Government , Candidates

Third debate group discusses tribal sovereignty, term limits, and the Nation’s future

SKIATOOK, Okla. – Five candidates seeking Osage Nation Congressional office in the June 6 election answered questions regarding the Nation’s future, tribal sovereignty and term limits during the April 30 Osage News candidate debates.

 

All 15 candidates seeking re-election or office for the first time participated in the debates held at the Skiatook Osage Casino. Over 150 people attended the debates, which were video recorded and livestreamed online. The 15 candidates were split into three groups of five and answered questions randomly drawn by moderators who were volunteers from the League of Women Voters of Metropolitan Tulsa.  

The News asked the Osage public to submit questions for the candidates and those questions were drawn from a hopper for the candidates to answer. Each candidate was given two minutes for opening remarks, three minutes to answer each question, one minute for a rebuttal or additional comments and two minutes for a closing statement.

The five candidates participating in the third and final debate group were John Jech, Shannon Edwards, Danette Daniels, Joe Tillman and Michael Bristow.

Opening statements

Jech, a Pawhuska resident and former ON Treasurer and longtime accounting employee, is seeking his second Congressional term. An Oklahoma-registered certified public accountant, Jech launched his own accounting practice in Pawhuska in 2010 and served on various Congressional committees including as chairman of the Appropriations Committee.

Edwards, of Edmond, is seeking her third Congressional term after a decade of service thus far. She works as an attorney and federal judge and said she has the privilege of “going around Indian country and study other governments and see how their systems work. I bring that experience to you and I thank you for allowing me to work for you for 10 years,” she said.

Daniels, of Fairfax, said she attended Oklahoma State University and has a degree in family relations/ child development and her professional experience includes working as a family therapist and described herself as a “people person.” She also worked as an Osage language teacher for four years and now co-owns The Cedar Chest gift shop and Water Bird art gallery in Pawhuska.

Tillman, of Pawhuska, acknowledged ON government officials in attendance, including former Principal Chiefs Jim Gray, John Red Eagle and his father, Charles Tillman in addition to current Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear and Assistant Principal Chief Raymond Red Corn. Tillman is a former ON division leader for the education and culture divisions, which carried 18 programs with 18 directors, and annual budgets in excess of $20 million, he said.

Bristow, of Tulsa, said he’s a speech language pathologist who works with geriatric patients in a home health care setting and said he believes the Nation should run its own nursing home to take care of Osage elders and to generate revenue from Medicare/ Medicaid billing. If elected, Bristow said he would propose legislation to build a Nation-owned nursing home.

First question

If you were elected to Congress, how would you draft legislation to help our special needs citizens? Submitted by Renee Harris.

Edwards said “we already have legislation that helps our special needs members, it’s called the health benefit (card),” but noted its Medicare supplement needs to be amended to allow for Osages with disabilities to access more services “and I think we can do that, but we have to work on it … That’s why I say I’m not finished because I know we already have the tools there, we just need to work a little bit harder, a little bit further to make that happen.”

Daniels said she worked for 17 years with special needs children and their parents and said: “I’d like to see the Osage Nation draw more attention to the children and families that have children with special needs … I’m all about children and families and I would like to see with our new immersion program being able to include all children that have special needs … I would like to be an advocate in that area to bring my expertise to the issues.”

Tillman had a younger brother who was confined to a wheelchair and said he is aware of the everyday extra care and effort needed for those with special needs and their families. Tillman said he met an Osage man confined to a wheelchair during the recent April candidate event held in San Antonio and “he made me realize the $500 medical benefit card is a wonderful thing, but it just wasn’t enough.” If elected, Tillman said he would explore raising the yearly maximum benefit card amount to $1,000 for those with special needs and disabilities.

Bristow said the Wah-Zha-Zhi Health Center (recently compacted per an agreement with Indian Health Service and the Nation) is a good resource for those with special needs and he would inquire what the clinic’s needs are and “what can we do to help them do that? That goes along with listening to the constituents, finding out what their specific needs are” before Congress decides how to best and efficiently handle those needs.

Jech said he would sit down with an Executive Branch representative to see if they support that initiative and work with fellow Congress members on an approach, noting: “we would need to work to prioritize where the funding would come to support that. We have to make cuts in other areas to provide services and we all need to be able to agree on that because we have limited funding.” Jech also said clinic revenue could also be used to address special needs.

Rebuttal

Edwards said with the Nation controlling the clinic and offering the health benefit card, the groundwork is in place. “We need to rely on our administration, who carries out our laws, to come to us and tell us as Congress: ‘this is what we want to do, here is the plan, here’s the priority, here’s the price’ … and if we need to appropriate additional funds, we have to prioritize that,” she said.

