Lt. Gov. Emeritus Jefferson Keel leaves legacy of service

This article appeared in the December 2020 edition of the Chickasaw Times

After more than 20 years of service to the Chickasaw Nation, Lt. Governor Emeritus Jefferson Keel will retire effective January 2, 2021.

Governor Bill Anoatubby commended the former Lt. Governor, U.S. Army veteran and three-time president of National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) for his decades of service.

“Jefferson Keel is an incredible example of the warrior spirit, commitment and perseverance the Chickasaw people value in a leader,” Gov. Anoatubby said. “A long-time champion of tribal sovereignty and defender of the community, his exemplary service to Chickasaws and all Americans will have a positive impact for generations to come.”

Lt. Governor Emeritus Keel officially retired from his official duties Sept. 30, 2019. He has continued his work at the Chickasaw Nation as Lt. Gov. Emeritus.

Elected to his third term as NCAI president in October 2017, he is the only elected tribal leader from Oklahoma to serve in that position. His work supporting tribal sovereignty there dovetailed with his work on the same issues as Chickasaw Nation Lieutenant Governor. He testified before Congress on several occasions and worked behind the scenes on issues including health care, law enforcement, education, labor sovereignty and more.

“NCAI is a great organization,” he said. “I made a lot of friends there.”

He said he continued to get calls from colleagues and from time to time he may continue to engage in policy discussions with people he has worked with over the years.

Asked about the apparent political division of recent years, he offered some perspective.

“Behind the scenes there are always some tough discussions,” he said, adding that arriving at a consensus on policies that will make a positive difference is the goal.

“When you are able to talk with people and find common ground on issues, people are more willing to listen. You can’t just pay lip service to an issue. You have to do something about these issues. NCAI was able to do that.”

Lt. Gov. Emeritus Keel said Governor Anoatubby had always set an example as a man who was determined to serve the Chickasaw people as a true leader.

“When someone with a need comes to a bureaucrat, he will tell you, ‘here are the rules. This is why we can’t help you, because we’re limited.’ A leader will say, ‘here are the rules, let’s find a way to help you. Let’s find a way to do this within the rules.’ Governor Anoatubby is a true leader.”

He went on to make a comparison to military leadership.

“You are given a mission. You analyze your resources to see what you need. Then you find the best way to accomplish that task with minimum losses and then protect and utilize every resource you have to carry out the task. That is what defines a leader.”

Jefferson Keel began his two decades of experience in the military when he enlisted in the Oklahoma National Guard in September 1963 at the age of 16. After graduating from high school he completed basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C., and advanced Armor Advanced Individual Training (AIT) at Fort Knox, Kentucky. After returning home he enlisted in the regular Army and began his career.

After completing Airborne Infantry AIT at Fort Gordon, Georgia and Airborne Training at Fort Benning, Georgia he received orders to Vietnam.

When his unit arrived in Vietnam, he saw the tragedy of war first-hand. After spending his first night in a tent on Thompson Air Base, he learned a young man in another tent had been killed in a mortar attack the night before he was scheduled to return home.

“War is ugly,” he said. “There are things that happen in wartime that should not happen.”

He also faced a steep learning curve when he arrived.

“It was fast-paced,” he said. “I had never been in a helicopter before I got to Vietnam. So, they taught us how to rappel out of helicopters, basically using a big tree.”

He said the first time he was in a real helicopter, it seemed they might be shot down.

“We went into what they called a hot red landing zone. People all around were shooting at the helicopters as they came in. I was assistant machine gunner. When we hit the ground, the machine gunner broke his ankle, so I started carrying a machine gun.

“We stayed in the field most of the time. We would know it was Monday because we got a hot meal and malaria pill.”

His combat experience included two extended tours of service in Vietnam as an infantryman with the 1st Cavalry Division and the 101st Airborne Division where he received the Bronze Star with “V” for valor, two Purple Hearts and numerous other awards and decorations for heroism.

Asked if he would share the experiences that earned him those honors, he declined.

“When those things happen, men get killed,” he said. “Basically, I did what needed to be done. There are people who died over there that did a lot more heroic things than anyone can imagine. The fact is, some of them were never recognized.”

Asked about a connection between his military service and his Chickasaw heritage, he mentioned that his father, Freeman Keel, earned a Silver Star in World War I, and that a number of uncles and other family members had also served.

His own connection with Chickasaw language and culture is linked to his experience at church.

“Most of our community activities centered around the churches,” he said. “Luffys Chapel was all Chickasaw and Choctaw. It was truly an Indian church.”

He said that funerals, church services and other services were conducted in the Chickasaw language.

“My dad was an elder in the church and he used to preach. My father and his brother, my uncle, would sit on the porch and talk in the Chickasaw language.”

Reflecting on the connection between military service and Chickasaw culture, he noted that First Americans have long served in the military at rates greater than any other ethnic group.

“Warriors in our culture have always been there to protect others, to help others who need help and do what is needed in times of emergency,” he said. “I think that has to do with war time. When the country is in danger, Indian people have always come forward to protect this country. Even before they were citizens, they felt a need to protect this country.

“I think it is part of that warrior spirit. I think it is part of the culture.”

A man who personifies Chickasaw spirit

Lt. Governor Emeritus Jefferson Keel was first elected Lt. Governor of the Chickasaw Nation in 1999, and served until 2019. Lt. Gov. Emeritus Keel is a retired U.S. Army officer with 20 years active service. He earned his master’s degree from Troy State University and his bachelor’s degree from East Central University. He has served as president of the National Congress of American Indians, Chairman of the Tribal Consultation Advisory Board for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Chair of the Facilities Allocation Advisory Board of the Indian Health Service. He is the son of Chickasaw original enrollee Freeman Keel.

Lt. Gov. Emeritus Keel and his wife Carol have three children and eight grandchildren. Thomas and his wife Teresa have three children, Allison, Madison, and Cason. Jeff and his wife Falisha have two children, Lindsey and Jacob, and Kristen and her husband Tim have three children, Sarandyn, Alyse, and Avery.