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Federal legislation under review to create avenue for headright return

Osage community input meetings on draft legislation to be announced

Work is progressing on federal legislation that would make clear an avenue for non-Osages and entities to return their headright shares to the Osage people. The draft bill is currently under review by Rep. Frank Lucas’s office.

“The minerals council submitted a draft bill this year to Congressman Lucas who has agreed to sponsor the bill. After reviewing the bill and sending it to the house legislative counsel’s office, they had made proposed changes to the bill – and some of them were mainly just questions,” said Wilson Pipestem, attorney for the Osage Minerals Council. Pipestem is also an Osage headright holder. “That is still being worked out, the actual language is with legislative counsel.”

Pipestem said he didn’t see any reason why a draft bill wouldn’t be returned quickly. “I think they’re working in good faith with us on what a draft bill would look like.”

Once the draft bill is delivered to the council, Osage leadership will review and present it to headright holders and the Osage community to provide comments. Pipestem said after community input is made, the bill will be further reviewed, improved upon, and then Rep. Lucas will formally introduce the bill without delay.

It has taken longer than Pipestem expected.

“But you know, it’s a complicated area of the law. For example, the current state of law is that a non-Osage who owns a headright basically has no restriction, and that person can transfer the headright to a non-Indian when they pass on. The Osages are the only ones with restrictions, so 26 percent of headrights owned by non-Osages are totally unrestricted,” Pipestem said. “They can give it to a non-Indian, a corporation, whatever. So, Osages under current law are the ones with restrictions.

“So, we’re limited on who we can transfer the headright interest to.”

From 1906 to 1978, the Secretary of the Interior permitted non-Osages to inherit the right to receive Osage minerals income, otherwise known as headrights. In 1978, Congress acted to prohibit an Osage from transferring a headright through inheritance to a non-Osage. Then, in 1984, Congress again acted to create a tiered system by which non-Osages may devise their headrights outside of probate—a system that effectively prohibited non-Osages from gifting their Osage headrights back to Osages, according to a minerals council press release.

Freedom of Information Act

On Dec. 13, the News requested a “copy of the 1998 memo to Osage Tribal Council (Rosemary Wood) Subject: Sale of Osage Headright Interests by Non-Indians.” The document was released the next day by acting Osage Agency Superintendent Cammi Canady.

The 14-page document, dated Jan. 12, 1998, to then-Osage Tribal Councilwoman Wood, outlined the “procedure utilized in the sale of an Osage headright interest by a non-Indian owner.”

Signed by the Osage Agency Realty Officer at the time, Royal E. Thornton, he explains that prior to his tenure the handling of the sale of headright interests owned and offered by non-Osage owners was handled by the Office of the Field Solicitor. He said the Field Solicitor’s office at the Osage Agency was abolished and the function was reassigned to the Tulsa office. He does not provide dates.

“This office, Osage Agency Realty, has only been involved in two sales since the Field Solicitor unilaterally elected to return that function to Osage Agency. The first sale was to heirs of the original allottee, in the second to fourth degree. The most recent offering was to an Osage Indian acting in her own individual capacity,” he wrote in the 1998 letter. “Each case is individual, the guidelines are exactly that, guidelines.”

Thornton provided a copy of Public Law 98-605 – Oct. 30, 1984, and highlighted section 8 (a)(1). He also provided the documents given to non-Indian sellers, outlined the six-step process of selling the headright interest back, and the letters that were sent to Osage heirs and successful and unsuccessful bidders.

The six steps for the “Procedure for Sale of Osage Headright Interest” is as follows:   

  1. A non-Indian must write a letter to the Superintendent requesting that the Agency sell their Osage headright interest and the dollar amount they wish to sell it for.
  2. Research the headright interest back to the Original Allottee who held the headright interest at allotment. If the allottee is deceased, the first right of purchase goes to the 1st degree heirs, if any, if all deceased to the 2nd to 4th degree heirs, equally.
  3. Write the heirs of the original allottee, stating that they have first right of purchase, and give them 30 days to respond.
  4. If the heirs decline to purchase, then send notice to newspapers and all Osage Indians whose names appear on our mailing list.
  5. The public is given 21 days to submit their sealed bids for purchase of the headright. If no one submits a bid, the headright interest is then taken to the Osage Minerals Council for purchase, if they desire.
  6. When you receive a bid for the headright, you then contact the non-Indian individual in writing of the bid offered, if the individual accepts the bid. Make an assignment and mail it to the individual for signature, request that they send a check for $8.00 made payable to the Osage County Clerk for filing of the assignment. After the seller has signed the assignment, then submit it to the buyer for signature, then to the Superintendent, file it at the Court House and submit it to the IIM section for distribution.

