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Chief BigHorse vetoes banishment bill targeting drug dealers

Osage Nation and Pawhuska Indian Village officials say they are tired of the complaints, police calls, illegal trash dumping, property thefts, suspicious vehicle traffic and other crimes, activities and consequences that can go along with illegal drug use, manufacturing and distribution of drugs such as methamphetamine in the village. 

The Third Osage Nation Congress gave its blessing to a bill mandating a minimum five-year banishment for punishment toward those convicted in tribal court of selling, distributing and manufacturing dangerous drugs.

Despite the bill’s passage, Principal Chief Scott BigHorse vetoed ONCA 14-14 on April 29, citing concerns of whether all convicts will be treated equally, as well as enforcing the banishment against those convicted.

“This bill has unintended, or at least unforeseen, consequences in its application. First of all, under federal law, since Indian tribes only have criminal jurisdiction over Indians, this amendment has absolutely NO effect on the activities of non-Indians, who are still free to commit Dangerous Drug offenses without fear of tribal prosecution, while our Osage people and other Native Americans will be banished from all Osage tribal lands for a minimum of five years. While tribes have inherent authority to banish any person from their lands under a civil code, adding a mandatory banishment provision to the criminal code only affects our own people,” according to Chief BigHorse in his veto message.

Following debate on April 23, the Congress voted 11-1 to pass ONCA 14-14 (sponsored by Congressional Speaker Raymond Red Corn). The bill amends the Nation’s criminal code to include a 5-10 year banishment punishment to those convicted of committing a “dangerous drug offense.” Those convicted already face jail time and fines imposed by a judge during sentencing.

Red Corn told the Congress that banishment will punish people who prey upon Osage residential areas – including all three Indian villages – in order to sell and manufacture dangerous drugs such as meth. He also notes the bill seeks to punish those who care more about money (made off drug sales) than they do about people.

According to ONCA 14-14, the bill targeted “dangerous drugs” which include controlled or counterfeit substances that: include drug products that contain more than nine grams of ephedrine, pseudo-ephedrine or phenylpropenalamine in addition to other dangerous drugs prohibited by federal law. All three of these drug substances are known key ingredients used to manufacture meth.

Congresswoman Alice Buffalohead said she would vote for the bill, but added, “I don’t think banishing is the ultimate answer,” and, “It is my hope that going forward, we will appropriate more money toward treatment because it goes hand-in-hand with this – addiction is a disease, it’s something people struggle with every single day.”

Congress members Geoffrey Standing Bear and Shannon Edwards acknowledged, as attorneys, they’ve seen the consequences of meth and other drug users who enter the court system.

Standing Bear, like the Pawhuska Indian Village Five-Woman Board, said he’s heard reports from village residents of “rampant” drug use which include home break-ins, property thefts and drug makers concealing their work when hearing reports of police responding to the village over the radio scanner traffic and said, “I think it’s out of control.”

Standing Bear said he would support the bill adding, “it’s time to stop, we can change this law later, I’ve got grandchildren, we all have children, this is out of control, it’s killing our people, I’ve buried some relatives, it’s taken down people of all ages, we’ve got to make a statement right now.”

Edwards cast the lone “no” vote on the bill adding she is also concerned the bill does not help drug offenders. “When you talk about addiction, you should also be talking about rehabilitation.” Edwards also stated she was concerned about the areas where convicted people would be banished from. Raising a hypothetical situation for example, Edwards said she was concerned about “unintended consequences” if a convicted person served jail time but could not return home or live with a relative and have no place else to go while trying to rebuild their lives due to banishment.  

Red Corn responded in his debate time stating offenders – if convicted – would be banished from any land where the Nation has jurisdiction. He also clarified that ONCA 14-14 does not target drug addicts but dealers. “I’m not the only member of Congress that has grandchildren in the village, but I’m telling you that’s a strong motivational force and if you really want to say … that you’re for elders and you’re for children, then make those villages a safer place by getting people who are willing to manufacture meth out of the village – if they’re convicted … this bill’s about dealers and people who don’t care.”

Osage Nation lands include the three Indian villages, the Osage Casino properties, the ON government campus in Pawhuska and the senior housing complex.

This is not the first time banishment has been considered as punishment for drug-related offenses in the Osage Nation. ON Attorney General Jeff Jones previously prosecuted a drug possession case where banishment was used as a punishment toward an Osage in tribal court. In 2013, Jones pushed for a five-year banishment sentence, in addition to jail time, for a man who was arrested in the Pawhuska village during a traffic stop where the man was found to be in possession of meth.

Jones said he felt banishment was appropriate in that case of meth possession after consulting with the five-woman village board   

After the bill’s veto, Pawhuska village board chairwoman Paula Stabler met with the village board and released a statement: “We understand the Chief has given significant reason for his veto and we appreciate Congressman Red Corn for his work in pushing such a bill forward. This bill is about protection and prevention. And we hope there will be a resolution to this issue for all of us.”

Red Corn said he was “disappointed the bill was vetoed” and also issued a statement: “Chief Bighorse's veto repeatedly mentions that the Act has no force against non-Indians. That's true, but I don't accept the logic that just because the law cannot be brought to bear against non-Indians, that it should not be brought to bear on Osages and members of other tribes that manufacture and sell drugs.”

“If Osages living in the villages don't have enough love or respect for our people to refrain from manufacturing and selling dangerous drugs, they should live somewhere else. If we are trying to balance the rights of meth-cooking village residents with those trying to live peaceably there, I'm coming down on the side of those elders and families with children that deserve a safe place to live. The Government Operations committee heard village residents talk about increased drug customer traffic to and from dealer's homes. They're tired of it, and want it to stop. So do I, and that's why I filed the amendment,” Red Corn said.

Red Corn’s statement closed with: “The veto says that mandatory banishment allows no judicial discretion. That discretion exists in law now, but where are the benefits? Judicial discretion has existed for years, and every day the Village Committee and residents witness the results - lots of drug traffic. I hope Congress sees fit to revisit this bill in the upcoming Special Session. It's time to send a message that this kind of activity will no longer be tolerated.”