The two candidates for principal chief of the Osage Nation faced off April 30 in a debate that featured much of the same rhetoric and messaging both have put forth before.
Congressman Joe Tillman assailed the administration of his opponent, incumbent Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear, as lacking leadership and vision, and Standing Bear shot back that a Tillman administration would slam the brakes on the progress his administration has made over the past eight years.
“When I hear, ‘Time for change,’ it sounds like time to go back to ‘Talk and not do anything,’” Standing Bear said. “I believe in making things happen.”
The candidates both answered six questions that ranged from how they would reach out to Osages across the country to how they would capitalize on the expected tourism boom that should accompany the release of Martin Scorsese’s film “Killers of the Flower Moon,” about the Osage Reign of Terror.
Explain how your platform includes outreach AND participation from Osages across the country. – Nathan Hauth, Oklahoma City
Tillman said he would like to apply the lessons learned during the Covid-19 pandemic to the future, to offer teleconferencing medical and legal services to Osages nationwide, as well as to expand the WahZhaZhe Health Clinic’s pharmacy to deliver medications to all Osages “at very low cost or even free.”
Getting legal advice by teleconference, Tillman added, would help Osages nationally should they be facing eviction or other legal woes. Not everyone, he said, has $3,000 or more to pay a lawyer a retainer.
Standing Bear said he would continue to move forward with national and international connections using the broadband currently being installed, using that to reach out to everyone about Osage language and culture, but also noted the importance of “brick-and-mortar” projects like the new Wakon Iron Chapel and senior housing that just opened in Pawhuska, with more units poised to open in Fairfax, and planned on land the Nation has purchased in Hominy and Skiatook.
In rebuttal, Tillman alleged that the tribe had spent $180 million in federal money on “wonderful facilities,” but that “there are no plans in place for sustainability.”
“All of our eggs are in one basket,” Tillman said. “If something happens to gaming, we’re in big jeopardy.
Standing Bear retorted that his administration doesn’t spend anything unless it has been approved by Congress.
If elected, how are you going to help our special needs/ handicap members? – Renee Harris, Fairfax
Standing Bear said the Nation, for the large part, relies on federal funds and with that funding they bult the Heritage Trail with over a mile of concrete trail. He said all Osage Nation buildings are ADA accessible and that the Nation follows federal guidelines to maintain that accessibility.
“We add tribal funds to federal funds; any federal monies that goes into that project requires the whole tribal funds to be consistent with the federal guidelines,” he said. “So, we do that now. Renee, if you have any ideas on how we can get better, we’re all ears.”
Tillman said the question hit home with him and that he had a younger brother who was severely physically and mentally handicapped and passed away at the age of 40.
“This is personal for me and something I have always thought about, what are we doing for our special needs kids, whether it be in schools, whether they need special teachers, whether they need special testing, whether they need special equipment, whatever it is to make it through grades K-12,” Tillman said. “As far as elders go, are we providing them with enough services such as the remodeling of their homes, remodeling the ramps in their homes, their bathrooms, where they cook.”
He said the upcoming Osage Nation Census will be able to identify those Osage families with handicapped needs and said the issue would be a priority of his administration.
With the projected increase in tourist activity due to the release of the upcoming movie, what steps are you taking or planning to take to diversify economic development in Osage County? – Faren Anderson, Pawhuska
In response to a question about how each candidate would diversify economic development, Tillman continued to take shots at Standing Bear, who he accused of spending “zero dollars” on economic development. When he was speaker of the Congress, Tillman said, he would watch “hundreds of thousands of people” walk through downtown Pawhuska, yet “we did nothing to capitalize on those people walking through downtown.” He also lamented that the tribe owns the former First National Bank in Pawhuska, which sits cattycorner from the Pioneer Woman Mercantile, a tourist draw in town.
Standing Bear replied that his administration has been wanting to use the bank building – but Congress took it over for offices soon after the Nation bought it. He also said that his office had proposed forming an office of economic development but it was shot down by Congress, its budget denied.
As the Osage Nation implements more health services programs, how will we know that they are effective and are a good use of the Nation’s money? Be specific. – Dr. Layton Lamsam, Branford, Conn.
