Native advocate talks “new normal” after loss, pandemic


Cherokee Ballard has been the communications manager for Oklahoma Natural Gas since 2011. Her career spans a variety of experiences as a journalist, Cherokee Nation leader, nonprofit advocate and cancer survivor. (Photo provided)

NORMAN The communications manager for Oklahoma Natural Gas said she is still adjusting to a “new normal” after both her husband’s death and the COVID-19 pandemic altered her life dramatically.

“It’s just been pretty lonely, to be honest,” Cherokee Ballard said on the “Survive and Thrive” podcast. “I can certainly empathize with people [who are] in the same situation as me, but I’m trying to stay happy and do things that make me happy. To be honest, my Christmas tree is still up.”

Before her job as communications manager at Oklahoma Natural Gas since 2011, Cherokee Ballard’s career has also included stints as the public information officer and legislative liaison for the state Office of Chief Medical Examiner; a broadcast reporter for KFOR, KAUT and KOCO; and an adjunct professor at the University of Oklahoma. Ballard’s award-winning reporting on the 2005 death from child abuse of 2-year-old Kelsey Briggs-Smith led to legislative reforms in Oklahoma.

“I have been very fortunate in my life to have a lot of knowledge about a lot of things,” Ballard said.

Ballard’s first name is a forthright acknowledgement of her tribal heritage, but she said her mother’s desire to name her Cherokee was a cause of disagreement between her mother and her grandmother, who felt such an openly Indigenous name might make her the target of racism.

“But I’m so proud of my mom for doing that and sticking to it, because it has been such a wonderful blessing for me to have this name and to also have the Indian blood,” Ballard said.

And as a cancer survivor, she also believes it is important to give back to her community. “Since I’d never had children, my husband and I just felt it was really important to help our community in various ways,” said Ballard, referring to the numerous non-profits with which she is involved, such as the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and the Bella Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.  

Ballard’s husband, photographer Scott Travis, died in November 2019, and it was this loss combined with the public health crisis of the pandemic that caused her once again to rely on inner strength and to lean on close friends. She feels this struggle has been universal the past year and that Oklahoma can learn how to deal with present trauma by remembering the past.

“I think we are a very strong state,” Ballard said. “We have grit, we have survival instincts, we can fight off any tragedy that comes our way, and I feel very strongly that Oklahomans are just resilient people. But I feel like in my life, all of the things that I’ve had to endure and fight, if you will, it just makes you stronger.”

“Survive & Thrive” is a weekly 24-episode podcast series in which reporters KaraLee Langford and Brooklyn Wayland interview Oklahomans from all walks of life on how to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic and recent racial upheaval.

The twenty-first episode of the program, which featured Ballard, is available below and on other streaming platforms such as Spotify and Apple Podcasts.

Gaylord News reporters Miranda Vondale Foster, Jessie Christopher Smith and Zhixuan Fan contributed to this report.

Gaylord News is a reporting project of the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication.