Community , Columns

The Osage people once had two chiefs

I recently discussed with a newly elected Councilwoman the differences in the 2006 Constitution and the 1994 Constitution, relative to the mineral estate. There was a small group of us seated in the lobby outside the tribal chambers, as happens from time to time. I took the opportunity to put forth my view that the1994 constitution afforded a greater degree of autonomy relative to the minerals estate. There was general agreement between myself, the Councilwoman and the rest of the group.

There was also general agreement that the 1994 constitution provided greater historical and traditional continuity than the 2006. The 1994 uses terms and invests powers, provides procedures, and sets methods which were originated 112 years ago in the Congressional Act of 1906. Terms such as Osage Tribal Council, Principal Chief, Assistant Principal Chief, all originated with the 1906 and were reiterated in the 1994. These names, titles and managerial concepts carry a heavily charged valence for many of us who have become accustomed to them. Decisions concerning management of the mineral estate speak more to the integrity and respect decision makers hold for themselves and their relations than it does for financial gains which may be brought by the mineral estate.

From 1906 to 1994 voting and membership was a function of headright shares.  Shareholders and non-shareholders worked together to gain voting rights and membership for all Wah-Zha-Zhi. It was the right thing to do. There were those who warned, “Once they (non-shareholders) get the vote they’ll take over the mineral estate.” I never believed that, and neither did most of the annuitants who voted to adopt the Osage Nation Constitution. 

There are shareholders today who believe that non-shareholders are making moves to control the subsurface and the underground environs. They could be right; I don’t know.  These concerns find resonance in the words of the 2006 constitution because of its ambiguity and vagueness. Lack of specificity invites multiple and sometimes contradictory interpretations. For example: can the structure of the Minerals Council be changed through a majority vote of non-shareholders and shareholders, i.e. constitutional amendment? Further, although some of the words taken literally are plain and simple, for me; they call forth questions. What are the implications of changing the name “Osage Tribal Council” to “Minerals Council”? Why change the structure of the minerals council to eight equally voting members requiring an outside tiebreaker? Better to replace the 2006 constitution’s references with the 1994 constitution’s references.

During the discussion outside the tribal chambers, the councilwoman noted that the1994 Tribal Council included a chief executive officer. She reflected, “And his title would be Principal Chief?” Without saying it we all recognized the potential conflict in using the term Principal Chief in reference to the chief executive officers of both the Nation and the Tribal Council. In 1994 the executive power was vested in a “President,” i.e. “The President of the Osage Nation.” At that time there would have been no confusion or conflict of titles. 

One day the thought came to me that the Wah-Zha-Zhi traditionally had more than one chief in their governing structure. The government was highly complex with power and authority more dispersed throughout the group. The concentration of power invested in one entity is a western construct with which we are all now more familiar. The complexity of the Wah-Zha-Zhi is far beyond my ability to discuss other than through simple reference.   John Joseph Mathews, “The Osages,” and La Flesche, Dr. Garrick Bailey, “The Osage and the Invisible World,” are in my opinion both good references. I am sure there are others. 

The seat of authority was the Little Old Men who were like priests in both the spirit and corporal worlds. They created a civil government composed of two chiefs. There were additional officials with each of these two chiefs. Their duties were many, but people may know them as The War Chief and The Peace Chief. No one got them confused. I think we could handle two chiefs – The Principal Chief of the Osage Nation and The Principal Chief of the Osage Tribal Council. 

If shareholder management of the mineral estate is the intent, then a clear unambiguous constitutional provision could lay to rest encroachment by the Nation and rumors of encroachment. I paraphrase the 1994 constitution: Ownership of the mineral estate of the Osage Indian Reservation is to be determined by the Act of June 28, 1906. No authority is granted to the Nation, or any department created by this constitution, over the Osage Tribal Council on matters of the mineral estate.