Under Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear, the Osage Nation has become the fourth largest tribal player in Oklahoma in terms of political contributions, an about-face from previous administrations.
In the nearly eight years that Standing Bear has been at the helm of the Nation, it has contributed more than $140,000 to state campaigns, an enormous increase over the previous eight years.
The Nation has been flexing its political muscle in the national arena, too, but at a lower level: About $40,000 over the past eight years, mostly to some members of the Oklahoma delegation in Washington, D.C., but with occasional contributions to candidates in other states and political action committees that are friendly to Native American issues and sovereignty. Among them: Raul Grijalva, the outspoken representative for Arizona who supports sovereignty, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
A short video that Osage Congressman Eli Potts said he crafted has been making the rounds on social media and by email. In the video by Potts, a supporter of Joe Tillman for chief, he depicts Standing Bear as having a failed political contribution strategy and intimates that his Chief of Staff, Jason Zaun, lied to a congressional committee last year when he said the Nation had not donated to Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt.
The video features comments in white text and newspaper headlines on a black background as a snippet of audio plays from a congressional committee meeting that was held in November 2021.
“We stay away from anyone who does not have our best interests in mind,” Zaun tells the government operations committee as it discusses the line item for donations on the tape.
“OK. Like Governor Stitt?” pressed Congresswoman Alice Goodfox.
“Yeah, I haven’t donated to him to my knowledge,” Zaun replied.
The short video then shows two screenshots of contributions to the Stitt campaign and to his inauguration fund. The campaign contributions totaling $6,400 were made by the Nation in 2017 and 2018 when Stitt was a candidate professing to be Cherokee and to support Native issues including tribal sovereignty.
Question and answer understood to be regarding recent donations
Congresswoman Goodfox said that it was clear to her that her question and Zaun’s reply concerned recent donations.
“I knew that the Standing Bear administration had donated to Stitt early on and also to his opponent,” she said. “Given the circumstances of Stitt’s reaction to McGirt and the gaming compacts, I wanted to know if we were still contributing.
“A lot of tribes gave to Stitt early on. To act like Geoffrey was the only one isn’t fair. I feel like the video didn’t tell the full story. It was very one-sided and made it sound like we had recently provided campaign contributions. It was very one-sided.”
In fact, the Nation did donate to Stitt opponents during and after the primary election: Republican Mick Cornett and Democrats Drew Edmondson and Scott Inman.
A $25,000 donation to the Stitt inauguration was made by Osage Casinos. Under Osage law, such donations by enterprises are allowed if approved by the chief.
When asked in late March about his response to Goodfox in November 2021, Zaun agreed with Goodfox’s understanding of the conversation: He was thinking of recent contributions, not those that were made three and four years earlier – before Stitt alienated tribes by unilaterally demanding a bigger cut of gambling revenue and claiming wrongly that gaming compacts would expire at the end of 2019, whereupon he said tribal casinos would be operating illegally.
The ploy was viewed by all but a few tribes – which Stitt treated kindly – as inexcusably hostile and an affront to tribal sovereignty.
Osage donation was less than other tribes gave
The Osage Nation was not alone in supporting Stitt before the gaming compact fiasco that started early in his term. The Chickasaw, Cherokee and Choctaw nations made similar or larger campaign donations to Stitt but gave much more to his inauguration, where tribal leaders were invited to sit alongside Stitt as he was sworn in at the Capitol in early 2019. The Chickasaw and Cherokee nations, for instance, each gave $75,000 to the inauguration while the Choctaws gave $50,000.
For almost all 39 Indian tribes in Oklahoma, the honeymoon with Stitt was over swiftly because of the gaming issues, and their relationship has grown more acrimonious as the governor lobs attacks over the U.S. Supreme Court’s McGirt v. Oklahoma decision that reaffirmed the existence of the reservations of the Five Civilized Tribes.
Stitt is generally viewed by Oklahoma tribal leaders as a traitor and a liar, and millions of dollars has been spent to turn public opinion against him.
Standing Bear said he doesn’t regret making the contributions to Stitt because, at the time, Stitt appeared to be friendly to tribes and like-minded.
“He was all for us at that time,” Standing Bear said. “I even told him, ‘You sound like Drew Edmondson, talking about the importance of education and seeking early release for women in prison.’”
Needless to say, the tribes that supported his run for governor in 2018 are not contributing to his reelection campaign but are backing his most viable opponent: Joy Hofmeister, to whom the Osage Nation has donated $2,900 so far.
Becoming a political player
The larger story – beyond internal tribal politics during election season – is that the Osage Nation has become a political player of a size commensurate with its casino revenue among Oklahoma tribes. Campaign contributions help open doors and build relationships – you pay to play, to put it plainly.
“We meet people, and we get the benefit of networking,” said Standing Bear, who spends five or six days a month meeting with politicians. “There are not that many people involved but you have to build those relationships.”
Over the past eight years, the Osage Nation was the fourth most active contributor to political campaigns – although it lagged well behind the three most active.
In 2018, for instance, the Osage Nation made $30,000 in state campaign contributions while the Chickasaws spent $588,000, the Cherokees $335,000 and the Choctaws $122,000. Over eight years, the numbers add up: $141,000 for Osage, $3.1 million for Chickasaw, $825,000 for Choctaw and $791,000 for Cherokee.
The Osage Nation also contributed about $20,000 to federal campaigns last year, according to the Federal Election Commission. Chickasaw, the mightiest tribal powerbroker in Oklahoma, gave more than $750,000.
Twenty-one Oklahoma tribes reported making no political donations in the past eight years and some made small contributions: Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, for instance, reported donating just $1,250 and 22 cases of water since 2014.
