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Can new legislation help recover a lost headright?

One Osage family hopes that new attention will be brought to the issue of recovering a headright given to the Hissom Memorial Center in the 1970s. Could legislation aimed at making it easier to recover headrights owned by non-Osages help them?

Bart Perrier is a history buff and genealogy enthusiast. When he’s not campaigning for Osage County Sheriff, he takes the opportunity to step back in time and research his storied Perrier family heritage, starting with his great-grandfather, Robert Lee Perrier. On the walls of his tidy house outside Barnsdall, Okla., are photos of Robert, his grandfather Robert Lee “Bob” Perrier Jr., along with other Perrier family members.

It wasn’t surprising to him when Osage News reached out to ask about another member of the Perrier family – his great uncle Eugene Perrier, who went by the nickname “Sutt.”

Eugene was an original Osage Allottee, as was his father Napoleon Perrier, who was born in 1859 in Kansas and came to Indian Territory in 1872.

What Bart Perrier didn’t know was what happened to part of Eugene’s headright? Eugene passed away in 1954, but a headright share given to his second wife Florence ended up supporting a state-run agency for the disabled.

“I mean, that money’s sitting somewhere and there’s someone … and I’m not saying that my side of the family, we’re not recipients of this, I mean, someone directly descended from him that’s alive that I believe is entitled to something,” Bart Perrier said while clicking on images of his family’s massive ancestry profile on his computer.

Now, new federal legislation aimed at making it easier to reclaim headrights like those belonging to the Perrier family is being worked on by the Osage Minerals Council, their legal representatives the Native Law Group and Frank Lucas, who represents Oklahoma’s 3rd District.

In 1976, Eugene’s second wife Florence L. Perrier willed approximately .375 of that Osage headright to the Hissom Memorial Center. Nearly 30 years later, the center that housed mentally and physically disabled people would be closed over allegations of neglect and abuse. It’s unclear where money from that headright went after Hissom closed its doors. Officials from the state say that since 2012, the money has been sitting in an IIM account.

The 0.37499 headright that Hissom holds paid out $189,845 from 1994-2022. That number is not adjusted for inflation. It comes out to $259,240 when you calculate each annual payment in 2022 dollars.

Bart said he and his grandmother Norma Jean Perrier often sat around the kitchen table wondering where the money went.

“I imagine there are a lot of others the same way … the people who died – where did those headrights go?,” Norma Jean Perrier said.

Eugene’s descendants, Beth Ann Langston and Rick Perrier had been having the same conversation for decades. They have been attempting to claw back those headrights.

Beth Ann Langston said her mother Betty Ray Carter called the state after Hissom closed in 1994 wanting to know where the headright money was going. Langston said her mother was told it was too late. 

“We couldn’t believe that that could happen,” Langston said. She believes the state was cashing the checks. Osage News has not been able to confirm this and representatives from the state told Bloomberg News they have turned up no records as to where the payments went from 1994-2012. Ronald Baze, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services told Bloomberg that he had conversations with a local BIA official and learned that since 2012, the money was receiving interest in an IIM account while the agency tries to determine the rightful owner.

The new legislation would attempt to make the process easier and ease some of the restrictions put in place by both the 1978 and 1984 laws that clamped down on the selling and transfer of Osage headrights.

“Any individual or entity who is not an Osage Indian and owns a headright interest may transfer that headright interest to the Osage Nation, the Osage Minerals Council, or an Osage Indian by gift, sale or any form of transfer that divests such individual or entity of any right, title, or interest in such headright in favor of the Osage Nation, the Osage Minerals Council, or an Osage Indian, respectively.”

Osage Minerals Council Chairman Everett Waller says the new legislation is a start to attempt to unravel the difficulties of returning the headright.

“Is it going back to the tribe? Does it go back to the individual? Does it come from the family that it was designated to in the beginning?” Waller told Osage News.

Each one of these has such a variable that’s added to how it got to where it’s at … I think we need to look as a Nation. And that’s why the legislation is a way to get this done in a quick manner.”

