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.
Ella M. Colman was elected Assistant Chief of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma in September 2009.
She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Management and Ethics from Mid-America Christian University, an Associates degree in Business Administration from Seminole State College and a Secretarial Science Certificate from East Central State College.
Assistant Chief Colman held several contract professional and management positions within the Federal Government before retiring in 1998. During her 30- year career, Assistant Chief Colman worked at the Rockville, Md. headquarters of the Indian Health Service, the Washington, D.C., Office of the Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs and the Central Office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. She has also held positions with the Soil Conservation Service and Tinker Air Force Base.
Following her retirement from the public sector, Assistant Chief Colman worked as general manager of a retail food specialty store and part-time management consultant.
In addition to her professional appointments, she has also served on the Seminole Nation Development Authority and Interim Seminole Nation Division of Commerce review committees, as well as the Seminole Nation Finance Committee.
Assistant Chief Colman is a member of the Deer clan and Ocese band. She is the daughter of Hattie Cole and the late Joseph Pennokee, Jr., and step-daughter of the late Charlie Cole. Assistant Chief Colman and her husband, Al, have been married 17 years.