By Michael W. Sasser
Chairman at Chickasaw Nation Industries, Inc., Neal McCaleb, 79, was more surprised than one might think of a man of his accomplishments when he received an email and phone call informing him that he was to be inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame this year.
"I felt elated," he said. "I was honored, surprised and appreciative. I have spent my entire adult life in Oklahoma, and mostly in public service. I am grateful for the recognition."
The humble and affable McCaleb, though, should have perhaps been less surprised. After all, his résumé could conceivably have filled the business section of the phone book of his childhood home, Oklahoma City, when he was a small boy.
McCaleb has been chairman at CNI since March 2007, having been named its director in March 2003. His multitude of posts at all levels include: member of the advisory board at Community Development Financial Institutions Fund; appointed by President George W. Bush as Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs; eight years in the Oklahoma State House of Representatives; Oklahoma’s first Secretary of Transportation under Gov. Henry Bellmon, a position he resumed in 1995 under Gov. Frank Keating; special advisor to Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby; and Ambassador-at-Large for the Chickasaw Nation. From bank and board positions to consulting for his own and other Native American tribes and to being one of the most influential Oklahoma Native Americans at the highest of levels, McCaleb shares the same impeccable repute and nature as Gov. Anoatubby. It's a small group of Oklahoma leaders overall who enjoy such.
"Small" is one of the fair descriptors one might use to describe McCaleb's childhood. Although a wilderness background is another, McCaleb was also influenced by his era.
"I was born in 1935 and became cognizant of the larger world around me in World War II," McCaleb said. "As a youngster, it very much influenced me. The news was filled with [war] reports and maps of troops advancing. Rationing was required; everyone got gas cards; tires couldn't be found – I remember seeing cars driving on rims."
After the war, when speed limits were raised from resource-driven restricted levels to normal, McCaleb said he felt like "we were speeding in jets." His father took him across the state on Oklahoma's highways. Perhaps in the nexus of those influences was the seed that grew into the sprout of McCaleb's educational and professional path. After most of his schooling in Ponca City, McCaleb became a 1957 graduate of Oklahoma State University (then Oklahoma A&M) with a Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering.
Years followed of both public and private service success and eventual election to the State Legislature in 1974. He also became heavily involved with the greater Native American community.
"I did a lot of design and engineering work," he said. "I worked for 28 of the 38 tribes in Oklahoma. A lot of what I helped develop is still in use today, which is very rewarding."
When his career and reputation took him to the heart of government – Washington D.C. – he initially found himself in a standoffish, if not outright hostile, environment.
McCaleb said that in the early years of involvement of tribes with the federal government, the issue was basic respect – and respectability.
"In the early years, it was all about respectability," said McCaleb. "No one felt that the tribal governments were legitimate. Nixon began the move toward freeing up [tribal governments]. He made it possible to contract with the federal government and develop management skills in young professionals."
The national Indian Gaming Act established that because tribes are not subject to state laws, they could develop in the gaming industry. Because of the way management structure was built, McCaleb said, most tribes benefited from the Act.
Still, McCaleb said that when he arrived in Washington, the environment was little changed.
"It was very difficult," he said. "I went there in 2001 and was immediately involved in a lawsuit against the Bureau of Indian Affairs, with the suit representing the individual claims [of Native Americans]."
The BIA lawsuit, only recently settled and seeing payment dispensation, still distracted McCaleb's other objectives in D.C.
"A lot of my effort was divided because of that lawsuit. Also, I was sworn in on July 4, 2001. I woke up, and the Pentagon was on fire," he said. "That changed the whole government. Domestic expenses were cut and everything went toward the war."
McCaleb said the cloud of legitimacy and the lawsuit, the revelation that the BIA had mishandled trust accounts for individual Native American account holders to the degree that no one could easily put a dollar amount on the damages, slowed his efforts to push for other action. Congress eventually resolved the conflict in 2010, which managed to prompt action and payments some are just now receiving.
"My reason for going to Washington, D.C. was to advance economic development in Indian Territory," he said. "However, that was put on the back burner because of the lawsuit and what happened on Sept. 11, 2001."
Still, one of McCaleb's chief goals was a push for economic independence and the accompanying self-reliance. More than a decade later, there has been no advancement on that front.
"CNI started out depending on a Small Business Administration program, grew quickly, and [warranted] the ability to sole-source contracts," McCaleb said. "It became apparent several years ago that we needed to diversify in the private sector and not to rely on government programs."
In 2006, McCaleb said the Chickasaw acquired a manufacturing and assembly plant in Henryetta, were able to acquire it at "book value," and it began to turn profits.
"We're now manufacturing for the energy industry," he said. "We have also entered the oil field wastewater disposal industry, further expanding the tribe's reach into the private sector. We're pursuing a goal of Gov. Anoatubby's government, helping the tribe develop a self-sufficient economy. Thirty years ago, the tribe was reliant on the federal government," McCaleb added.
Today, the Chickasaw Nation and other tribes are less dependent on Washington, D.C.
"Gaming is a big part of that," he said. "We've re-invested in our gaming facilities, such as at WinStar Casino, which has the largest gaming floor in the world, and which also attracts most of its customers from across state borders, mostly Texas."
Engagement with the private sector, economic diversity and economic independence – and thus, prosperity – is more than McCaleb's vision for the Chickasaw Nation, but also for all Native American tribes in the country.
"My hope for tribal governments at large is for their economic independence and that they would base their vision on hope, health and prosperity – because that is something that is pretty thin right now," McCaleb said. "Many reservations are built in desolate lands with limited economic opportunities. However, take a look at the Bakken Oil Field – a large percentage of three tribes' land. Gaming, for example doesn't do any good when there are no people around.
"My hope is also that all tribes develop leadership that will lead people out of poverty and into prosperity," he added.
Given his decades of commitment to the Chickasaw Nation and all of Native America, McCaleb's notification about elevation to the Oklahoma Hall of Fame could hardly be called a long shot.
Still, Neal McCaleb feels humbled by the honor.
"I'm a 79-year-old, and this kind of recognition is truly heart-warming."