Three candidates running for Osage Nation Assistant Principal Chief shared their thoughts and ideas on current issues and experiences during the 2022 Primary Election Candidate Debates hosted by the Osage News Editorial Board on March 16.
Candidates Joseph Thornton, Thomas Trumbly and RJ Walker are seeking a four-year term for the Executive Branch office in the June 6 General Election. But first, the three candidates will be on the April 4 Primary Election ballot and the two candidates who win the most votes will appear on the General Election ballot. The same will occur with the three Principal Chief candidates in that respective election race.
The candidates participated in the virtual debate moderated and hosted by Editorial Board vice chair Tara McLain Manthey. The News asked for debate questions from the Osage public in advance and the three-member Editorial Board selected six submitted questions that were posed to the debate candidates.
Introductions, debate format
Each candidate was allowed two minutes for opening statements, two minutes to answer a question, one minute for rebuttals and two minutes for a closing statement before the debate adjourned.
Thornton, who lives in Tulsa, said “these are troubling times, and I just want to be part of the solution – that’s why I’m running for office.”
Trumbly said he’s owned his own small business for the past 22 years in Pawhuska. “Lately I’ve been doing residential and commercial painting, one of my other businesses I’ve been working on the last couple of years is art. I plan to bring that forward, it’s something I think is important to all our people to respect our past artists, our present and future artists … I’ve stayed involved with not only Osage, but local government, communities … Like many Osages, I’m steadfast in my belief our government should serve to strengthen our sovereignty, we should defend our water rights, we should preserve our culture and language and our nature. It is my belief that together we can continue to achieve these good things working together … If elected Assistant Principal Chief, I will help foster and maintain healthy relationships between the chief’s office and the Osage Nation Congress.”
Walker, currently in his third Congressional term, lives in Pawhuska with his wife and they have five children. In his introduction, Walker said he is a former ON government employee who started in 2002. “I worked as an employee, a director, for 10 years and developed relationships that I still believe benefit us today with local community and particularly county officials and members of the state government … I’m not going to sit here and make a bunch of promises about change or promises I can’t keep as Assistant Chief because that is not the role of the Assistant Chief. I have worked with all three candidates for Principal Chief effectively … I have good working relationships with the members of Congress and as Assistant Chief (if elected), I will be an ex-officio member of Congress and participate quite a bit with the meetings and interactions and meetings of Congress. I feel like I am well suited, experienced and ready to go to work as the Assistant Principal Chief.”
Out-of-state Congress member?
The first question to the candidates asked them: “Do you support having a non-Oklahoma representative on the Congress? If not, why not?”
Trumbly said he does, later adding during rebuttal “we do need diverse perspectives, representation from all over the United States if we have this large of an Osage population. It would be good to get viewpoints from everybody.”
Walker said “yes,” adding “I don’t necessarily determine my vote on where a person lives, male or female, I try to make my decisions based on the most qualified candidate. We’ve had members of the Osage Nation who ran in the past that I felt were qualified and I have voted for members … from out of the state of Oklahoma. Everybody needs to have a voice, it doesn’t matter if you live in Pawhuska, Hominy, Grayhorse, Oklahoma City, California or wherever. If you’re qualified, have good reasoning, good leadership skills, the ability to communicate, then yes, I would definitely support a candidate from outside of the state of Oklahoma.”
Thornton also said “yes,” noting he most recently lived in Wyoming, as well as Nebraska before moving back to Oklahoma. “So, I can understand how that can be. I’ve been gone the last 20 years, so I haven’t been around for a lot of the things that have happened … I don’t know how effective they might be if they stayed out of state. I’m not sure if they’re elected, where are they going to stay? Are they going to have Zoom meetings all the time to participate? But I agree with anyone running as long as they’re qualified.”
Walker later noted Congress has been meeting virtually since the COVID-19 pandemic started and said “electronic means do give us the ability to work together, we don’t always have to be in-person. I do believe that if somebody from out-of-state were elected to Congress, that they primarily would need to be in-person while we’re in session, but that wouldn’t prohibit them or reduce their ability to be an effective leader on Congress.”
On meeting by electronic means, Thornton added: “It would be difficult, I would think, because you don’t have eyes on the situation, but I agree they should be able, I think they do a good job.”
Drugs, mental illness
“What are your thoughts on the meth and mental illness issues going on within our tribe? I know 10 Osages personally who are currently seeking sobriety, all are in facilities outside of the Nation. I know some with depression and mental illness who are seeking help outside of the Nation, yet all over the media are claims that we help. Do you plan to address these issues?”
