Community , Government

UOSC gathering features updates from Osage Nation officials in Carlsbad

Photo caption: Group photo of attendees at the United Osages of Southern California meeting on Nov. 2. CODY HAMMER/Osage News

CARLSBAD, Calif. – Osage constituents and their families enjoyed fellowship and heard updates from Osage Nation officials who joined them here for the United Osages of Southern California fall gathering on Nov. 2.

More than 70 people attended the second of two UOSC gatherings held this year at the Carlsbad Senior Center to visit, network and hear from ON government officials visiting from Oklahoma during the day-long event. That day, the gathering opened with a prayer by Osage language instructor Christopher Cote and the Pledge of Allegiance led by former UOSC Chairman Bill Myers.

Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear, along with ON Congress members and government officials joined the attendees to provide updates from their respective offices.

Standing Bear noted the Congress passed the budgets and funding for direct assistance programs available to enrolled Osages for the current 2020 fiscal year during the Tzi-Zho Session. Those direct assistance amounts passed by Congress – and signed into law by Standing Bear are: $8 million for the health benefit fund for Osages under age 65; $4.5 million for elders Medigap insurance Plan F and Plan D health benefit programs; and $8.5 million for higher education scholarships

“You have to remember the last five years, we are serving and doing twice as much with the same amount of employees,” Standing Bear said adding: “Most of whom are now Osages, five years ago, one-third were Osage, two-thirds were not … and we pay them well. You have to compete, we lose Osage employees to ConocoPhillips or others, it happens in a competitive market … The costs are going up internally, on our health cards and we are really counting on our casinos to keep up the good work … that’s not our only source of funding, we have a couple of million from our Tax Commission and our federal (grant) fundings that we continue (to receive).”

Standing Bear shifted his presentation toward the ongoing debate in which Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt is seeking to renegotiate the gaming compacts with the gaming tribes to seek a higher percentage of exclusivity fees paid to the state. Also at issue is the tribes contend the compacts automatically renew while Stitt disagrees.

“We have had an agreement with the state for 15 years to allow the most profitable types of games called Class III to be played in the casinos all throughout the state,” Standing Bear said. “We believe it automatically rolls over (when the current compacts with 34 of 39 Oklahoma tribes expire) … I attended (an Oct. 28) meeting with 31 gaming tribes and the Attorney General for the state of Oklahoma (Mike Hunter) attended with his staff and the Governor’s staff. The only thing we could agree upon is we have a major dispute.”

In mid-December, Hunter announced he is stepping away from the gaming compact renegotiation efforts and turned the dispute back to Stitt, who said he would continue the renegotiation efforts with hired legal counsel.

Standing Bear said the tribes are trying to avoid the conflict “and we’re all in this together. It took Gov. Stitt to unite the Oklahoma tribes for the first time ever.” He said the Nation’s government receives annual dividends (approximately $50 million in the 2020 fiscal year) to fund the departments, staff and direct assistance programs “and that money is what is at risk.”

Standing Bear said the current Class III gaming fees paid to the state are 4-6% on gaming machines and 10% on table games. “If you raise them to where Gov. Stitt wants to raise them to – which is modeled after the Pequot (who own the Foxwoods Casino Resort in Connecticut) and others at 25%, that comes off our top and we still have to pay our overhead costs and everything that’s involved … the consequences to that distribution to all these programs and all these funds I mentioned is significant.”

“It’s something worth defending because that’s our money, the state never gave us a dime to build any casino on our land – in our case we bought our land (the Osage reservation) in 1872, it wasn’t given to us, wasn’t set aside by some document, we purchased it straight up from Cherokee Nation and got a deed for it,” Standing Bear said, adding the Congress passed ONCR 19-19 rejecting Stitt’s claim the gaming compact must be renegotiated during the 2019 Tzi-Zho Session, which he agrees with and signed.

For the film project Killers of the Flower Moon, Standing Bear noted the recently discussed plans to film the Martin Scorsese-directed movie in the Nation. He noted the November casting calls for film extras and speaking roles, which were held in Pawhuska, Tulsa and Oklahoma City with the focus on Osages first and other Native Americans.

Standing Bear said he encouraged Osages to go try out at the auditions with a quip: “A lot of Osages are saying ‘I’m not going to do it’ and I tell them ‘look, go get your shawl, get your blanket and go do it’ and I said ‘look, I’m telling you if you don’t do it and you see somebody else in that background or sitting there being extras, I don’t want to hear you in the movie theater saying ‘Aww, what’s she doing up there? That could’ve been me!’”

For the government relations, Standing Bear said he believes “we’ve done alright” with Chad Renfro and Addie Roanhorse as ambassadors for the government’s exchanges with Scorsese and his team, “but we can’t guarantee what that movie’s going to look like, let’s hope it’s what they say, they treat us with respect on the painful subject, I hope it’s an Academy Award winner.” 

