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First group discusses government districting, passing laws, Nation and individual responsibilities

The Osage News Editorial Board hosted its Candidate Debates on April 30, 2022, at the Osage County Fairgrounds Ag Building.

Ahead of the 2022 Osage Nation General Election, the Osage News Candidate Debates returned to an in-person format on April 30 featuring those running for government and Minerals Council elected offices.

Hosted by the newspaper’s Editorial Board, the day-long debates took place at the Osage County Fairgrounds Ag Building and started with two debate groups of candidates seeking Congressional office. All 13 Congressional candidates participated and were divided into two groups at the debate moderated by Sterling Cosper (Muscogee Creek Nation), who is acting director for the Native American Journalists Association and former News correspondent Lenzy Krehbiel-Burton (Cherokee Nation) who is now a Tulsa World education reporter.

Tara McLain Manthey, Editorial Board Vice Chair, welcomed attendees to the event and introduced the moderators and former Congressman Archie Mason delivered the opening prayer. Each Congressional candidate group received three questions submitted from the Osage public. Candidates each received two minutes for opening statements and question responses, one-minute rebuttals and two-minute closing statements.

The first debate group included candidates Scott BigHorse, Alice Goodfox, Berbon Hamilton, Jacque Jones, Brandy Lemon, Liberty Metcalf and Eli Potts. Cosper and Krehbiel-Burton selected the questions, printed on pieces of paper, that were mixed then drawn from a rotating hopper.

Candidate Scott Bighorse delivers his opening statement at the Osage News Candidate debates. STEPHANIE IVISON/Osage News

Opening statements

In opening statements, each candidate shared some of their education and professional history and cultural affiliations, as well as reasons for seeking Legislative Branch office.

BigHorse, a former Oklahoma State representative, is seeking his second term. He previously worked as a corrections officer at the Dick Conner Correctional Center in Hominy and also worked with juveniles in the court system. He served as Assistant Principal Chief after winning the 2010 election. “I saw this new government being formed, I went to the town halls to hear them forming the Constitution and taking questions from our constituents and that’s when the bug bit me to run for tribal politics. My father had been on the old Tribal Council, so that gave me the urge to run for this new government,” he said, adding he was active in opposing the wind turbine project (during Assistant Chief tenure) that ended up the focus of a federal court case “and that was a big win for our reservation.”

Goodfox is seeking her fourth term and introduced herself as the mother of Joseph Goodfox Jr. and wife to Joseph Goodfox Sr., as well as serving as a Hominy District cook. She listed her education experience including a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland and a master’s degree in human resources from the University of Oklahoma. “I’m a shareholder, I’m a restricted landowner, and I am running again because I’ve been asked to run by several individuals and several families. I enjoy working on the Congress, I enjoy the discussions that we have when we’re talking about appropriations and laws and I work well with the Executive Branch, as well as my colleagues and Minerals Council,” she said.

In his introduction, Berbon Hamilton said he currently serves as a Whipman for the Pawhuska District during the Inlonshka and “I bring 15 years of government contracting experience, especially with the (U.S. Department of Defense). I was asked by numerous families and different tribal officials to run for Congress. This is my second time running, the first time was 10 years ago in 2012.”

Jones, a former ON Constituent Services director, also introduced herself as a Lady Singer during the Inlonshka and owns her own business Whitehair Consulting. “I bring decades of experience to the government and business, I understand what it takes to build something from nothing and I will bring that perspective if you consider me and choose me to be on Congress. I’ve committed my career to advocating for Osage and Native-owned businesses… If elected, my focus will be money and revenue-generating activities, introduction of new regulations that will use procurement opportunities for Osage business owners and Osage entrepreneurs,” she said.

Lemon, also a registered nurse from the Grayhorse District, is seeking her second Congressional term and added “I want to continue my efforts with food sovereignty, I want to look at safe water acts, I want to continue the diplomatic relationship that I share with the Executive Branch.”

