How culture and community are driving innovation at Cherokee Nation

With 450,000 citizens, Cherokee Nation is the largest Native American tribe in the U.S. The organization’s dynamic services—housing, infrastructure development, emergency management, education, community development, child welfare, and more—are executed by its more than 11,000 employees, making it one of the largest employers in northeastern Oklahoma. As the organization rapidly grows, its people team is leveraging the tribe’s deep culture and history to influence its modern company culture, including through benefits improvements and advancements around inclusion.

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Since 2021, that work has been overseen by Samantha Hendricks, executive director of HR. Hendricks has moved throughout Cherokee Nation for nearly 20 years, with HR leadership roles in Cherokee Nation Entertainment and later Cherokee Nation Businesses. Her own identity as a tribe member, she says, has given her lifelong insight into the culture that drives the tribe—and that is now at the heart of its HR transformation.

Hendricks will join with other Cherokee Nation leaders—Chief of Staff Corey Bunch and Chief Information Officer Paula Starr—at HRE’s upcoming Elevate People, Ignite Change conference in Las Vegas to dive into the organization’s people-centered company culture. Before the event, she sat down with HRE to discuss the highlights of this work and her own journey with the tribe.

HRE: What have been some of the biggest transformations in the tribe’s HR strategy during your 20 years with Cherokee Nation?

Hendricks: It’s fascinating to witness the significant transformation and rapid growth within the organization. Being part of a strategic leadership team in such a dynamic environment is truly exciting. The evolution of human resources, in both the business and government sectors, has been instrumental in accommodating this growth and serving the Cherokee Nation citizens effectively.

Samantha Hendricks, Cherokee Nation
Samantha Hendricks, executive director of HR, Cherokee Nation

Since I joined the organization, I have seen a remarkable increase in employment—with over 11,000 individuals now working across Cherokee Nation Businesses, Cherokee Federal, Cherokee Nation Entertainment and the Cherokee Nation government. The tribe’s trajectory is on a steep upward climb, and it’s inspiring to be a part of this journey toward continued success and expansion. The Cherokee Nation has raised its minimum wage, implemented new policies to support employee mental wellness and family leave and received recognition from Forbes magazine as one of the best employers.

HRE: What are the skill sets most critical for your HR team as you navigate the challenges of leading such an expansive, dynamic workforce?

Hendricks: One of the key skills for effective leadership is leading with purpose, guiding the team with a clear vision for the future. Equally important is the team’s skill set in capturing, developing and adapting to organizational changes. The team’s collective efforts are what truly drive progress and enable them to rise to the occasion. I am incredibly proud of the team I’ve worked with during my journey and the remarkable achievements they have made in embracing intentional change and navigating the journey towards success.

Read more Insights from a CHRO here.

HRE: What have been some of the driving factors that influenced changes to benefits offerings in the last few years?

Hendricks: Recognizing and meeting employees’ needs is vital for both the present and the future. At Cherokee Nation, where we have a tradition of long-serving employees, we understand that their needs evolve over time. Therefore, we are dedicated to adapting to these changing needs. In my current position, I have been instrumental in introducing additional benefits under Chief Hoskin’s administration initiative, including flexible spending accounts, employee wellness leave, enhanced maternity leave with paternity leave and improved employee savings options. Our goal is to create a supportive and inclusive work environment that caters to the diverse needs of our valued employees.

HRE: What are the challenges to maintaining the Cherokee Nation cultural tradition that centers women in leadership roles?

Hendricks: Throughout history, Cherokee women have played important roles within the tribe, embodying a cultural tradition that values their guidance. Being a Cherokee woman in a leadership role, I believe in the importance of truly understanding and empathizing with employees, recognizing the challenges they face in their personal lives, homes and workplaces. Rather than seeing these challenges as obstacles, I view them as opportunities for growth and balance. I find it’s a delicate dance that we work to maintain every day, ensuring that we stay centered in our leadership roles and protect the harmony within our work environment and community. Together, we strive to create a supportive and inclusive environment where everyone can succeed.

HRE: How would you define the company culture at Cherokee Nation? And what is HR’s vision for bringing that to life in employees’ day-to-day work?

Hendricks: The Cherokee Nation is dedicated to safeguarding our inherent sovereignty; upholding and celebrating our culture, language and values; and enhancing the wellbeing of the upcoming seven generations of Cherokee Nation citizens. We prioritize investing in the most skilled and talented individuals to become part of our Cherokee Nation work community because nurturing our workforce enables the Cherokee Nation tribal government to expand its capabilities and deliver more for the Cherokee people.

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See also: How 4 leading orgs are igniting company culture in a hybrid world

Human Resources remains dedicated to nurturing the organizational culture by offering educational opportunities, promoting Cherokee community values, implementing employee wellbeing initiatives and supporting our language initiative for our employees. These efforts are facilitated through our learning management system, new employee orientation, benefits management, language department, policies and various other channels, all geared toward creating a positive and inclusive work environment for our team. By fostering a culture that values education, community, wellbeing and diversity, we strive to create a workplace where all employees feel supported, empowered and appreciated.

HRE: How does your own affiliation as a citizen of Cherokee Nation impact how you approach your role?

Hendricks: As a woman, Cherokee citizen and executive director of human resources, I believe it’s important to approach my role with empathy, perseverance and active listening. Understanding the organizational culture of the Cherokee Nation, and the unique work culture, guides my decision-making process. By meeting employees where they are and taking the time to understand their needs, I aim to ensure they feel valued and respected. It’s not just about listening but also about making sure individuals feel heard and understood, making a real difference in their lives. This approach embodies “Leading with Purpose,” demonstrating the power of empathy, cultural awareness and genuine connection in creating a positive and impactful work environment. Ultimately, it’s about fostering a workplace where every voice is not only heard but also valued.

Learn more about Cherokee Nation’s company culture and HR successes at EPIC, April 24-26, in Las Vegas. Click here to register.

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].