Principal Chief Leonard M. Harjo is a leader with a vision for the future of the Seminole Nation who is grounded in the realities of what it will take to make the dream come true.
Like equal weights on a balance scale, Chief Harjo’s vision relies on a balanced approach that incorporates fostering and maintaining Seminole culture along with advancing the tribe economically.
“One hundred years ago, the focus was on sustaining the culture and not worrying about the economic aspects of it,” Harjo says. “But they have to go hand-in-hand to be able to have a sense of who we are as a Seminole Nation.
“We have to understand our culture and history but we have to have the economy to sustain it,” he adds. “You can’t separate the two.”
Chief Harjo is uniquely qualified in both areas.
He was raised on his grandfather’s allotment near Wolf, Okla. Like many rural Seminole families of the period, his family lived the “old way.” They raised livestock, grew corn and other crops, and spent much of their leisure time at church. Chief Harjo’s parents were proud of their heritage and encouraged their children to live by the traditional values of self-reliance, respect for others, humility and community service.
He attended Wolf Elementary, then Bowlegs High School until tenth grade. Through a program called “A Better Chance,” Chief Harjo temporarily left his home community to attend a preparatory school in the northeast United States during his junior and senior year.
Upon graduation in 1975 he was admitted to Harvard University where he earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in Economics with an emphasis in Economic Development in 1979. In 1986 he received a First Nations Fellowship to attend The Yale School of Organization and Management and graduated in 1988 with a Master’s degree in Public and Private Management.
Chief Harjo was sworn into office by Enoch Kelly Haney on September 5, 2009. It was on that day that he began to grapple with the first hard reality.
“Seminole County, where I grew up, has been in a general decline from agriculture and oil since the 1950s,” he says.
This and other factors led to a loss of the greatest asset any community has, its human capital.
“One out of five people who graduate in Seminole County stay here. The other four move. They may not move very far, but they move out of Seminole County,” Harjo points out.
The reason for this negative migration, he says, is a lack of opportunities.
“We hope to be able to change that,” Harjo adds.
Part of Chief Harjo’s vision is to enlarge upon the tribe’s current areas of operation.
“To expand beyond the current gaming and government activities, we’re developing the vision and leadership, as well as the underlying organizational and financial capacity to take advantage of the opportunities that are out there.”
Chief Harjo says one key is to focus on the unique opportunities afforded by the Seminole Nation’s location and the entrepreneurial spirit of its people.
“Gaming is limited for us because of the relatively small population size of Seminole County and being surrounded by competitors,” he says. “There is some money to be made in gaming but it’s not going to have the impact for us that it has had for other tribes, so we need to take advantage of what we do have.”
One advantage is a good position with respect U.S. Hwy 377 and Interstate 40.
“We have a well-educated workforce overall,” Harjo adds.
“We’re going to have to do some things differently perhaps than others,” he says. “We’re somewhat of a unique tribe in the sense that our people really aren’t given to a large organizational hierarchical structure. We’re a lot more independent.
“We need to encourage entrepreneurs and let people build their own opportunities rather than trying to create one for them,” he adds.
“I don’t talk about creating jobs per se; I talk about creating income generating opportunities. It could be a job, but it could also be an opportunity for you to create your own business,” Harjo says.
Harjo’s first duty as Chief was to ensure the tribe’s financial house was in order. After doing so, enhancing and revitalizing Seminole culture became a priority.
“We’ve initiated a tribally funded Seminole language program,” he explains. “One of our key components was to establish a cultural resources department, and language is the fundamental piece of that.
“We’ve started a language immersion school. Right now it’s at the childcare level – from newborns to three year olds. We’ve just acquired land to expand that program into the first couple of years of elementary,” he adds.
Chief Harjo says a long-term 20-year goal is for every tribal citizen living in the area to have an opportunity to be bilingual.
The Seminole Nation has approximately 18,800 members. A little over 16,000 are members by Indian descent and the balance are Freedmen. Approximately one-third live in Seminole County. Almost 60% live in Seminole and contiguous counties.