Walker said he spoke with a constituent recently about the same topic. “I don’t want to continue to say this over and over, but as the Assistant Chief, I will express myself privately to the Chief, but ultimately, they are the ones that are directing the ship, so to speak, and the policymakers. But I do understand the need for local residential treatment and anything we can do to help rid the society of meth particularly, but other drugs and alcohol abuse are some things this Nation needs to take very seriously, and I will do whatever I can to help,” he said.
Thornton said he noticed homelessness rates increased with the pandemic while living in Tulsa and added “we’ve had a problem with the clinic, there’s a lot of unanswered problems that we need to deal with and so we need to work with the state because there’s so much homelessness and meth problems going on that there needs to be some kind of plan in place … I will try to be the legs of the Chief and try to go out and see what he wants to do and give him my opinion … I’d be willing to do whatever I could.”
Trumbly said “jobs, pride and support from the community sometimes are more important than government programs. Although the government programs are important, we have to sometimes look outside the box on some of these issues with more of a community purpose in mind. With that being said, I think people can feel worthwhile with something they can do no matter how small or big it is to them, it should be fostered and supported. As far as the meth and drugs, that’s a law enforcement issue which our law enforcement officials I think are properly handling the best they can.”
Increasing land base, improving infrastructure and promoting culture
The candidates’ third question was: “How does your vision for your term include increasing tribal land holdings, improving infrastructure and promoting cultural education?”
Thornton said he would help the Principal Chief and gave the Nation’s Butcher House meat processing operations as a recent infrastructure improvement example. “I would help the Chief do whatever we could to get more infrastructure. Personally, I would like something near Skiatook, which doesn’t really help Hominy or Pawhuska or Fairfax, but I would like some type of idea like opening a Bell’s amusement park near Skiatook – something so we don’t rely on all of the casinos or the mineral holdings to base our money on,” he said.
Trumbly said, “it’s my job to be there to communicate between Congress and the Chief with these issues and also, I think, to help with support in the area for these issues, as well as supporting our members who live outside the state in trying to get them on board with the same vision.”
Walker said land and infrastructure are two priority items for him as a Congressman. “They would continue to be and as Assistant Chief, I would promote those things to the Chief, I would encourage those things to be a priority of their administration. I would gladly go work on finding valuable pieces of property, whether restricted or fee simple. We’ve invested millions and millions of dollars on land and (those dollars we invested) probably increased tenfold. Everybody realized what is going on with real estate, with real property, and it’s skyrocketing … it’s a great investment, it is a safe investment. As far as infrastructure, especially locally, our water lines, our sewer lines are basically a century year old. They need (to be) repaired, replaced, it’s something that’s going to have to be done. It’s not something the Nation needs to foot the bill entirely on, but we need to help … As far as cultural preservation, absolutely, it’s a priority, it’s something I’ve supported as a member of Congress. It’s something that the federal government looks at as far as what makes you a federally recognized tribe – it’s land, language and your culture.”
Today’s pain points
The candidates’ fourth question was: “What would you say are today’s pain points for the Osage Nation?”
Trumbly said the Nation has problems that other communities have including infrastructure, education and the economy. “I don’t know what pains the tribe has other than just the questions I see on Facebook, social media and I take them to heart and look at them and try to study what the problems are,” he said.
Walker said the question can go in many different directions then responded with Oklahoma “Governor (Kevin) Stitt would be the first thing that jumps out at me, I don’t want to get critical to the current (ON) administration or even the Congress of which I sit on. I think we’ve made many, many strides and accomplished many great things and continue to do so in a short amount of time in spite of ourselves. I agree with (Trumbly) about infrastructure, that is a pain point. Education? We need to improve upon that. The Constitution does lay out that we are supposed to develop relationships with our local schools.”
Thornton said: “I want to try and fix the clinic, the Pawhuska clinic has been having problems, that would be my primary focus. There are other things that at least have been addressed and they’re trying to work toward a solution. The three Chief candidates all have different plans for those, but my focus would be the clinic.”
In his rebuttal time, Trumbly also agreed with Walker and Thornton’s comments on Stitt “as far as sovereignty issues,” and the clinic issues being “pain points” for the Nation.
Walker said other pain points include vaping and “readily available marijuana that is available throughout our society. I think the Nation needs to be more proactive about teaching our youth the dangers of both, especially during their developmental years,” he said.
Thornton said there are many issues that he and the fellow candidates won’t have control over if elected Assistant Principal Chief. “I do like (Walker’s) point about vaping, the younger generations don’t see vaping as bad … there are all kinds of health-related issues we need to address and get information out to all Osages,” he said.
