Government

UOSC hosts inaugural virtual gathering, hears Osage government updates

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic entering its second year, the United Osages of Southern California hosted its first virtual gathering on Feb. 20 inviting the region’s Osages to hear from officials in Oklahoma.

UOSC Chairman Greg Clavier welcomed nearly 45 attendees on that Saturday afternoon to the gathering held via Zoom videoconferencing. Osage Nation Language Department Director Vann Bighorse delivered an opening prayer in both English and Osage.

Bighorse spoke about the department’s increased reliance on using technology to reach Osages for language classes during the pandemic, which also sidelined in-person classes throughout the Osage Reservation when the pandemic hit in March 2020.

“We’re doing well with our digital platform,” Bighorse said of the department offering its lessons online in lieu of in-person classes, noting those classes are open to everyone. “This way of technology is the way of the future and it’s helping us out. We’ve gained a lot of information on how we can improve what we’re doing at the language program, so we’re doing really well with what we’ve got ... we’re getting ready to have a new website, we’re going to print a couple of our dictionaries on there, the old La Flesche dictionary, the Quintero dictionary, we’ve purchased the digital rights from the Oklahoma University Press ... so we’re very fortunate.”

In other projects, Bighorse said, “we’re thinking out of the box here, we’re going to try to do a Braille learning tool for some of our people that may be blind.”

Clavier applauded the department’s efforts, adding he would like to see Bighorse or other language instructors on future planned UOSC virtual gatherings. “To keep the language moving forward is truly important to the culture and tribe,” Clavier said.

For more information on the ON Language Department and language classes and resources, visit the current department website at: www.osagenation-nsn.gov/who-we-are/language-department

Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear also addressed the UOSC virtual attendees and spoke on government updates as well as the recent projects launched in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Oklahoma.

“As an attorney for many decades I can tell you what those legal definitions of sovereignty is, internal sovereignty, external sovereignty, relations between government jurisdictions ... but I can tell you what it really means, it means taking care of each other in your own home and here we are,” Standing Bear said. “That’s what our people would tell us to say – be good to one another.”

For updated health benefit program numbers, Standing Bear said there are more than 13,000 Osages enrolled in the health benefit program with 1,000 who are age 65 and older and the remaining approximately 12,000 Osages using the health benefit are under age 64. Separate from the health benefit card, Standing Bear said about 1,000 enrolled to receive the Medicare Plan F supplement. For the Part D prescription drug coverage, there are 886 elders enrolled.

For the Nation’s Higher Education Scholarship program, Standing Bear said there are currently about 900 students, which is about average as prior years.

Standing Bear said the Nation’s largest income source continues to be gaming revenue from the seven Osage Casinos. “For this fiscal year, the Gaming Enterprise Board will distribute for this year $46 million” for government operations with that figure divided up in monthly transactions. “We worked this number out with them so we could plan, and the budgets of the Executive Branch are submitted to the Congress” for the annual budget process.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continued through 2020, Standing Bear said his administration applied for and received nearly $45 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding that was divided among projects and expenses for the Nation including two tents at the Wah-Zha-Zhe Health Center as it expanded COVID-19 testing and vaccine services for patients.

Standing Bear said the Nation’s COVID-19 vaccine supply continued to grow thanks to talks between the WZZHC and Indian Health Service, which distributed the vaccine in increments of 500 and a Feb. 9 shipment of 2,100 Moderna and some Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines that were given during scheduled vaccine events at the ON Civic Center in addition to the clinic and a Feb. 21 event at the Tulsa Osage Casino Hotel.

“We’ve had people come in from California and now we’ve opened it up to any Native American of any tribe who will fill out a WZZHC chart (application) … This has been good to see even though it has been difficult,” Standing Bear said.

With the CARES Act funding, Standing Bear said he declared a state of emergency, so the Nation could pursue the project endeavors including the meat processing plant and structures at the Harvest Land (formerly Bird Creek Farms) to further food sovereignty initiatives. “Food sovereignty means being able to produce the food for our people that we need,” Standing Bear said recalling the day in March 2020 he was informed the Wah-Zha-Zhe Early Learning Academy did not have any meat for its meals due to the food supply chain interruption worsened by the pandemic. 