Standing Bear noted that while he directs to whom the contributions go, Congress annually approves the amount budgeted for campaign contributions. Last year, for instance, the chief’s office asked for $150,000 but it was cut in half at the behest of Potts because 2021 wasn’t an election year. This year, $155,000 was appropriated.
Current races: From local contests to D.C.
The tribe is supporting a variety of candidates in current races, including District 1 County Commissioner Randall Jones, Congressmen Frank Lucas and Tom Cole, Sen. James Lankford, Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell, Oklahoma City Mayor (and Osage tribal member) David Holt, and state Rep. Monroe Nichols of Tulsa.
The reasons for the support vary. Commissioner Jones earned backing because he has been helpful with the Nation’s effort to expand broadband and because his strongest-looking opponent, Everett Piper, is perceived by the administration as an unfriendly, anti-tribal interloper.
Lucas has always been friendly and helpful; he sponsored the 2004 legislation that led to Osage sovereignty, actively defends the Osage Mineral Estate, and was quick to help spur action on the Nation getting a $2 million economic development grant for Skyway36 last year after it hit a bottleneck.
“We called him and he wrote us a nice letter … and money was released right after that letter,” Standing Bear said.
Lucas is also working to get the Nation money to help with the environmental clean-up at the Osage Nation Ranch.
Lt. Gov. Pinnell has been helpful getting state matching funds for the chief’s effort to develop a sports compound on the old railroad right of way in Pawhuska.
Mayor Holt is not only Osage but is very popular and widely expected to run for governor. “We will always support David,” Standing Bear said.
Nichols, the chief said, is a good, honest man who is likely to run for Tulsa mayor – a campaign Standing Bear said he would enthusiastically support, especially in light of current Mayor G.T. Bynum’s decision to join with Stitt in sniping at the McGirt decision and trying to erode tribal sovereignty.
Standing Bear said he also plans to support John Cox, a candidate for state superintendent of schools.
“He wants to maintain Native American values, education and history in our schools,” Standing Bear said. “He does not agree with Stitt’s position that everyone needs to have one set of values.”
The Missouri Enterprise
The Potts video also takes aim at Standing Bear’s early support of former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens, who agreed to support an Osage casino in that state if it was allowed by federal law and was shown to be good for Missouri.
The video displays 2017 headlines such as “Osage Nation’s efforts for a casino already has opposition,” (sic) and “Missouri Governor Accused Of New Felony Allegations Of Assault And Blackmail” with the comment “Geoffrey Standing Bear needs a new strategy.”
The tribe made two donations totaling $52,700 to Greitens’ inauguration fund, and Greitens was out of office within two years after being indicted on charges related to sexual misconduct with a hairdresser and campaign finance irregularities. The charges were dropped, and Greitens is currently the leading candidate for the U.S. Senate in Missouri – although his campaign was rocked by new scandal in late March, when his ex-wife accused him of abusing her and their son.
The goodwill in Missouri, however, has persisted without Greitens, Standing Bear said. “We still have a good political relationship with many of the political figures in Missouri,” he said. He said he intends to continue contributing to politicians who are warm to the tribe’s plans for a $60 million casino hotel at Lake of the Ozarks.
No money for cold shoulders
Sometimes, campaign contributions do fall on deaf ears. The Nation contributed a few times to U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, but never got a friendly audience with him. So, it stopped contributing to his campaigns.
“We’ve had difficulties with Sen. Inhofe,” Standing Bear said. “We just ran into a wall there. We donate to those politicians who work with us.”
And sometimes, politicians vying for a seat that will prove critical to the Nation are all so contrary to the tribe’s interest that it becomes a conundrum to decide whom to support.
That’s what Standing Bear faces with the pair running for Oklahoma Attorney General. The appointed incumbent, John O’Connor, was a high school schoolmate of Standing Bear’s and has sought his support. But he has combatted the McGirt decision, demanding that tribes play on the same field as others – which Standing Bear takes as an unpardonable assault of tribal sovereignty.
“He wants one set of rules for everybody in Oklahoma,” Standing Bear said. “When we were in high school, the history books had one page about Sequoyah and one page about the Battle of Little Big Horn. That was it.”
As a result of such shallow teaching, many balk at the very idea of tribal sovereignty.
“I’ve told John (O’Connor) why we are sovereign and that we’re not just some piece of history,” Standing Bear said.
O’Connor’s opponent, Gentner Drummond, isn’t much friendlier. He filed environmental lawsuits that prompted the shutdown of oil drilling in the Osage a few years ago.
“I told him, ‘You’re going to have to appear with me before the Osage Minerals Council and explain why you brought those lawsuits,’” Standing Bear said. “He said, ‘I respect the Osage but I’m an environmentalist and the way oil and gas is done here is damaging.’
“He didn’t take me up on the offer to go before the Minerals Council.”
Standing Bear said he’s not going to donate to either of them.
The only tribe that has donated to either man so far is the Otoe-Missouria Tribe, which gave $2,900 to O’Connor. The Otoe tribe – along with the Comanche Nation – received a gaming compact from Stitt that gave them advantages over others like Osage that have the continuing compact that Stitt tried to change. Drummond has raised about $925,000 for his campaign so far and O’Connor $800,000.
Said Standing Bear: “I know both of these men but they both have positions against the Osage Nation.
“Both have substantial private wealth and $2,700 doesn’t mean a thing to them. But if they get to say that the Osage Nation is backing them, that’s worth a lot to them.
“We have to engage in serious conversations to avoid costly litigation.
“If you donate, there are consequences – but if you don’t donate, there are also consequences.”
CORRECTION: This article was updated after it was learned that campaign contribution information on the state database was incorrect for former chiefs John Red Eagle and Jim Gray.