The timeline to getting to Lucas’s office is unclear given that fine-tuning on the draft is ongoing. Then, there is a process of moving the legislation through committee and ultimately passing it into law.

Nearly two years ago, Bloomberg News released a partial list of non-Osage headright holders along with the portion or share of the mineral estate. The list included universities, churches, private trusts, the Hissom Memorial Center and the Oklahoma Historical Society – which holds the Burkhart Trust and manages Lillie Morrell Burkhart’s home known as the White Hair Memorial.

Lillie Morrell Burkhart was born in 1907 and had more than two headrights at the time of her death in 1967. In her will, she stated that she wanted those headrights to go to the Oklahoma Historical Society, along with her house and some of her land.

“I hereby give my home to the Oklahoma Historical Society to be kept as a shrine to Chief Whitehair,” the will reads. It goes on to state that Lillie was the last surviving member of the Whitehair clan and that payments from her headrights should be used to maintain her house.

“This was what she wanted,” Billie Ponca, who is Lillie’s great-niece, told KOSU in a series of articles about Lillie’s headrights. There have been discussions between Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear and the OHS over returning those headrights – possibly to the Nation. But, it’s unclear if that can even happen. There is no law in place to make that process easier and there have been some questions about how it would work within the Osage Nation.

The entrance to White Hair Memorial, the home of the late Lillie Morrell Burkhart. Courtesy Photo/Shane Brown for KOSU

The Hissom Memorial headright is a different case, said Waller. Because there are questions over how a non-Osage person could give a headright to a non-Osage entity.

“I think there needs to be a review process of where they are and how they got there,” Waller said, noting that he thinks there needs to be better documentation of the accounts.

“I would like to know what documentation do you have to articulate this move and then where do you recognize under your inventory how much was paid,” he said.

He thinks the attention and the Oscar nominations for the film are going to shine a harsh light on the issue of headrights – as it is a lasting effect of the Osage Reign of Terror.

Jason Aamodt, an attorney based in Tulsa who practices federal Indian law places the blame squarely on the Bureau of Indian Affairs, who he says is failing in their fiduciary responsibility to properly manage these accounts. He says, ultimately, the BIA knows exactly where the money that went to Hissom is and was cashing the checks after it closed in 1994.

“The federal government manages Indian money with a pitchfork,” Aamodt said. He notes that the Hissom transfer was done with very little oversight in state court, without a sign-off from anyone from the Osage Agency of the federal government, the trustee of Osage headright accounts.

Aamodt says the legislation isn’t enough. There needs to be a deeper dive into the accounting of Osage accounts

“These folks know absolutely … they know there’s a problem and they want to get it solved,” Aamodt said.

“If you have the legislation, create a process where people could make a claim and then that could all get sorted out, you might be able to get some justice done.”

He thinks the legislation being debated creates a new market for people to sell headrights.

Waller says he plans on getting comments from headright holders on the new legislation and he has the same question as Aamodt: How did the United States government allow this many transfers of our head right out?”

Beth Ann Langston also wants something done as she sees the attention on “Killers of the Flower Moon” as a way to shine a light on what she sees as a big injustice.

“We were told there was no way for us to get this money back,” Langston said. Now, she thinks there may be some hope.

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Allison Herrera
Allison Herrerahttps://osagenews.org
Title: Freelance Reporter
Email: aherrera@osagenation-nsn.gov
Languages spoken: English

Allison Herrera is a radio and print journalist who's worked for PRX's The World, Colorado Public Radio as the climate and environment editor and as a freelance reporter for High Country News’ Indigenous Affairs Desk.

Herrera recently worked on Bloomberg and iHeart Media's In Trust with Rachel Adams-Heard, an investigative podcast about Osage Headrights.

She currently works for KOSU as their Indigenous Affairs Reporter. Herrera’s Native ties are from her Xolon Salinan tribal heritage.

In her free time, she likes buying fancy earrings, running and spending time with her daughter.

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