NYU Alumni Changemaker of the Year
Cherokee Nation Supreme Court Justice
The first-ever 2SLGBTQ+ person and third woman confirmed to the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court.
Cherokee Nation Supreme Court Justice Shawna Baker grew up believing that personal identity shouldn’t affect ambition. After all, her formative years coincided with Wilma Mankiller’s decade-long leadership as Chief of the Cherokee Nation. Seeing a woman at the head of tribal government suggested to Baker that leadership potential was based on merit; this defining belief helped her become the first ever 2SLGBTQ+ person elected to the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court.
For an out lesbian in socially conservative Oklahoma, such a career path requires serious fortitude. Justice Baker’s 2018 nomination to the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court, under then-Chief Bill John Baker, fell short. “Some questioned my qualifications,” she says. “I was encouraged to serve in another role.” She graciously accepted an appointment to the Cherokee Gaming Commission where her hard, visible work—under newly elected Chief, Chuck Hoskin Jr.—dissolved any lingering biases. When another Supreme Court vacancy arose, Baker was again nominated… and easily confirmed.
Baker joined the Supreme Court at a pivotal moment. Her first written opinion granted full rights of citizenship to Cherokee Freedmen—descendants of African American slaves—and included language recognizing gender as non-binary, a first for the court. It was a landmark moment for equality within the Cherokee Nation, one that Justice Baker hopes to build on when, later this year, she becomes the first-ever 2SLGBTQ+, and the first woman, Chief Justice of the Cherokee Nation. “My visibility is important” she says. “It creates space for the people behind me.”