Bill John Baker was born in Cherokee County, Oklahoma, where his family has been for four generations. Of mixed ethnicity, like many Cherokee citizens, he is 1/32 (3.1%) Cherokee by blood. He graduated from Tahlequah High School in 1969 and from Northeastern State University in 1972 with a bachelor’s degree in political science and history.
After graduating from college, Baker invested in a furniture store and built Baker Furniture into a thriving business in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. He also owns several rental properties in Tahlequah.
While simultaneously growing his business, Baker was active in the community, having served as the president of the PTA, a coach for youth sports and a charter member of the Rotary Club. As the elected president of the Tahlequah area Chamber of Commerce, he pulled the organization out of debt during his tenure.
He served 12 years as a member of the Cherokee Nation Tribal Council. During his tenure on the tribal council, Chief Baker served on every standing committee of the Cherokee Nation Tribal Council. He has supported educational and development initiatives for Cherokee, as well as health care.
In 1997, Baker was among the supporters of Joe Byrd, then Principal Chief, during some of the tumultuous political events of 1997, when some members boycotted attendance at Council meetings. At one point, the Nation’s executive officials’ closed the Cherokee Nation Judicial Appeals Tribunal. Byrd was investigated for financial improprieties.
In 1999, Baker ran for deputy chief as a running mate of Joe Byrd. In an extremely close race, Baker was defeated by Hasting Shade, with Shade getting 3,579 votes to Baker’s 3,533 votes.
In 2011, Baker ran for Cherokee Nation principal chief against the 12-year incumbent Chad Smith. Because the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court could not determine the outcome of the June 26 general election with mathematical certainty, it set a second election for Sept. 24, 2011. The date for absentee ballots was extended to allow for voting by Cherokee Freedmen, based on a negotiated agreement with the federal government. The membership of many in the tribe and ability to vote in elections has been under dispute since the tribe (exclusive of the Freedmen) voted to tighten membership qualifications.
Baker won the special election. Nearly 20,000 people voted in the special election in September, 5,000 more than had voted in the first one. Baker won by 1,534 votes with nearly 54 percent of the vote. By agreement between the federal government and the tribe in a negotiated decision, Cherokee Freedmen were allowed to vote in this election, although the question of their membership in the tribe is still unresolved. The Nation changed its membership rules to exclude all except those who are descended directly from Cherokee Indians listed on the Dawes Rolls, which excludes some Freedmen, even those of Cherokee descent, whose ancestors were listed on the Rolls only as Freedmen.
Bill John Baker endorsed President Barack Obama for reelection in 2012, saying that Obama “is the best president for Indian country in the history of the United States.”