Metcalf, from the Pawhuska District, said he holds an OU bachelor’s degree in political science and American history and has 13 years experience working for the federal government. “I spent 10 years working for the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C. in the Office of Congressional and Legislative Affairs. In that office, aside from legislation, one of the most important things that I was taught to do and have been able to do is to bring different parties together… Imagine bringing different bureaus within a Department such as BLM, National Parks, Indian Affairs, as well as your outside agencies like the Department of Justice, Department of Education, Department of Housing and Urban Development, along with authorizing committee staff like the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and the House of Natural Resources Committee, bringing all their staff together to pass laws like the Tribal Law and Order Act or the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization. It takes a lot of work and a lot of good intent and a lot of compromise on everyone’s side… I think it’s time for the Osage people to do some introspection and retrospection and see where we’re at and what we need to do to move forward,” he said.

Potts, whose family comes from the Grayhorse District, is seeking a second term and said he has bachelors and master’s degrees from OU and is working on a public leadership credential from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. “The things that remain constant from your government are from your public officials, you need us to have the capacity to listen and you need good governance. That’s why I’ve held four town hall meetings to hear directly from you… I hope when you look at my record, you will see that I fought for good governance… Sovereignty means holding people accountable and that’s what I’ll continue to do as your elected official, we need to listen to you, we need to fight for that accountability,” he said.

Berbon Hamilton responding to a question from the moderators about districting in Osage Nation. STEPHANIE IVISON/Osage News

First question

Many governments in the United States have elected their officials according to some form of “districting,” do you think the whole of Osage members would be served better or worse if the seats of the Osage Congress were to be elected according to some form of districting? – William Kemble, Skiatook, Okla.

BigHorse recalled the 1880 form of Osage government had three branches and nine districts. “I don’t know how we can accomplish that now that we’ve been through statehood, the 1906 Allotment Act and we’ve been fractured, splintered and we have people around the world… I’m not against districting, but I would like to see a good, developed plan on how we would accomplish that.”

Goodfox said districting the Osage government is a long-time discussion topic and she is against districting because “right now, you can run for the Osage Nation Congress no matter where you live in the United States and it’s up to the Osage people who they want to put in these seats. The negative side for districting, in my opinion, is that you have a district and you’re not a supporter of the (2-6) people that may be running for your district and you’re forced to select someone that you may not support or get behind for whatever reason. So, the way we have it now, where anyone can run for the (ON) Congress, and we’ve had out-of-state Osages that have run for these positions and at least two of them had good support. So, I think that, for me, districting is not to our benefit.”

“If we were going to district, we would’ve done it in 2006,” Hamilton said. “There is no way to district now, there are more Osages who live in the Tulsa metro area and Oklahoma City area than on our reservation here. I’m an off-the-reservation Osage who lives in Catoosa… I don’t think we can district, but if the people want to district, it’s up to them.”

Jones said “I’m about bringing people together and using all the diverse minds… I think it works better when any Osage can run for a seat for leadership and I do not support districting, myself, but I’m more of an advocate for let’s bring people together instead of fighting.”

“I am not necessarily against (districting), but I don’t know what it looks like,” Lemon said. “I do like the ability for anybody anywhere to run for a seat in this government, but I would never not talk about districting if it is an initiative that our people bring forward.”

Metcalf agrees districting will require further studying because “it is a very daunting task, I think in a world it could be done if there was a referendum of the people that supported it. But other than that, I think we need to do further research before I can commit one way or the other.”

Potts said he sponsored a Congressional resolution in 2020 to study the issue of districting and electing representatives, but it remained postponed at the Congressional committee level. “Almost 83% of our people reside outside of Osage County, that’s an important thing that can’t be lost here… To say that we can’t do it now, I don’t know if I accept that and I think that’s further reinforced because districts are mentioned in our Constitution currently. Our founding fathers specifically said we want to keep the option for districting open. So I think to explore that, or at least hear a resolution in our Congress, gives our people the opportunity to address that is at least worthwhile.”

