meet this person or participate in this event.’ What is something that will leave a mark? Maybe this is a two-part question. Something fun and then something that leaves a mark in history? What are a couple of things in each category? What are a couple of things, maybe fun, and you tell yourself, ‘I got to go do this?”’
“Well for me, that’s a huge scope. The first thing that comes to my mind, some of the funnest things I have is going to a church social. A Choctaw gathering of family. There may be only 30 or 40 people. It’s that unity, that closeness that you feel and everything else. I see that but one of my goals I want to do is win the Nobel Peace Prize for humanitarian efforts. If we ever have that happen to me that would be one of the coolest things to leave as a legacy, to be able, and I think we kinda started off with that.
“For me, my legacy would be, right now. It’s, I’m not saying I started it, but the people have started calling me the “people’s chief.’ I love that because I like to think I could visit with you, every person is a human being that deserves respect and dignity. I mean I would like to think I could talk to them or I could talk to the President of the United States. But from a legacy perspective when I say that, the reason I say that is for the simplicity of the little gathering of families, and things like, that to the Nobel Peace Prize, both of those are about our culture and our history.
“When I leave, I set a vision, here a while back, just me personally, and it was that we as Choctaws are going around with our tribal shirts on. We’re speaking our language. And we are productive in today’s society. We are a force. In other words, I mean from an employment and our humanitarian efforts, all those things. So for me, that’s broader than what you want but that’s would be some of the coolest things to leave.”
Be watching for part two in the series of Dan Pennington’s interview with Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton.
Contact Dan Pennington at (580) 634-2162 or firstname.lastname@example.org.