Osage Congress and Chief’s Office work together to update Membership Law

The Fourth Osage Nation Congress and Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear are in agreement: the membership law needed an update.

What started out as a contentious debate between the two branches settled into a compromise bill that is ONCA 16-16. The bill, sponsored by Congresswoman Shannon Edwards, is an amendment to the original Membership Law and a restatement of Congressional authority of the membership roll. Standing Bear signed the bill into law Dec. 14.

“I’m pleased that the bill was signed into law. I think it establishes a framework for the membership application process, obtaining membership cards, relinquishment, removal, reenrollment, there were a lot of things that weren’t in its predecessor,” Edwards said. “It should definitely help the membership office carry out its duties.”

Edwards said she plans to ask the Congress to establish a congressional Membership Committee to oversee the functions of the Membership Office.

Working together

The Osage Constitution places the membership roll under the Congress, but Congress delegates the day-to-day maintenance of the roll to the Membership Office under the Executive Branch. The original bill Edwards introduced took the membership office away from the Executive Branch and placed it under the Legislative branch. The original bill also stated anyone currently enrolled could not be disenrolled. Those two provisions were taken out of the final bill as a compromise.

The Membership Office is staying under the Executive Branch and the ON Attorney General can remove an individual from the Osage Nation membership roll if found guilty of fraudulent enrollment by the ON Trial Court.

“That’s what I’m pleased about, I’m also pleased that they put in a provision that only a court could do the removal, I’ll go along with that, but my question is what do we do in the meantime?” Standing Bear said. “The assistant chief and I told them a lawyer defending these people could delay for years, just like in the [Pawhuska Village] Five Man Board case has been going on for years. Courts and attorneys can do that.”

A provision was put into the law allowing the Executive Branch to stop payment of benefits to individuals under investigation for fraudulent enrollment. In cases where individuals receive tribal benefits, such as the ON Higher Education Scholarship or the ON Health Benefit Card, the benefits will stop during the period of the investigation, Standing Bear said. However, upon determination by the ON Trial Court the individual is Osage, the individual will receive a full reimbursement of benefits lost during the period of investigation.

“I have told the Congress I am not going to approve further expenditures of Osage money to people we believe are on the roll fraudulently, even if the court hasn’t decided yet,” Standing Bear said.

There is also the question of voting in elections, if an individual is under investigation for fraudulent enrollment Standing Bear said that individual should not be allowed to vote. There is also the question of whether those who have received benefits while fraudulently enrolled should have to pay the money back to the Nation. He said these are just many questions they are trying to find answers for under the new law.

What’s New in the Membership Law:

-       Temporary membership for newborns

-       Exclusive jurisdiction to the ON Attorney General and the ON Trial Court over membership disputes

-       Process for relinquishment of membership

-       Penalties and fines for fraudulent enrollment

-       Process for disenrollment

-       Role and authority of the Membership Office

-       Checks and balances for Membership Office director and staff


Fraudulent members

After Congress learned of 27 letters mailed in November to individuals notifying them of a disenrollment procedure Edwards quickly started making amendments to the law. The policy and procedure the Executive Branch came up with called for individuals to appeal to Chief Standing Bear if the membership director had deemed the individual fraudulently enrolled. If the chief ruled for disenrollment the individual could appeal to the ON Trial Court. That process is now null and void. There was also a provision for DNA testing, but that provision did not make it into the law.

Standing Bear said the Attorney General’s office and the membership office will now be working on a new process that adheres to the new law.

According to Sarah Oberly, membership office director, there are 37 suspected fraudulent enrollments the attorney general’s office is investigating. Standing Bear said members of the public have been coming in with birth certificates, proof of adoptions, the ON Police Department has been sending records, they have not been actively searching for fraudulent members.

However, Standing Bear said there are many more suspected fraudulent members and that the membership office will be going back to 2009 to check every membership application former membership office employee Asa Cunningham performed.

Cunningham was charged with three counts of tampering with public records on Oct. 6 for enrolling her sister’s three adopted non-Indian children. Cunningham has not been convicted but she has confessed.

“Anything that Asa Cunningham touched I want to ask them to review,” Standing Bear said. “Now, everything else was given to us, by other people. But now the next step is to look at anything she touched, which is a lot. That doesn’t mean people are going to get revocations, now that we know there was fraud involved, we now have a duty to go back and look but we are going to be very careful.”