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Osage Nation commemorates construction of Charles H. Lohah Judicial Building

The Judicial Building will be located in Pawhuska on Nation-owned land west of the Welcome Center and Law Building and south of the Senior Housing Complex

Construction efforts are underway on the Charles H. Lohah Judicial Building after Osage Nation officials ceremoniously broke ground on the new Judicial Branch home named after the late Supreme Court Chief Justice.

On Dec. 18, ON government officials, including court judges and community members gathered at the construction site in Pawhuska on Nation-owned land west of the Welcome Center and Law Building and south of the Senior Housing Complex. Before officials shoveled dirt commemorating the project’s start, they shared remarks acknowledging Lohah’s legacy in the legal profession that led to his service as the first Supreme Court Chief Justice under the Nation’s reformed government established in 2006.

Members of the Osage Nation Congress, Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear, Assistant Principal Chief RJ Walker, and ON Judges “turn dirt” at the groundbreaking of the new Judicial Building on Dec. 18, 2023. ECHO REED/Osage News

Lohah served as Chief Justice until 2012, said Russ Tallchief of Wahzhazhe Communications, who emceed the event and announced the building will carry Lohah’s name. Current Supreme Court Chief Justice Meredith Drent has also served on the Nation’s High Court since 2006 with Lohah and Tallchief said she told him “Mr. Lohah was such a tireless advocate for self-determination and for our tribal sovereignty and really believed in what the Osage Nation could be and should be and so I think that we’re here to prove him right.”

Tallchief said the forthcoming building, which will house the Judicial Branch court and administrative operations, has architecture that is “symbolic and this was designed to create a safe space for gathering because we received funding during COVID and so we’ve created a space where people can conduct business safely by social distancing and there’s even a drive-through.”

On behalf of the Legislative Branch, Second Congressional Speaker Pam Shaw acknowledged the planning work by the three-branch government, including appropriations approved by the ON Congress for the project construction. She added the occasion is special and “this building, to me, represents our commitment to justice, fairness and integrity and justice for all Osages, so I’m very proud to be a small part of it.”

Osage Nation Supreme Court Chief Justice Meredith Drent speaks at the groundbreaking of the new Judicial Building on Dec. 18, 2023. ECHO REED/Osage News

Drent called the occasion “a big day for the Nation, it’s a big day for the Judicial Branch.” She also noted the efforts to build a new Judicial Branch building “is also something that none of us do alone, this is not something that is my achievement, it’s all of our achievement – it took our executive and our legislative, it took our friends at (Tribal Development and Land Acquisition Department), and it took our team at the court itself to work on this. This building is designed to bring us together and to show the third branch of government, the third arm of Osage Nation sovereignty and to do it in a place that’s accessible, that’s safe not just physically but emotionally so people can come in on arguably the worst days of their life and we’re going to be there for them and we’re going to give them a beautiful space where they can take care of their business.”

Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear, also a seasoned attorney, acknowledged the Nation’s history where statehood began and times when the tribal legal system was challenged, yet the Nation persevered and lives on today with its current justice system that will have a new physical home.

Standing Bear said: “When you’re studying federal Indian policy, for those who have and those who haven’t, I can tell you it is very, very interesting and I was always attracted to going back and looking at those critical times in the 1890s and just before Oklahoma statehood and where all of our ancestors were very much involved in a very intense legal and social battle – cultural battle – and those can be seen in the laws that were passed by the United States Congress and the formation of the states that took over our territories. And when you look at those, you’ll see that the first point of attack – I will call it – was our judiciaries, our courts, our police and over and over again, when you look at the laws going into effect in the 1890s and 1900s and the federal Executive Branch orders that are being issued, you will see the first place they go to cause us to cease resistance basically and to give up was to go after our courts and then go after our law enforcement.”

“I encourage all of you to look at that and put it into perspective to where we are today and how far we have come as shown by what we’re doing here today,” Standing Bear said. “And in more recent times, I very much will always remember being sworn in as Assistant Chief (during the former Osage government days in the 1990s) and they handed us the oath before we took it and I looked at it and it said ‘Employee Oath of the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ and I looked at everybody else and we all lined up, raised our right hand and our Superintendent of the Osage Indian Agency came up and swore us to follow that oath as elected officials of our Osage Tribe at the time. So ever since then, when Chief Justice Meredith Drent swore me in, and I watch you judges swear in Osages and others who are serving here our Nation, to me it is an inside emotional experience to go from that time to today to see you exercising our sovereignty and there’s no better example of exercising our sovereignty than the work our judges and court personnel do. And then, if you go back further, you’ll see the battles that our ancestors – your ancestors and mine – tribe after tribe, what we had to do to get this far, it is truly humbling. And I’m also very proud that we’ve all had the courage to keep going and we just pray that the future generations will look back and keep going themselves, so this is very big to be here at this moment of sovereignty looking forward to the next.”