Congressional Speaker Joe Tillman, who was elected by his colleagues to the post in spring 2019, said he feels “blessed and fortunate” to be in the company of four previous Speakers also serving on the Sixth ON Congress with him. Tillman described his job as a liaison with the Executive Branch and “Chief Standing Bear and I have developed a good rapport as we go forward.”

With the 2019 Tzi-Zho Session completed in time for the 2020 fiscal year, Tillman noted the Congress appropriated $52,078,969 for the FY 2020 government operations and direct services. The remaining unappropriated revenue in the general fund as of Oct. 1 is $666,399 and the remaining in the retained revenue fund is $1.5 million, Tillman said. In the 24-day session, Tillman said 45 Congressional committee meetings occurred; 44 bills/ resolutions filed for the session along with other pending bills/ resolutions for a total of 59 considered during the session. Congress passed and sent 27 bills/ resolutions for the Principal Chief’s signature; Four bills/ resolutions failed and four were withdrawn, he said.

Tillman said economic development is still critical for the Nation to increase its revenue. “There are wants and there are needs that people come to us with and if you want something, I gotta put what’s needed first – our children and our elders are the most important that we have – that’s what we have to take care of first.”

Congresswoman Shannon Edwards said the Legislative Branch is charged with how to appropriate the Nation’s funds “in my opinion for the best interest of all Osages, and it’s a difficult task, it’s particularly not fun when you get confronted by people who tell you that they don’t want you to do this or that, they want you to do something else … It’s very stressful, but I just try to remember we’ve got 21,000 tribal members, we are moving forward, we are doing things we couldn’t do in the past and hopefully, at some point, we will be able to bring that economic development to light and that will help us a lot.”

Edwards shared some data on some of the direct assistant programs, which note approximately 16,000 Osages participate in the health benefit programs and 79% of the people enrolled in the health benefit are using it. She also noted employment costs at the Nation are up approximately $2.9 million, which includes new positions and pay grade revisions as part of the appropriation requests to the Congress.

“Our income’s basically flat, I want everyone to be careful when they read when you hear we don’t have enough money to fund (xyz), we do, it’s just about priorities,” Edwards said. For the health benefit, Edwards said “we’re spending about $600,000 per month, so the total for this year to date is $5.8 million, that’s anticipated, we’re tracking it, we can afford it, we can afford our scholarships … we have to hear from you guys that these are your priorities.”

In closing, Edwards encouraged the constituents to fill out any available paperwork while participating in the planned ON strategic plan update activities, which included a Dec. 7 community meeting back at the Senior Center. She added: “Please, during sessions or any time you think ‘hey, I really want to call my Congresspeople, I want to write to my Congresspeople and tell them this is how I feel going forward’ because people do have different priorities,” she said.

Congresswoman Maria Whitehorn said she is in her seventh year of serving and previously served as Speaker and now serves on Congressional committees including Appropriations, Commerce, Gaming & Land, and Congressional Affairs. She said the committee work is constantly pertaining to money and noted one issue the Appropriations Committee needs to look at is a possible deficit for the Nation’s indirect cost pool, which is funding recollected from departments/ programs to fund shared administrative services including human resources and information technologies.

Whitehorn acknowledged Osage Casino CEO Byron Bighorse, who also attended the gathering, for the casino operations to bring in tribal revenue, but stated she believes the Gaming Enterprise will not be able to distribute more money to the government because “they too have plans too for the casino, the casino needs to move forward, we need to keep fresh, we need to keep our client base that we have, so we need to get better about more money because we can’t do anything else more for the people until we get more income.”

As for legislative plans regarding economic development, Whitehorn said she’s filed a bill to amend Osage law for the Nation’s economic development fund to add criteria for appropriation requests out of the fund, which include detailed budgets. “It’s important that you stay engaged with us … I hope that you do look at what we do at the Nation, I hope that you do pick up the phone and call us,” Whitehorn said in closing.

Congressman John Maker reminded the attendees there will be two questions on the June 2020 general election ballot after both questions received Congressional approval in early 2019 in separate resolutions. One question asks voters (ONCR 19-07 sponsored by Congresswoman Alice Goodfox) whether the Principal Chief and Assistant Principal Chief should run for office on a single/ combined ticket. The second question (ONCR 18-20 sponsored by Maker and co-sponsored by Goodfox) asks whether the Nation’s elected and retained officials serving in all three branches should be subject to term limits.

“Anything that changes the Constitution has to be voted on by the people, by you and I think it’s a good thing to get all our Osage people involved in our government,” Maker said.