To make plans on spending the CARES Act funding, the Executive Branch formed a 16-ON employee task force which sought proposals from the government branches and departments on spending the CARES Act funds and pandemic issues including food sovereignty and the need for health and more information technology was also taken into consideration as the Nation adjusted to a “new normal” with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Standing Bear shared budgeted totals for the projects paid with CARES Act funding, which includes: $10 million for the meat processing plant; $8 million for the Harvest Land project; $2.9 million for the ON Ranch west of Pawhuska; $1.5 million for the WZZHC; direct assistance for ON members $12 million, including a $1.5 million supplement approved by the Seventh ON Congress; $624,000 in direct assistance for Osage-owned businesses; ON Tribal Works $2.6 million; Emergency Management $500,000; IT broadband $2.6 million to start a network in downtown Pawhuska and on the ON government campus.

For the ON Ranch, Standing Bear said the CARES Act funding was used for building 24 miles of fencing; to build a feedlot, purchasing an industrial-quality scale; and purchasing more cattle and bison.

At the meat processing plant in Hominy, Standing Bear pointed to a photo of the sign on the building which includes the Osage orthography referring to the structure as “butcher house,” with the translation coming from the Language Department.

Standing Bear said the first livestock kill and process was scheduled to take place Monday, Feb. 22 at the facility with a bison and steer brought in.

At the Harvest Land farming place in Pawhuska, Standing Bear said greenhouse and aquaponics facilities are there and separate federal money is being used to construct the adjacent Eco-Park featuring a pedestrian bridge and walking trails. Other park amenities include outdoor classroom areas for people to discuss Osage traditions and culture, information panels, as well as a wedding gazebo.

As for other projects, Standing Bear referred to the Pawhuska and Bartlesville Osage Casino projects with groundbreakings to come. A new proposed Pawhuska casino will be built on land east of State Highway 99/ U.S. 60 across from the Kum & Go convenience store and El Jalisco Mexican restaurant. The new Bartlesville casino will be built on land next to U.S. 60 west of the Bartlesville airport and city limits.

Standing Bear said the Bartlesville casino groundbreaking is scheduled for March 31 and a separate one for the Pawhuska casino will be April 7. “We’re not going to build a (Pawhuska) gas station, but we are going to build a hotel and a casino – all we have in Pawhuska now is a double-wide trailer,” he added.

As for proposed gaming expansion into Missouri, Standing Bear said building a casino will be a challenge as some communities are opposing a casino being built there. He said the Nation explored five locations in the Show-Me State and in the meantime have hired a former Speaker of the House of the Missouri State government and another attorney hired through Osage Casinos is also part of exploring gaming expansion into Missouri.

“We have just made an offer for acreage for one of these (unspecified) locations to buy some land,” Standing Bear said. “From there, we have two places to go – one is to have that land placed into federal trust outside of our last reservation area in another state, the other issue is a gaming compact with what games can be played and that is negotiated with the Governor and also the state legislature. We have to pay close attention to the two (U.S.) Senators and we have people ready to work that. And if it’s going to be done, it will be done under this administration of President Biden because we are getting information on who is going to be working in the Interior Department, so we believe we have the right team for that.”

Also, during the UOSC meeting, the group heard a presentation by Chelsea Tayrien Hicks, who is working on a book project titled “The California Diaspora — Gathering Our Stories” for the University of Oklahoma Press, which seeks to gather the stories of how Osage families first came to California.

The attendees also participated in a show-and-tell exercise led by virtual meeting co-host Aimee Inglis where attendees were asked to provide photos to share with the group and then describe the image and share history and thoughts about why the image was shared. The activity was suggested by former Osage Congresswoman Shannon Edwards who also attended the meeting. 

After the meeting, Clavier said, “I felt that the meeting went really well considering I’m an amateur in the world of Zoom.” He said future meetings would be planned and there would be opportunities for more Osage government officials and entities to present at those future virtual events.