Russ Tallchief speaks at the groundbreaking of the new Osage Nation Judicial Building on Dec. 18, 2023. ECHO REED/Osage News

Charles Henry Lohah (Hominy District) graduated with his Juris Doctorate from the University of Tulsa and was a military veteran who served with the Oklahoma National Guard, the U.S. Air Force, the Oklahoma Air National Guard, and the Air Force Reserve, according to his obituary written after his passing at age 78 on Thanksgiving Day 2012. Following law school, Charles served as a Labor Investigator for the U.S. Labor Department in Alabama. He returned to Hominy in 1964 where he practiced law and then served as Assistant Osage County Attorney until his appointment as Osage County Judge followed by his election as Associate District Judge for Osage County. Also during this time period, Charles served as a board member and legal counsel to the Osage Nation Organization, an association of concerned Osages seeking the re-establishment of a Constitutional form of government for the Osage people, a cause to which he was dedicated throughout his lifetime.

Lohah’s daughter, Elizabeth Lohah Homer, followed in her father’s footsteps and became an attorney who has operated her own Washington, D.C. law firm for several years and is now serving as an Associate Justice on the three-member ON Supreme Court with Drent and fellow Associate Justice Drew Pierce. Homer was not at the groundbreaking event, but attended the Nov. 4 Northern California Osage gathering where she spoke about her court service, as well as her father’s legal career.

Referring to her father’s professional service before the ON Supreme Court, Homer said: “(Lohah) was part of an organization called the Osage Nation Organization and this was a group of Osages that wanted our own government, they didn’t want to wait until their mamas and daddies and grandmas and grandpas died in order to be able to hold themselves out as Osages (shareholders and voting members under the former Osage government). They felt that all Osages should have a franchise, all Osages should have a representative government, a government that Osages can count on and influence and a lot of people didn’t like them (at the time). They called them the ‘oh-nos’… oh those ‘oh-nos’ are out there doing bad things, but what they were really about was what we finally achieved in 2006, which is a constitutional government of the people, by the people and for the people.”

“And my dad was named the very first Chief Justice and he was really proud of that, and in fact, when my dad passed, we buried him in his judicial robes because of all the things he had done in his life. He was founding Chairman of the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder (Colo.). He was a founder of the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, a consortium of energy producing tribes, he was a law professor, he did all of these things, he was a very accomplished man and he was very humble about it,” Homer said of her father. “The fundamental aspect of tribal sovereignty is the ability to make and form your own government and to determine your own membership. Sovereignty is not meaningful if laws are not made and enforced.”

In closing, Drent referred to Lohah as “a tireless advocate for all the work that we do. He had a vision of what the Nation could be and he believed so strongly in it and he did it with fight, humor, and with intellect and those are all the things we want to continue to bring to the Nation as we move forward. I hope that this building does good by the Nation, does well by the Nation and is well thought of by the people who use it.”

Osage Nation dignitaries, employees and community members gather to hear remarks at the groundbreaking of the new Osage Nation Judicial Building on Dec. 18, 2023. ECHO REED/Osage News

Author

  • Benny Polacca

    Title: Senior Reporter

    Email: bpolacca@osagenation-nsn.gov

    Instagram: @bpolacca

    Topic Expertise: Government, Tribal Government, Community

    Languages spoken: English, basic knowledge of Spanish and French

    Benny Polacca (Hopi/ Havasupai/ Pima/ Tohono O’odham) started working at the Osage News in 2009 as a reporter in Pawhuska, Okla., where he’s covered various stories and events that impact the Osage Nation and Osage people. Those newspaper contributions cover a broad spectrum of topics and issues from tribal government matters to features. As a result, Polacca has gained an immeasurable amount of experience in covering Native American affairs, government issues and features so the Osage readership can be better informed about the tribal current affairs the newspaper covers.

    Polacca is part of the Osage News team that was awarded the Native American Journalists Association's Elias Boudinet Free Press Award in 2014 and has won numerous NAJA media awards, as well as awards from the Oklahoma Press Association and SPJ Oklahoma Pro Chapter, for storytelling coverage and photography.

    Polacca earned his bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University and also participated in the former American Indian Journalism Institute at the University of South Dakota where he was introduced to the basics of journalism and worked with seasoned journalists there and later at The Forum daily newspaper covering the Fargo, N.D. area where he worked as the weeknight reporter.

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Benny Polacca
Benny Polaccahttps://osagenews.org

Title: Senior Reporter

Email: bpolacca@osagenation-nsn.gov

Instagram: @bpolacca

Topic Expertise: Government, Tribal Government, Community

Languages spoken: English, basic knowledge of Spanish and French

Benny Polacca (Hopi/ Havasupai/ Pima/ Tohono O’odham) started working at the Osage News in 2009 as a reporter in Pawhuska, Okla., where he’s covered various stories and events that impact the Osage Nation and Osage people. Those newspaper contributions cover a broad spectrum of topics and issues from tribal government matters to features. As a result, Polacca has gained an immeasurable amount of experience in covering Native American affairs, government issues and features so the Osage readership can be better informed about the tribal current affairs the newspaper covers.

Polacca is part of the Osage News team that was awarded the Native American Journalists Association's Elias Boudinet Free Press Award in 2014 and has won numerous NAJA media awards, as well as awards from the Oklahoma Press Association and SPJ Oklahoma Pro Chapter, for storytelling coverage and photography.

Polacca earned his bachelor’s degree from Arizona State University and also participated in the former American Indian Journalism Institute at the University of South Dakota where he was introduced to the basics of journalism and worked with seasoned journalists there and later at The Forum daily newspaper covering the Fargo, N.D. area where he worked as the weeknight reporter.

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