Osage Nation Tourism Department?
The candidates’ fifth question was: “Do you feel like the Nation is missing a tourism department, if so what is your plan to remedy that?”
Walker said “I’ve supported a tourism program or department going back to even when I was an employee. To say that maybe we were behind the curve with all of the activity with visitors that are coming to see The Pioneer Woman or The Mercantile, you name it, it’s annoying, but it’s also encouraging when you drive through town and see people crossing the street, taking up parking places, going 10 mph down Main Street and Kihekah, so yes we need to capture the opportunity here and be better about promoting the Osage Nation to the tourists who are coming here. It’s one of those deals where if we’re not telling our story then someone else is going to be telling it for us.”
Thornton said “yes definitely, The Pioneer Woman? Simple ideas that we could’ve been doing a long time ago and people from all over the world are coming. She’s partnering with Walmart, there’s all kinds of stuff that we should be doing … Housing – there needs to be more places for people to stay, more places for Osages to stay when they come and visit Pawhuska … or at least available options for them to stay. They’re building a (Pawhuska Osage) casino out east of town, so there are improvements. Hopefully, we’ll get a few more better ideas and come up with some things to increase the tourism to Osage County.”
Trumbly said he is happy to see the Nation’s Visitors Center on the east side of Pawhuska. “I also think we do need to work with our local governments in our reservation area. That includes Fairfax, Hominy, Pawhuska chamber of commerce and work with them in developing their town. I also think we could have our own chamber of commerce in which we could work with the other chamber of commerce hand-in-hand, trying to build bridges with each other rather than disagreements … As far as tourism goes, we have everything available and everything that’s in place and if you look around, every license plate from all 50 states and some other areas.”
In rebuttal time, Walker agreed with Thornton that housing is an issue that “is an opportunity for the Nation to potentially capitalize on … Yes, I support a tourism department and how I would work to do that would be to privately have those encouraging discussions with whatever Chief I might have the opportunity to serve under.”
Thornton referred to the recent filming of “Killers of the Flower Moon” throughout Osage County and visited sites mentioned in David Grann’s book on the Osage Reign of Terror that became a major Apple film production. “Hopefully we’ll get the word out that will bring a little bit more people to Osage County and bringing outside interest,” he said of incoming tourism.
Trumbly added he believes tourism will bring more jobs and said Thornton’s idea on an amusement park is a “novel one” for the Osage Reservation side of Tulsa and referred to the ongoing casino projects. “When our casinos and hotels are built, I say we should give a very good discount to all Osage tribal members at these resourced areas if they are from out-of-state so they can come back and learn more about their culture for brief time periods and be welcomed with hospitality,” he said.
Outsourcing administration services
The sixth and final candidate question was: “With any of the tribe’s program services, including the Health Benefit card that are available to Osage members, are you in favor of or against outsourcing the administration of those services out from the administration of Osage Nation and why?”
Thornton said “at first glance, I would always oppose outsourcing (services) that we could do as a tribe. If that doesn’t work, that would be a good idea … I wish we could help the people outside of Osage County a little bit more than just educational grants, scholarships, I would try to think of some health benefit for them … But I don’t like outsourcing if we have an opportunity for our own tribal members to do something first.”
Trumbly also said he’s against outsourcing because “I think it helps diminish our control, takes away our Osage jobs. If we did do some type of outsourcing, I would love to do it within our own region rather than a call center somewhere in California because that really frustrates people, a lot of times, they (may) have poor service and poor communication skills with the way our people think and like to be treated when it comes to health services or anything else that might be important to us.”
Walker said he is “fundamentally against outsourcing these services. I’ve been a witness or been a part of these actions and voted to appropriate dollars to do so. I don’t want to sit here and talk out of both sides of my mouth and sound like a hypocrite, but people have to realize we grew so big, so fast and those services, particularly health benefit and education, that’s a huge task and vitally important to Osages all over the world. There was a time that outsourcing was probably the right idea, especially with the health benefit card. I wasn’t entirely on board with outsourcing education. It’s been mostly successful, there’s been some warranted complaints, there were warranted complaints when we were doing it ourselves … The Nation needs to start working toward being able to do these administrative services in-house and I would advocate for that as Assistant Chief.” Early voting in the Primary Election will be on Friday, April 1 (noon to 7 p.m.) and Saturday, April 2 (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) and April 4 Election Day voting will take place from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. The polling place for all three days will be the ON Civic Center at 1449 W. Main St. In Pawhuska.