TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — The meeting between the two North American Indian leaders had been called to discuss international issues, but Phil Fontaine, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, could not help deviating from the agenda.
Fontaine, whose organization represents more than 800,000 American Indians in Canada, wanted to know what the Cherokee Nation principal chief, Chad Smith, thought of Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford. “I heard he’s Cherokee,” Fontaine told Smith. “He’s having a great year.”
Smith confirmed that Bradford was indeed a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, and they continued talking about him. “It was a great conversation,” Smith said. “There we were talking Sam Bradford and O.U. football.”
Entering Saturday’s Red River Rivalry between No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 5 Texas, Bradford is at the forefront of Heisman Trophy conversations, and at the center of attention in the Cherokee Nation, the second-largest tribe in the United States. Bradford is believed to be the first Indian to start at quarterback for a Division I university since Sonny Sixkiller, a full-blooded Cherokee, who was born here and starred at Washington in the early 1970s.
But Bradford is just one-sixteenth Cherokee and until Oklahoma publicized that heritage last season, his father Kent said he had probably only talked to his son about it two or three times as he grew up in Oklahoma City. Kent Bradford said his great grandmother, Susie Walkingstick, was a full-blooded Cherokee.
The elder Bradford, who was an offensive lineman at Oklahoma in the 1970s, said: “There’s a lot of people in Oklahoma that have Indian blood. I wasn’t brought up to really know much about it. I can’t really give him a lot of information either.
“At times, it’s somewhat awkward in that he and I are indeed portrayed as Indians,” he said. “We do have some Indian blood, but that isn’t us out there counting that.”
That has not tempered interest within Cherokee Nation, which counts 280,000 citizens and consists of a jurisdiction that includes all or parts of 14 counties in northeastern Oklahoma.
Bradford is followed fervently at Sequoyah Schools, an Indian boarding school for grades 7-12 that is financed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and operated by the Cherokee Nation.
Tucked away on a sprawling campus near the Cherokee Nation’s headquarters, Sequoyah Schools has 380 students, of which 261 are Cherokee Nation citizens. There, students wear Oklahoma football T-shirts, football players talk about which of them could be the next Bradford, and female students swoon at the mention of his name.
“He’s cute,” said Shelby Botone, 16, a 10th-grader who is primarily Creek and Cherokee. “He’s like perfect.”
Smith, the Cherokee Nation chief, said Bradford’s success had provided much-needed inspiration for Cherokee youth. Bradford’s demeanor is similar to that of Cherokee elders, he said. “He’s a great example of simple, quiet, humble leadership,” Smith said.
Ross Reeder, a tight end and defensive end at Sequoyah Schools, said he felt an immediate connection when he learned that Bradford was also Cherokee.
“It’s pretty cool to see an Indian in such a high limelight,” said Reeder, 17, who is three-thirty-seconds Cherokee. “It’s a very rare thing.”
Reeder would like to meet Bradford and hoped he would someday visit Sequoyah Schools. Reeder even said Bradford’s play was helping Indians shed stereotypes that have haunted them.
“Sam Bradford is kind of like he’s the best of Indians,” Reeder said. “He shows that we’re not lazy and that we don’t give up. He’s what we really represent.”
Bradford is a frequent subject of conversation for Smith, whether at the Cherokee Nation headquarters just outside Tahlequah or anywhere else he goes. Earlier this year, Howard Dean, the Democratic Party chairman, raved to Smith about him.
“It is kind of neat in Oklahoma with how prominent that is in our state heritage,” the Oklahoma offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson said. California is the only state with more Indian residents, according to the United States Census, and Oklahoma was the birthplace of the legendary Indian athlete Jim Thorpe.
Bradford, a redshirt sophomore in his second season as the starter, has emerged as the face of the top-ranked Sooners (5-0, 1-0 Big 12). Entering Saturday’s bitter matchup against Texas (5-0, 1-0 Big 12), he has thrown for 1,665 yards and 18 touchdowns with just 3 interceptions. In his victorious debut against Texas last season, he threw for 244 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Bradford remains reserved about his links to that ancestry. After Oklahoma’s victory at Baylor last Saturday, he said little in front of a throng of news media when asked how proud he was of his Cherokee heritage.
“Uh,” Bradford said, “very.”
Kent Bradford said his son understood the significance of his Cherokee heritage.
Sam Bradford said: “I just kind of look it as another opportunity that football has blessed me with. So I just try to make the most of it and be as positive as I can for those kids.”
The first time Sixkiller learned of Bradford was while browsing an Oklahoma media guide in 2006 when the Huskies played a road game against the Sooners.
“To me, he looked like he was Cherokee,” Sixkiller said in a telephone interview. “That was my first thought.”
Sixkiller, who works for a company that owns the media rights to the University of Washington’s athletics, has never spoken with Bradford, although Oklahoma played at Washington last month. He said he understood that Bradford was in an awkward position.
Sixkiller recalled feeling off-field pressure from Indians while playing at Washington.
“You get tugged in this way and tugged that way while still trying to do what you can do as a college kid,” Sixkiller said.
But Sixkiller said Bradford should embrace the attention. “You’re not a messiah,” he said. “You’re just well thought of and respected being who you are.”
Bradford has a standing invitation to visit the Cherokee Nation, Smith said, adding: “We’re not looking to capitalize on his fame. We would just prefer to treat him as a member of the community.”
Someday, Smith said he believed Bradford would want to know more about his Indian heritage and become involved with the Cherokee Nation.
“It’s inevitable,” Smith said. “What ultimately drives people is their sense of identity. When we’re younger we don’t think about it as much. As we grow older, the cosmos in the universe becomes a little bit clear.”
If that day ever comes, the Cherokee Nation will be ready for Bradford, Smith said.
“The community will accept him with the widest arms you can have,” he said.