Shawna Baker (LAW ’15)
LLM in Taxation
Trailblazing for a Nation
By David Hollander
Portrait by Adam Murray
One figure in particular served to fuel the ambition of Shawna Baker. Her formative years coincided with Wilma Mankiller’s decade-long leadership as principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. Seeing a woman at the head of tribal government suggested to the young Baker that leadership potential was based on merit.
For an out lesbian in conservative Oklahoma, such a career path requires fortitude. A graduate of the School of Law, Baker was first nominated to the Cherokee Nation Supreme Court in 2018 but fell short. “Some questioned my qualifications,” she says. “I was encouraged to serve in another role.” She accepted an appointment to the Cherokee Nation Gaming Commission, where her work dissolved any lingering doubts. Baker was again nominated to be a Cherokee Nation jurist, this time easily winning confirmation in 2020. She’s now the first 2SLGBTQ+ (two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) person ever confirmed to the Cherokee Nation’s highest court.
Baker joined the court at a pivotal moment in her nation’s history. Her first written opinion granted full rights of citizenship to Cherokee Freedmen (descendants of enslaved African Americans). It also included language recognizing gender as nonbinary—a first for the court. It was a landmark moment for equality, one that Baker hopes to build on later this year when she becomes both the first 2SLGBTQ+ and first woman chief justice of the Supreme Court of the Cherokee Nation. “My visibility is important,” she says. “It creates space for the people behind me.”
“My visibility is important. It creates space for the people behind me.”