"So, what do you do?" - Brenner Billy
Oftentimes, we find ourselves being introduced to someone new at a social gathering. These situations are always interesting, sometimes exciting, occasionally surprising—and often begin with a simple question, “So, what do you do?”
In celebration of this societal staple of socializing, we are asking TKE Nation “What do you do?” For our collegiate members, career trajectory is a large part of what draws them to groups and organizations on campus. As one of the largest fraternities in North America, TKE claims a wide range of careers and more success stories than we can count! We want to share some of those stories with you.
On a semi-regular basis, or as frequently as we come across Tekes with an interesting career path, we will publish a “So, what do you do?” article. If you, or a Teke whom you know, has made a big splash in their professional life, please submit them to us at Headquarters. TKE strives to create Better Men for a Better World and we want to hear from them. Submissions can be emailed to TKEOGC@TKE.ORG with the subject “So, what do you do?”
Brenner Billy, CAAE Assistant Coordinator, is a cultural trainer with the Choctaw Nation Learning and Development Department. He has served the Choctaw Nation in various roles including human resources assistant with tribal government, a language instructor, and a cultural coordinator with cultural services. In addition, Frater Billy keeps the Choctaw traditions alive by handcrafting stickball sticks in the traditional fashion.
We asked Brenner to tell us more about himself and to share his work with the Nation as well as the creation of the stickball sticks.
Billy was also featured in a documentary video about the making of the sticks. You can view it here.
TKE HQ: We know that you are from Oklahoma and work for the Choctaw Nation, how is it that you became a Teke?
BB: I grew up in a small area and where I went to college at is where I had my first big experience with a bigger school. I got to know a few people, some through my connection as a member of Choctaw. A rush event was happening, and I recognized a mutual acquaintance. At the time, I wasn’t really interested in joining. But I still had that good relationship as a non-member.
TKE HQ: And through that relationship, you stayed in contact with the chapter? I assume that is why you had a change of heart?
BB: After a period of time, I did join. There are all kinds of things that they did, that I couldn’t see at the time. They were genuinely good people. Once I got into TKE, I was like “wow.” It was something that was totally different and I wanted to be a part of it.
TKE HQ: What was it that gave you that “wow” moment?
BB: When I got into it, there is the saying, Better Men for a Better World. You know, it’s not just one form for everyone, we all have these abilities that we can use to provide for other people. From what I learned, Fraternity is about brotherhood. I didn’t have any older siblings, and my younger siblings were way too young at the time for me to connect with. TKE gave me people to look out for me and steer me in some kind of a direction. I love the family effect.
TKE HQ: Was there anything that surprised you during your undergrad experience?
BB: I got a lot from that sense of family, but then you have the business side of things. You know, it allowed me to own and wear my first suit to the functions. Now, as I think about it, even though I wasn’t interested in the business side of it at the start, it is still something that gave me a really unique experience, and I will always cherish those moments. They have really set me up for my career now.
TKE HQ: What did you bring to your chapter in regards to your Choctaw culture?
BB: When I first joined, one of the advisors told me that the chief of the Choctaw Nation, Gregory E. Pyle (1997-2014) is a Teke. So that really put a little cherry on top for me, I had never known that. I thought, well, I can do this. When I was doing TKE stuff, I was able to express that I can live in both worlds.
TKE HQ: People often think that Fraternities create an exclusionary culture, but often, the exact opposite is true, they are melting pots. After you joined, did you hold any offices?
BB: I chaired some committees and held several offices. Hypophetes, Hegemon, and Epiprytanis. I was Hegemon for a few years, and during that time, I actually initiated David Batton. The son of the current Choctaw Chief, Gary Batton.
TKE HQ: Small world. It seems like you really enjoyed the Hegemon position. What did you like about it?
BB: While I was the Hegemon, I really felt passionate about teaching the values to the members. I ended up generalizing, but I initially wanted to do some sort of education as a college degree. In the end, my son was about to be born, so I utilized the credits I had to get a degree quickly. That allowed me to look toward a career and possibly a masters later on. And it allowed me to work for the Choctaw Nation.
TKE HQ: Your culture is very important to you, what can you tell us about it?