Congresswoman Paula Stabler made her first visit to a UOSC gathering after winning the 2018 election and discussed some of her past engagements with the Nation. In the early years of the annual Cultural Walk (now the Cultural Encampment held at the ON Ranch), Stabler told the attendees she served as a cook in helping feed the 50-plus attendees who participated in the overnight camping experience.  

“One of the things I always refer back to is we have only three remaining Indigenous villages out of dozens we had before so, one of the big projects I was able to work on (while serving as Pawhuska Village Committee chairwoman) was the dance arbor, it was quite an experience. Now the next round is going to be community buildings (plans are underway for a new Pawhuska building and the Grayhorse village community building is under construction) and the reason this is important is because we are the culture – not the things we wear, not the things we put on the table so much, but us as an embodiment,” Stabler said. “Once these community buildings get finished, these projects will be done for decades. The old buildings we used, we used them for about 50 years in each district and they finally just wear out … But they have a meaningful purpose, we have to be a cultural people to remain a nation or tribe of Indians and so that’s important.”

David Conrad, president and executive director of Osage Nation Environmental Solutions (ONES) LLC also attended the UOSC gathering and spoke on possible solutions to address expanding economic development (aside from gaming) for the Nation. The comments followed the 2019 Congressional Tzi-Zho Session where Congress voted down a bill (ONCA 19-81) in September that sought a $500,000 appropriation to the Nation’s economic development fund.

Conrad gave a rundown of professional services provided by ONES LLC including streamlining NEPA permitting, helping people do remedial action plans and activities associated with getting environmental permits done for infrastructure projects (i.e. roads and bridges).

“In thinking about economic diversification, I think the main point is we have to support it systematically and it has to be a sustained level of effort,” Conrad said. “When I joined (ONES in 2017), I had just completed 6.5 years in the federal government (working in the environmental planning/ policy sector) in Washington, D.C. and when I joined the company, there was no requirement for an annual financial disclosure for business, there’s a number of these types of things that we could implement to help safeguard the Nation’s investment in start-up operations of companies and I think we need to sit down and have an open and frank dialogue about how that occurs, we can’t just say ‘oh, the first (Osage LLC) was a disaster, we’re abandoning economic diversification and I don’t think that’s really fair to say government contracting is off the table because it’s too expensive. It is expensive to get into government contracting, you have to have a certain amount of soft infrastructure in place to be in compliance and to meet the requirements of the federal contracts, but there is a lot of money and a big federal market that we’re tracking.”

Conrad also offered the idea of establishing a commerce department in the Executive Branch and Congressional staff expansion so both branches can “be able to evaluate performance of appropriations and looking at (business) risk profiles … I think (economic development) deserves a dialogue with folks who have experience in business, government contracting … We know the experience we just had, but we can’t be afraid of it, we have to move forward and we have to know what those problems were, fix them and move forward.”

Bighorse said construction on the 145-room second hotel tower at the flagship Tulsa Osage Casino Hotel is continuing and he expects completion in August. When the second tower opens, the casino will have about 285 rooms total, Bighorse said adding “I think you’ll be very proud of what you see, it’s a first-class operation, we are right there with our competition” with 100-plus tribal casinos in Oklahoma, which has 39 federally recognized tribes. 

Other Oklahoma plans in the works are new Osage Casino properties for Bartlesville and Pawhuska, Bighorse said. “Those are some projects that we are going to approach Congress (with) this year to talk about funding for the future, those are projects that are going to be about $65 million worth of construction, so that’s something to think about.”

Bighorse also noted Missouri is still being considered for possible gaming expansion for the Nation. “We’ve identified a parcel of land” and will start due diligence process, which includes submitting a land into federal trust application for land used for gaming purposes, he said, “it could be very transformative for us because we could be the only (Oklahoma) tribe in the state of Missouri to operate gaming. Right now, there are 13 commercial licenses in the state … they’re all water-based casinos, they pay about 26% tax, we would be the only tribal-based casino in Missouri, so that could be very lucrative, so keep us in your thoughts and prayers on that one.”

That day, the UOSC attendees also heard presentations from ON Historic Preservation staff Courtney Neff and archeologist James Munkres, as well as a language presentation by Cote.

UOSC Chairman Greg Clavier said 76 people signed in to attend the fall gathering, adding there were Osages who RSVPed to attend but had to cancel due to Southern California wildfires causing traffic disruptions and evacuations that weekend.

“I had some extremely positive feedback from UOSC members. The ‘World Famous’ UOSC Opportunity Drawing and 50/50 took in a total of $517.00,” Clavier said. “We use the funds generated from the Opportunity Drawing and the 50/50 for organization supplies. Prior to the Fall Gathering, the organization purchased a small HP laptop. We were able to use the laptop for the digital presentations.”

Clavier said the UOSC spring 2020 gathering is scheduled March 28 and will be focused on Osage candidates running for Congress in the general election.