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Chickasaw Nation Prospers Among Native American Tribes

As indigenous people, Native Americans are distinctive in American society with their own language, culture, and history. But that has not stopped many Native Americans from embracing mainstream society. For producer Joseph Mok, VOA's Elaine Lu takes a look at the Chickasaw Nation.

Today, the Chickasaw Nation is prospering with its own bank, chocolate factory, casinos, movie theater, and FM radio station. Chickasaws see themselves as very much part of the mainstream society.

The Chickasaw Nation was officially formed in 1856, in Tishomingo, Oklahoma. Known as a courageous people among Native Americans, the Chickasaws were called the unconquered or unconquerable. These historically fierce warriors settled in south-central Oklahoma in the mid 1800s.

Today the Chickasaw's influence goes even as far as Capitol Hill where Congressman Tom Cole is the only Native American representative on the Hill.

"I am Chickasaw! People forget there are 500-plus different tribes. They range in size from a few dozen members to the Cherokees who are over 200,000. They have very different traditions, different languages, and different histories and find themselves in different legal situations, everything from the great tribal reservation of Indians, the Sioux, the Navajo. Tribal sovereignty is not a gift."

Cole says tribal sovereignty and treaty rights are often violated, and he plays a pretty major role in the Congress to defend them. "I look on as one of my functions to try to make sure that does not happen and be very aggressive in defending tribal interest in Washington DC."

Chickasaws were known as one of the "Five Civilized Tribes" because of their highly developed ruling system. Lieutenant Governor of Chickasaw Nation Jefferson Keel attributes part of Chickasaw's achievements to the system.

Keel says it's the Chickasaw people who made it happen. "The most precious cultural resource we have is our people and our language, that's what sets us apart from all the other organizations in this country. We are not an organization -- we are a tribe; a nation of people. The people and their needs have to be forefront. They have to be the basis for all that we do. Our people have to embrace our vision. They have to support it."

And Keel says the Chickasaws are embracing the future with a commitment to promoting small business and developing professionals like lawyers and doctors to better serve the community.

Lieutenant Governor Keel adds, "We have learned to embrace the dominant culture or mainstream society, their rules and regulations. And, be good citizens. We have to be good citizens. And participate in this United States of America. We are citizen of America. We are citizens of Oklahoma. And, we are citizen of the Chickasaw nation."

There is also growing interest in Native American culture by mainstream American society. Congressman Cole notes the increased popularity of Native American art and jewelry. He says there is a Native American renaissance taking place as more and more of the country is appreciating the heritage of Native Americans.