BB: My cultural side, traditionally that is…my family is kind of unique. In the 70s my grandfather brought and retained culture, back to my home area in Broken Bow Oklahoma.
TKE HQ: Doesn’t the Nation have a long history in the area?
BB: My grandparents, they were in a bilingual program from Southeastern Oklahoma State University. A grant was written to retain some of the cultural aspects of indigenous people. For us, it was the Choctaw people.
TKE HQ: So it was about strengthening the culture then?
BB: Yes, to clarify, we as Oklahoma Choctaws were removed from our original homeland in Mississippi to Oklahoma. Originally, it stretched from Mississippi to Alabama to Louisiana, before European contact. So, we adapted throughout time to be a different culture. They helped to bring back things that actually reinforce what a culture is, or how to be traditional in our culture. It was fading away. We started to lose that ancient and traditional culture.
TKE HQ: Are you continuing that work through your position with the Choctaw Nation?
BB: In a way. I was brought on to train and instill our culture into the people that we hire. We have up to 12,000 people working for the nation. Not all of them are members. Even some that are do not have as much cultural knowledge as they could.
TKE HQ: It sounds like your time as Hegemon was time well spent then. If I may ask, what is the business of the Choctaw Nation. Why do they employ so many?
BB: Agriculture, gaming, timber, health services, we have a multitude of revenue streams. We try to have both a government structure as well as a business structure. We are one of the biggest tribes in the state, so there are a lot of moving parts. Some nations are more business-minded than others, but we try to find balance.
TKE HQ: You said that many in the area do not have a firm grounding in the Choctaw culture, why is that?
BB: We are a pretty integrated group without hard boundary like in other places. There are a lot of identifiers and qualifiers that go with our culture. It’s unique, it's different. To be honest, growing up I didn’t really learn a lot of this stuff and that’s a problem. But its changing. We are even able to have Choctaw listed as a recognized foreign language in our schools.
TKE HQ: So with your focus on the Choctaw culture, is that how you got into making the Choctaw sticks as we see in the video?
BB: The video was to actually show what it takes to keep Choctaw Nation stickball together. These players have regular jobs and lives. They don’t get time off to travel and go to these games, but it’s a tradition none the less.
TKE HQ: What can you tell us about the game?
BB: Stickball has deeper roots than what we think of as a game. We play for recreation today, but our ancestors didn’t. This was used as a way to combat with others. It was used as a way to avoid the bloodshed and wiping a tribe off the map. Instead of battle, there was this.
TKE HQ: What about the sticks themselves?
BB: The sticks are crafted by hand, with no machinery, as our ancestors did. You can still see that in the way they are made today. The spirit, the heart, the love of the game is still there. As traditional as we can make it.
TKE HQ: Are handmade sticks the only way to get them?
BB: As it gets more popular, we are starting to see them mass produced, and that causes part of that culture to fade away.
TKE HQ: The video said you’re your family has been making them for years. Do you create the sticks you make as a way to promote the culture, or is it more of a business?
BB: For my dad, it became a side income. He was a welder and when work was scarce, this provided an income for us. It was survival. When I started doing it, I loved the game and being a part of it. It's something that is ours that identifies us and that no one can take away from you. Yes, it can be good income because people do see the importance of it. Today, I am fortunate. I still make them, but I don’t have to make them.
TKE HQ: It sounds like it is more about the creation and meaning for you these days.
BB: It is a small business with selling them and making them, but yeas, to me it’s more about taking care of the tradition. That is something that money can never pay for. Something that, once it is gone, you cannot pay to get that back. So, I make my own tools to make them and I keep to the handcrafted Choctaw tradition that always was.
TKE HQ: What drives you to make sure that your culture is passed on?
BB: Where will this art or this tradition be when I am 50 years old. That’s what I reflect on. Where will it be in the future? Where are we going to go?
TKE HQ: That is a great question for anyone really. Words to live by. Any last advice for TKE Nation before we let you go?
BB: One of the things I always talk about to my new associates is something that my grandfather always talked about. He would say, we have to understand where we have been, so that we can get an idea of where we are going.
CHOCTAW STICKS from Native Boy Productions on Vimeo.