In rebuttal time, the five other candidates said they are open to further discussions on districting in addition to their initial responses.

Liberty Metcalf states the importance of sovereignty within the Osage Nation. STEPHANIE IVISON/Osage News

Second question

In consideration of the McGirt decision and the possibility that it will apply to the Osage Nation as well as the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act and the additional laws that the Nation can prosecute non-Natives for, can you briefly describe the laws that you believe are a priority? – Olivia Gray, Skiatook

Goodfox referred to the recently-concluded Hun-Kah Session, which included passage of tribal law amendments to the Crimes Against Persons Act (sponsored by Congresswoman Paula Stabler), including a 2021 bill making it a crime to have unrestrained dangerous dogs. She also mentioned BigHorse’s passed bill that appropriated $250,000 toward starting costs of a Nation-owned detention facility. “Those are just a few of the things… and there’s a lot of work to do,” she said.

Hamilton agreed there is lots of work to do in anticipation of a McGirt-related decision that could impact the Nation. “Our tribe is not there yet, but other tribes are. With a McGirt decision, that means we will have more federal law enforcement here,” he said later adding “we need to protect our villages.”

Jones said she is “thankful the federal government acknowledges our sovereign right to prosecute on Indian land, do I think the Osage has some work to do? Absolutely… (Crimes) Against Persons Act, I did listen to that during session and I believe it’s an excellent start. Because one of the things we need to do is protect our people no matter where they live… I believe those rights need to be protected for our people.”

Lemon acknowledged Goodfox’s response and noted “if you commit a crime in our county, the punishment is very minimal and this can change and will change for us and that is one piece of the criminal code that we’re having to work through and strengthen in that area. We’re also going to have to look at the civil side, taxation, tax dollars could possibly be coming in to the Nation, a very important revenue source. Another thing to look at is jurisdiction of water – safe water and all of these play into decisions that are at our Supreme Court level and at our other district levels that we pay close attention to and we have a lot of work to do as far as that goes.”

Metcalf said he does not believe “violence or discrimination of any sort has any place in society, especially not in our government or workplace. That being said, I did work on two bills that became enacted into law when I was in Washington, and one is the Tribal Law and Order Act and the other one is the Violence Against Women Act reauthorization of 2013… There was a lot in those bills we worked on and a lot of them was to actually strengthen the sentencing guidelines to increase them from the decades-old, outdated sentencing guidelines that they had.”

Potts noted “what we’re finding in the wake of McGirt is a series of laws that do not apply to Native Americans in general. That’s one of the reasons I filed a bill to bring some of the protections in the 1964 Civil Rights Act regarding sexual harassment to our Nation. We also need to explore a universal tort claims act that protects our people. More importantly, we need to be advocates for changes at the federal law that allow tribes/ to give us better jurisdictional understanding of what we need to be prosecuting… So, what I would bring the next four years is to listen to our judicial officers and to our police officers that understand the fight they have on the ground right now.”

BigHorse said he agreed with the McGirt case “that (the Muscogee Creek’s) reservation had never been disestablished by the U.S. Congress. Because if you go back and read the criteria that it takes to disestablish or disassemble a reservation, it must have that Congressional language there in black and white that their intent is to disestablish or dismember that reservation. So that’s what the McGirt case is bringing to Indian Country… There’s a lot of opportunity out there, we are going to have to beef up our courts, we are going to have to beef up our law enforcement, and yes, we’re going to have to build our own jails and that’s going to take money. I know our gaming is the only (major revenue source) that we have right now, but thank goodness to them they continue to increase their distribution to us.”

Candidate Eli Potts stresses better jurisdictional law to protect the Osage people during closing statements. STEPHANIE IVISON/Osage News

Third question

What is the nature of the relationship between the Osage Nation and the individual Osage? Does that imply any obligations from the tribe to the individual Osage and if so, what are they? Conversely, what obligations exist from the individual Osage to the tribe? – Dr. Layton Lamsam, Branford, Conn.