Daniels said she was thinking of children during her initial answer, but acknowledges the issue affects all Osages. If elected, Daniels said she would sponsor legislation for long-term residential care, adding she knows a Fairfax family who must care for a female family member severely injured in a car accident and knows it’s “a tremendous toll on the family – financially, emotionally, spiritually.”

Tillman, who coaches youth sports, said he’s also aware of children with special needs and who attend special education classes and believes “we need to get down into our school system, identify those Osage youth that have those special needs … we need to give them the help they deserve.”

Bristow reiterated “we need to find out what their needs are” and to fill any gaps.

Jech said “it’s important to find out what the need is, there’s a dollar amount that comes with that need and that’s where we have to make hard decisions.”

Second question

The Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma is now in the process of offering “Online gaming.” Do you think that this is something the Osage Nation should look into considering that we don’t have a lot of revenue streams at the current moment? Submitted by Billy Keene.

Daniels said she would need to have a conversation with ON Gaming Enterprise Board Chairman Mark Simms on the topic because “I don’t know all the ins and outs of online gaming, I am for additional revenues coming in, one of my main platforms is economic development, and so if that could benefit the Osage Nation then I would be for that, but I need to do my due diligence on that issue.”

Tillman believes the Nation needs to look at online gaming and recalled he first heard about the topic during a National Indian Gaming Association conference three years ago while he was an ON division leader. “Now where are we in that pecking order?... We cannot let it slip by us without giving it its due diligence.”

Bristow said “I am aware that diversification is key… online gaming is something that is new technology that the Osage tribe must embrace. We have seen companies out there who have refused new technology and it’s been to their peril. Blockbuster Video no longer exists because they did not embrace Netflix, online streaming … Online is the future and if we don’t embrace it now, we’re going to be left out in the cold.”

Jech said “I think every opportunity out there we should look into, if this is something that we can capitalize on then I believe we can pursue it. I’m not a technology wizard so I’m not sure what that would entail and how much it would cost us to get into that business … I want us to look at all the options, I don’t want us to wait until everybody else has done it, we need to sit down with experts in that area.”

Edwards said: “Our Nation, through our constitution and law, says that’s the Gaming Enterprise’s responsibility and the administration’s responsibility, so the answer to the question, as a Congress person, is yes, I’m available to hear from the people charged with that responsibility about what their plans are with that. To my knowledge, the Iowa tribe has already come and talked to our Gaming Enterprise about this and their study, and they’re rightfully the people who should study it … When they get satisfied … (The Gaming Enterprise Board) will put it in their plan of operation and come to the Congress and talk to us about it.”

Rebuttal

Daniels said she is also supportive of the plans to expand the Tulsa Osage Casino, so the Gaming Enterprise brick-and-mortar casinos should also get improvements.

Tillman acknowledged the Iowa tribe for their efforts and taking a chance with online gaming. He reiterated he supports online gaming and said he believes the gaming officials will look at the opportunity “before the market gets saturated because it’s going to happen and it’s going to happen fast.”     

Bristow added “as a Congress, we need to be aware of the situations and what that technology means.”

Jech said he would support the gaming board’s efforts in pursuing online gaming so Congress has an opportunity to decide approving it within the gaming plan of operations.

Edwards said “this question tells us we need to be ready to diversify and do something different economically.”

Third question

We have seen some Osage Congress members approaching 10 years in office, what are your thoughts on term limits? Is this something you would support? Why or why not? Submitted by Billy Keene.

Tillman said the Osage Constitution does not have term limits for Congress members and said “I’m not going to argue with the Constitution at this point, I fully embrace it and I support it.” Tillman then said: “Is it time for new faces? Yes, I do, I think it is, but for right now, I’m going to stand with the Constitution and how it reads and we do not have those term limits.”

Bristow said: “When we look at professionals in the world, medical doctors, speech pathologists, attorneys, many of them are not considered to be an expert in the field until they’ve reached 10 years … As far as term limits go … does there need to be? I don’t think so. I think right now we have an opportunity to limit someone’s term and that’s called the vote that comes up every four years. That way we can look at the report card that they have, which is what did they do while they were in office? Do we like what they did? If we do, let’s put them in there again … we take them out because they’re no longer effective at their job.”

Jech said: “You guys have the voice, you have the choice to get rid of those individuals you don’t want on the Congress anymore and if you have enough faith and confidence in the individual to vote for them, to re-elect them to represent you then that should be your right to do. I don’t believe in term limits at this time, I think that’s the people’s choice.”