“We employ 250 just in government. Business enterprises – including gaming and retail stores – are about the same number,” says Harjo.
According to Chief Harjo, one of the tribe’s biggest challenges is the development of a broader vision of what the Nation can be. He says a fundamental part of the vision is for the tribe to be economically self-sufficient.
“If you gain a certain level of economic self sufficiency you get away from subsistence living, and that allows you to think in terms of a future and what we are going to do for our children as opposed to where we’re going to be living and what are we going to eat tomorrow,” he says. “You’ve got to get away from working and living at that level and the only way you can do that is through income growth.”
Chief Harjo knows that in order for the vision to be ultimately successful, it must outlive the current administration.
“Whatever we do has to be able to continue regardless of who sits in my office,” says Harjo. “That’s the key. For us to be successful over the long term it has to be about who we are.
“The next chief and the chief who follows that individual must have some of the same concepts so that the Nation itself can operate fundamentally in the same manner. That way outside business partners will feel comfortable working with us regardless of who is in office.
“We’re trying to establish the foundation on which a sustainable Seminole Nation can be built and be sustainable both culturally and economically.
Lewis Johnson is the son of the late Charles 'Jiggs" Johnson and Sue Ann Kilcrease. Johnson; he is of the Bird Clan and the Tallahassee Band.
Johnson is not a newcomer to tribal affairs, but has decades of experience and service to the citizens of the Seminole Nation. He was elected to two consecutive terms on the Seminole Nation General Council for the Tallahassee Band and served as Band Chief. Johnson was appointed to several boards and committees by four different Principal Chiefs of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma and comes from a family with a tradition of service to the Seminole Nation and its members.
Prior to being elected Assistant Chief, Johnson served on the Administration Appeals Board, Revision Committee, Codification Committee, Arts and Culture Committee and Negotiation Committee for SNDA. He was also Commissioner of the Housing Authority of the Seminole Nation, Seminole Nation Development Authority Trustee, Tribal Liaison to the Congressional Code Talkers Medal the United States Mint and was selected by the General Council to be a speaker on behalf of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma before the District Court of the United States in Washington, D.C.
Johnson was a part of the authorship of many service oriented legislative laws during his tenure as council representative, and he is convinced that there are better days on the horizon.
“I believe unity leads to strength and power, but with power come responsibility,” says Johnson.
“We as Seminole people have a unique governmental structure in which our constitution gives us the right to direct our destiny. We have the voice and power to hold our tribal officials accountable for the advancement and the betterment of the people through continual program growth and establishment of a diversified master plan for economic prosperity, which will lead to job opportunities.”
“This will take a unified cooperative commitment from the Band Chiefs, General Council Members, Principal Chief, Assistant Chief and the economic development entities of the Nation; we must obtain a clear vision and establish a diversified economic strategy that will present short, mid and long term goals and objectives. To achieve this we will need to gather around the table of reason!”
Johnson previously worked at the Seminole Nation Museum for nearly twenty years, where he was selected to several fellowships with the Smithsonian Institution and specialized in Native Preservation Programs. He has been featured in documentaries on Southeastern Native History televised on the Discovery Channel, PBS and 60 minutes on CBS. Johnson worked for seven years in the tourism industry in South Florida and most recently as a Records Management Specialist for the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma prior to being elected Assistant Chief in August of 2013. He is also an ordained minister and serves as Associate Pastor of Indian Nations Baptist Church in Seminole.
Johnson believes there is a continual process in paving the pathway to progress. So many individuals have been a part of the journey, including all the past leaders of the tribe and every tribal member currently active or not. The Seminole Nation of Oklahoma is the only traditional form of government, of all the Oklahoma tribes, that still remains intact. It is a system that promotes participation, which is the right and privilege of the Seminole members.
Providing a sustainable culture and economy goes hand in hand with each other, The responsibility of continuing it relies on every generation and especially those of us given the opportunity to lead.