Hamilton said the Nation would not exist without Osage members. Later in rebuttal time, he said he would like to hear from Osages when questions come from the Nation. “We don’t know what you guys want, another responsibility is in 2023, Congresswoman Goodfox has her latest bill for the Osage census… Osage Nation needs your (census) information for the Osage Nation responsibilities to keep the sovereignty to the people. People don’t know how close we were to termination in 2006, if we didn’t get together and organize in 2006, we would not have the things we have now,” he said.

Jones said the question can be answered in many facets, “do we have a responsibility, we absolutely do to the Osage people as a Nation to protect our rights, to care for our people when they are in a situation as we experienced the last few years with COVID. To me, the Osage Nation to the Osage people is a resource, something to take pride in as far as culture, as far as business, as far as government. I believe we’re always going to come up against obstacles, but those obstacles are better handed when we’re grouped together as a complete Osage Nation and I think it takes unity and I think it takes a consensus of people to work toward taking care of those needs.”

Lemon said “the biggest obligations that really hit home for me are making sure we stay sovereign, making sure that we continue to have our land base, our language and our culture. And I think that both parties, the Osage Nation and the individual, is responsible for upholding those obligations.”

Metcalf said he believes the Nation “has an obligation, it provides a culture identity, it provides a family, it provides a network… We do owe an obligation to our constituents, to our own family members, we are the people who have that unique relationship as a tribe. We stuck together for centuries, millennia, and we need to continue to do that as one tribal people. I believe it also is a two-way street that the tribe can provide that identity and cultural awareness and that family, but the individual also has to meet us half-way.”

Potts said the (2006) Constitution “lays this out, it tells us what our obligations are to our people. It says we are to look out for the education of our people, we are to look out for the healthcare of our people, it says we are supposed to care for the elders, it says we are supposed to care for the children and our natural resources… That’s a guide I carry with me in this job everyday and it is something we should all strive for. One of the most important phrases in that Constitution is ‘and those yet unborn,’ that means my responsibility to care for the next generation, not just what’s happening right now… What do the Osage people need to get to us, to the government? We need you to be active, when we say ‘hey, I want to hear from you,’ we need to hear from you.”

BigHorse said “culture is one of our most difficult things as far as outreach to people who are not here within our jurisdictional boundaries. In the past 10 years, we have grown light years in providing language, our dance clothes, what they represent, what they mean, through technology and there are actual language maps you can get for your smartphones… That’s reaching out, but we still need to keep our focus here because without these three districts that we have currently, we’d mix in with the rest of society, that separates us from the rest of society because we are our own people, we have our own ways.”   

Goodfox said “we do have a responsibility to one another, we have the responsibility for education, healthcare and one of the responsibilities I think we also have that we take care of is the burial assistance. In a family’s most trying time, when they’re in mourning, we help with burial assistance and I bet every single one of us in this room or that’s hearing my voice has had to utilize that at some point. We have a responsibility to be good to one another and we have a responsibility to answer questions when we’re asked. I know over the course of the last 12 years of being in my seat, I’ve spoken to Osages that may call me… That’s a responsibility – answering questions, being good to one another, we have a responsibility for not only education and healthcare, but we do have a responsibility to help with culture and help people to understand the culture and we do that with language that’s being offered online and our website allowing for people to really read about a traditional Osage way of life.”

The 2022 Osage News Candidate Debates are available for on-demand viewing on the Osage Nation YouTube Channel.

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Benny Polaccahttps://osagenews.org
Benny Polacca started at the Osage News in 2009 as a reporter and has covered various stories and events impacting the Osage Nation and Osage people. Polacca is part of the News team awarded the Native American Journalist Association’s Elias Boudinot Free Press Award in 2014 and other NAJA Media Awards and SPJ Oklahoma Pro Chapter awards for news coverage and photography. Polacca is an Arizona State University graduate and participated in the former American Indian Journalism Institute at the University of South Dakota. He previously worked at The Forum newspaper covering the Fargo, N.D. region as the weeknight reporter.
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