Edwards said: “No I don’t agree we should have term limits … the people have the opportunity to choose how long a Congress person stays in office … I can tell you that I know so much more about the Osage Nation, how the federal government interacts with tribes, how our systems work … Is longevity an advantage? Yes. Do the people get to make the choice as to whether we’ve done the job they want us to do and whether we should continue on? Yes, I think that’s the way it should be.”

Daniels said: “I believe it’s time for fresh ideas and leadership and that’s one of the reasons why I’m running. Am I for term limits? No, I believe that is up to the people to decide to vote for who you want and what their platform is and if you like what you heard they have, then vote the same people in, so it’s totally up to the people … People ask me ‘why are you running?’ It’s because I care about the Osage people and I do believe it’s time for fresh ideas, some new ideas, some new leaders.”

Rebuttal

Tillman said if there was a time when term limits are placed on elected officials, he would like to see elected officials receive some type of recognition benefit after terming out of office. “We need to take better care of them than what we do now,” he said.

Bristow said he believes term limits takes power away from the voters. Jech, Edwards and Daniels waived their rebuttal time.

Fourth question

Where do you see the Osage Nation in four to 10 years? Submitted by Jay Kays.

“I hope extremely happy and prosperous and going strong,” Bristow said. ‘Osage sentiment is all about the future … In 10 years? I hope we’re 10 times stronger than we are now because we have the capabilities, we have the resources, we have the talent and I don’t see anything standing in our way.” He said the Nation’s small size also gives it the flexibility and mobility to move forward faster than other governments.

Jech said: “The next four years are going to be tough, we’ve just taken out a rather large loan (toward the Bluestem Ranch and Tulsa casino expansion project) that’s going to pay off in the long run in my opinion and I hope the projections the Gaming Enterprise Board and gaming management presented us come to fruition … In 10 years, the sky’s the limit. We gotta get past the next four years and that’s going to be a challenge.”  

Edwards said she agreed with Jech and said: “The next five years are going to have to be ‘stay the course’… Now what can happen after five years? Hopefully we’ll have the $175 million loan paid off (for the ranch and Tulsa casino project) and we can start working on some new initiatives.” Edwards said in the next 10 years, she hopes to see more Osages fluent in the language thanks to the immersion school and more jobs, not just in government, but other areas thanks to diversification.

Daniels said the Nation gives over $8 million in higher education scholarships to Osage students and said she would like to see a “pay-back program” with a requirement that Osage students come and work “in the Osage Nation for at least a year and help us build our Nation. Wouldn’t it be nice to see law students give our elders free legal advice? Wouldn’t it be great that we own our own funeral home? ... We need to take care of our own people.”

Tillman said he hopes to see higher oil prices in 4-10 years and other economic development/ growth. “We have just bought a ranch, we’re looking to put $100 million into our north Tulsa casino, so we have to be cognizant of that … In four years, we need to have a 100-year plan of what we’re going to do with this 43,000 acres – that is going to secure the generations times four … (We also need to make sure) we’re not hemorrhaging cash within all the programs of the Nation and make sure we’re spending our money wisely.”

Rebuttal

Acknowledging the low oil prices situation, Bristow said: “we also need to work with the Osage Minerals Council … to find a solution to get some new oil revenue for the shareholders.”

Jech passed on rebuttal time. Edwards said her hope is the Nation figures out how to grow its companies and make them profitable because “gaming (revenue) is leveling off.”

Daniels said she also wants to see no more wind turbines in Osage County, referring to the ongoing legal battle and protests against the two wind farm operations north of Fairfax by U.S. 60 near Burbank. “We are a sovereign nation, we have a voice and I want us use our power … Because it’s an ugly eyesore.”

Tillman wants to see “improved communication with our constituents” who live out-of-state. “So hopefully through information technology, we will have the means so other constituents in other parts of the country can have a voice and a better connection that they feel here,” he said.

Fifth question

Member services are necessary both at home and at large, and the Osage Congress has historically worked diligently to provide a variety of benefits; however, protecting tribal sovereignty is essential. If elected, what measures will you pursue to strike a balance between service benefits and perpetuation of the Osage Nation and its sovereign status? Submitted by Marsha Harlan.

Jech said the Nation will need to “budget wisely” to keep funding benefits for Osages and the Congress will need to work with the gaming and other LLC boards to “make sure they’re trying to diversify our economies, protecting sovereignty … we need to be sure we’re aware of what’s going on, work together and rely on those people that have the knowledge to help us protect our sovereignty.”