If given the chance, would you return your headright back to the Osage?

It’s no secret that many non-Osages who acquired headright interest to the mineral estate prior to 1978 did so through graft and corruption. Osages lost their lives during the Reign of Terror to those who coveted wealth from the mineral estate in the 1920s.

The Bloomberg podcast “In Trust,” by Rachel Adams-Heard and Allison Hererra, tells the story of the massive wealth gained by the Drummond family in the 1920s and how they scammed Osages out of what would have been millions in today’s money. The Osage News obtained a copy of the list of non-Osage entities in possession of headright interest used for the podcast. The list, provided by the BIA, shows the names of the entities and their interest amount. There was a total of 68 entities on the list and together they owned just over 37 headright shares.

The top 10 entities on the list are:

  1. Board of Regents University of Texas: 2.75
  2. Immaculate Conception Catholic Church: 2.5
  3. Sabine Royalty Trust: 2.32036
  4. Oklahoma Historical Society: 2.31666
  5. Frank Phillips Foundation: 2.03333
  6. University of Oklahoma: 1.72916
  7. Roman Catholic Diocese: 1.5
  8. Moran Trust: 1.34375
  9. Moran Trust: 1.34375
  10. Baptist Foundation of Oklahoma rebranded as WatersEdge: 1.00397

The News found contact information for eight of the 10 entities on the list. Contact information for the Moran Trust accounts could not be found before this article was published. The News left voicemails, emails, and were referred to various individuals within organizations and then left more voicemails and sent more emails.

The main question asked was if given the opportunity, would they return their headright interest back to the Osage people? And, if they objected, would they be willing to create a program, trust or scholarship to benefit Osage citizens with the headright income?

The Oklahoma Historical Society was the only entity to respond to requests for comment.

“Per the requirements of the trust, 100% of the OHS’s headright allotment is used for the operation and preservation of the White Hair Memorial,” said Trait Thompson, OHS executive director.

The White Hair Memorial is an Osage learning center located between Hominy and Fairfax. A repository for Osage artifacts and documents, the collections include resources such as maps, annuity rolls, oral histories, and photographs. The site is the former home of Lillie Morrell Burkhart who set up a trust with the OHS using 2.31666 in headright interest.

When asked if the OHS would give the headright interest back if given the chance, Thompson said he would leave that decision up to the heirs.

“The OHS is aware of efforts at the federal level to provide a mechanism for the return of headrights to the Osage Tribe,” Thompson said. “We are open to discussion regarding the return of headrights to the tribe and should congressional action be successful, it will be up to the Burkhart trustees to determine next steps in light of their obligation under the requirements of the trust.”


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Shannon Shaw Duty
Shannon Shaw Duty

Title: Editor


Twitter: @dutyshaw

Topic Expertise: Columnist, Culture, Community

Languages spoken: English, Osage (intermediate), Spanish (beginner)

Shannon Shaw Duty, Osage from the Grayhorse District, is the editor of the award-winning Osage News, the official independent media of the Osage Nation. She is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism and a master’s degree in Legal Studies with an emphasis in Indigenous Peoples Law. She currently sits on the Freedom of Information Committee for the Society of Professional Journalists. She has served as a board member for LION Publishers, as Vice President for the Pawhuska Public Schools Board of Education, on the Board of Directors for the Native American Journalists Association (now Indigenous Journalists Association) and served as a board member and Chairwoman for the Pawhuska Johnson O’Malley Parent Committee. She is a Chips Quinn Scholar, a former instructor for the Freedom Forum’s Native American Journalism Career Conference and the Freedom Forum’s American Indian Journalism Institute. She is a former reporter for The Santa Fe New Mexican. She is a 2012 recipient of the Native American 40 Under 40 from the National Center for American Indian Enterprise Development. In 2014 she helped lead the Osage News to receive NAJA's Elias Boudinot Free Press Award. The Osage News won Best Newspaper from the SPJ-Oklahoma Chapter in their division 2018-2022. Her award-winning work has been published in Indian Country Today, The Washington Post, the Center for Public Integrity, NPR, the Associated Press, Tulsa World and others. She currently resides in Pawhuska, Okla., with her husband and together they share six children, two dogs and two cats.

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