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Mystery of the Million Dollar Elm

Someone vandalized the Million Dollar Elm, a symbolic tree located on the Osage Nation campus. The act left many in the community asking why? If you have any information, please contact the ON Police Department at (918) 287-5510

In what was thought to be a simple review of camera footage over a 24-hour period, may now require a review of the past six months.

On the morning of May 1, Casey Johnson, Secretary of Development, arrived at his office located in the Executive Branch building on the Osage Nation Campus. He immediately noticed the elm tree he had planted in 2014 was on its side, with its trunk snapped. He assumed the tree was the victim of the previous night’s thunderstorm. But upon closer inspection, he noticed a smooth 5-inch cut that could only have come from a reciprocating saw blade.

“They sliced it just enough to where it wouldn’t fall over and nobody would notice the tree had been cut,” Johnson said. “The original Million Dollar Elm died from Dutch elm disease. It just seemed natural to replace it with another elm tree. I paid $250 for the tree and a company came out and planted it.”

The site is marked by a historic marker from the Oklahoma Historical Society. The tree is now a symbol of the Osage Nation’s past and it sits next to the Chief’s Office building.

In 1912, the Bureau of Indian Affairs began having oil lease auctions for the Osage Mineral Estate, with oil barons such as Frank Phillips and E.W. Marland bidding millions of dollars. Fortunes were made, it was a golden era for many, bringing massive wealth and with it greed. All of this took place for years, and it took place under the shade of the giant elm tree. The tree was later dubbed the “Million Dollar Elm.” The tree died in the early 1980s and was removed, but the historic marker remains.

The Osage News asked Cody J. Willard of Tulsa-based Tree Love, LLC, to determine a timeline of events. Willard is an ISA Board Certified Master Arborist and is qualified to be an expert witness and form appraisals.

Willard inspected the trunk and assessed the cut most likely took place six months prior, judging by the discoloration of the wood. He also ruled out the use of a chainsaw and said it was most likely a handheld saw with a reciprocal blade. A DeWalt Sawzall is one of the few brands with a yellow blade, and there was yellow paint left behind on the trunk.

He said it could have happened quickly, as quick as 15 seconds.

“Even the bars on chainsaws, the paint doesn’t leave like that. As far as when this happened, that’s a bit trickier to determine. A lot of times there’s a callus and you can take it to a lab and whatnot. But this is all dried out and desiccated,” Willard said. “But I would say within six months for sure. So it could have been this growing season, it could have been something that happened in the winter. I wouldn’t assume this would have happened any later than last October.”

He said during the spring and summer months the tree would have begun to die quickly due to the cut into its vascular system, even though it was still able to stand with about 40 percent left of its trunk.

“You know, I deal with a lot of vandalism cases, and sometimes it’s just accidental. But a lot of times stuff like this is almost like a fuse, where somebody’s causing damage and hoping in the long run their objectives succeed like it did,” Willard said. “That’s what’s hard, is four to six months goes by and anything on the ground, footprints, I mean, a lot of things just disappear. So it’s like the long game for stuff like this, unfortunately.”

The ON Police Department is currently reviewing surveillance footage from multiple cameras.

If you have any information, please call the ONPD at (918) 287-5510.

On May 3, Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear released this statement:

“Osage Nation is outraged by a disrespectful act of vandalism, where a tree symbolizing our unique history and resilience was destroyed. The Osage Nation Police Department’s report confirms the act was intentional. Any act of aggression against our Nation must be regarded with the utmost concern. ONPD will continue a full investigation to bring those responsible to justice.”


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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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