Edwards said: “I like to think of sovereignty as a sword and that means we can go out and make our way in the world, we can go out and talk to other governments, we can make agreements with other governments and we can make other governments accountable to us and that government I’m speaking of is the federal government … We need to explore what we can do as a sovereign nation in the state of Oklahoma to better ourselves.”   

Daniels said she “feels our sovereign status and power is everything and I think we need to utilize that more … The Bureau of Indian affairs has not always been our friend, we’ve had some issues with our trust… That’s something that really affects Osage families deeply, so I think we should exercise our sovereign rights … I look forward, if I am elected to Congress, to pursue all of these ideas.”

Tillman noted over 90 percent of the Nation’s revenue comes from gaming, which funds member benefits for Osages. Regarding sovereignty, he said “you either use it or you lose it, you use it rationally and you use it humbly. You enforce your sovereignty by being a good neighbor to the community … We also have to be a player and show people around the state that we’re taking care of our business and we’re an asset to our communities.”

Bristow said: “I mentioned earlier ‘Osages take care of their own’ and what that means is we take the services we provide our people and we take them out of the hands of others and we do them ourselves and we do that in elder care, in healthcare, in education, in agriculture and in oil production. For too long we have just been the owner, we’ve been a landlord and we’ve been letting others harvest our resources for us. I think if we take over that in all of these areas … that is enforcing sovereignty … we have to find solutions to do that.”

Rebuttals

Jech said “we need to be aware of the threats to our sovereignty, we need to really consider when we waive our sovereign immunity, there’s been instances where we’ve had limited waivers of sovereign immunity agreements we’ve had to sign. We need to be sure that the attorneys are looking over those agreements and ensure there’s nothing in there that’s not going to cause us problems down the road.”

Edwards said the Nation needs to “think outside the box” in exercising sovereignty, noting other tribes she’s worked with as an attorney/ judge have pursued other initiatives as part of exercising their own sovereignty. “For example, a tribe working on solar energy … those are the kinds of things we can do by asserting our sovereignty,” she said.

Daniels said she believes water rights is a huge issue and said “I just feel like we have to own our water rights on the Osage reservation … that would be an excellent way to use our sovereignty.”

Tillman recalled a quote shared by late U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye while he visited Washington, D.C. a few years ago and the Hawaiian native spoke at an event he attended. Tillman said Inouye’s words were: “’Don’t ever lose your language and don’t ever lose your culture’ and I’ll never forget that … someday, (others) will want you to prove it to them and if that’s not protecting our sovereignty, we have to promote our language, we have to promote our culture … to move forward with this next generation.”

Bristow said: “Osage sovereignty is our own identity, our own identity is our language and the immersion school is amazing. Because as a speech pathologist, I know that if you are introduced to the language at a young age, you can pick it up … I see that as Osage sovereignty.”   

Closing statements

Edwards said the voters’ decisions are important because they will impact the Nation for the next four years. “I think you are in good hands with your Osage Nation Congress I’m proud of the accomplishments we’ve made over the last four to 10 years … I’d like four more years to solidify the goals I have in store for you, I want us to be the best we can be.”

“If you want something different, if you want change, I believe I’m your person,” Daniels said. “I’m a cultural person, I’ve been involved in our culture ever since I was born … I’ve been a lady singer on our Grayhorse (In-Lon-Schka dance) committee for about 23 years and the culture, the language, the preservation, that’s everything for me … I again ask for your vote.”

Tillman thanked everyone who attended the debates, which stretched over four hours, and said: “This legislative seat is not some sort of entitlement, this is not something that you think is a given right that you’re going to have. Once elected by the people, what we do now is we listen – I listen – to you ... So accessibility to me will be easy … I love to talk and communicate with constituents and listen to their concerns.”

Bristow reiterated his initial comments stating he plans to pursue legislation for a Nation-owned skilled nursing facility so the Nation can take care of Osages – with hospice care attached “so we can take care of our own, that’s my own passion right here … If it’s not for the loved ones that we have, it’s for ourselves and let’s go and get that ball rolling now.” Bristow also said accountability and integrity is also important because voters have the right to ask about his voting, if elected.

Jech said there were tough decisions to make during his four years as a Congressman and said he votes “based on what’s best based on the facts and information provided … It’s your money and we’re the ones charged with making sure that it’s spent to benefit the Osage people … It’s important that we try to prioritize so that we’re not, on the Congressional side, just wasting the people’s money.” 

To watch the 2016 Osage News Congressional Debates, visit the Osage Nation’s YouTube page at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OY1ut74501A