Currently, the chief said, more needs to be done in Fairfax and Grayhorse, especially to memorialize the ballerinas Maria and Marjorie Tallchief, whose childhood mansion the Standing Bear administration is proposing to renovate.
Tillman was dismissive of Standing Bear’s proposed and rejected economic development office, describing it as an “impulsive” move without a solid plan backing it up.
Regarding healthcare, Standing Bear acknowledged that the health clinic had suffered from some problems stemming from pandemic stress and overwork but that his office had worked with Congresswoman Paula Stabler on legislation to create an autonomous health-care enterprise called Si-Si A-Pe-Txa (The Healing Place) that will oversee the clinic, and, for greater accountability, have it operate under an annual plan.
Despite “disgruntled employees taking to social media on the internet,” Standing Bear said that there is a lot of great work going on at the clinic.
Tillman said he is an acquaintance of Dr. Lamsam, a neurosurgeon, and that he is very aware of the disgruntled former employees, but he is also aware of the disgruntled patients.
Tillman zeroed in on the medical doctors who have left the clinic: the late Ron Shaw, Cameron Rumsey, Trudy Milner, Amanda Bighorse and Patrick Tinker, the latter of whom served on the Health Authority Board but did not work at the clinic.
“Those are five excellent doctors who can’t work here because of lack of vision and leadership,” Tillman said.
Standing Bear told about 200 people attending the debate: “Please ask Dr. Bighorse why she’s leaving. Talk to Cameron Rumsey. These slanted views are not the same views that were expressed to me. Check it out yourself.”
Under your leadership, will you require your appointed staff members to follow the policy and procedures as outlined in the HR manual, just as ALL Osage Nation employees are required? If not, what standards would you hold them to? – Jackie Wilcox, Pawhuska
The candidates appeared to believe a question about the standards to which appointed employees of the Nation would be held was a reference to recent news coverage on allegations of sexual harassment that a tribal employee made against a member of Standing Bear’s staff.
Two documents and a screenshot of a text message thread were leaked to the Osage News about the allegations, one an email from the purported victim of the harassment and the other a letter from a lawyer asking for $125,000 to settle her claims. There was no evidence presented to the Osage News that the Nation paid the claim, although an attendee at the gathering of Osages in Southern California recently mentioned a $50,000 settlement payment that prompted Standing Bear to demand the source of that information. The attendee refused to say.
Tillman responded to the question by saying he’d approach hiring appointees like hiring coaching staff: he said he will hold appointees “to the highest standard of ethics and morals and dress code and behavior and language and how they conduct themselves with our directors.”
“These folks will be held to the highest standards and there will be no exceptions at all, so that when one of them is brought up on charges and one of them has been accused with allegations and we turn those in to the attorney general’s office or HR, they will be met with fierceness from me,” Tillman said. “Because at the end of the day, it’s me who’s in charge and nothing is going to slip through the cracks.
Standing Bear said the letter from the Drummond Law Firm wasn’t enough on which to base any educated conclusion.
“I’ve been practicing law for 34 years and I know that you wait for the investigation before you jump to conclusions,” he said. “Any situation that is not in line with our policies is investigated and if it is serious it is sent to outside legal counsel and they make recommendations – which is what was done.”
Tillman rebutted: “I didn’t know the Drummond law firm wrote the complaint for the victim.”
How will you build trust with employees and members of the Osage Nation? – Lisa Yates, Joplin, Mo.
The final question centered on how each candidate would build trust with both employees and citizens of the Osage Nation.
Standing Bear said that communication was the key, and that he has been and promised to be accessible to all Osages. “You have to stay in contact with people, you have to listen to people, and that’s what I’ve done since I was assistant chief back in the day. I get calls every day, sometimes seven days a week. And I love it.”
Tillman painted Standing Bear in darker colors, saying that tribal employees had seen their “employee appreciation day” taken away, along with Christmas parties. He said employees need more special awards and recognition, perhaps even an extra day off for some.
“I’ve been approached by so many that tell me, ‘I can’t be seen with you, I can’t come to your dinners or anything you do, Joe, because I might lose my job.’
“What kind of leadership is that? Tell me? It’s not. It’s not.”
Standing Bear scoffed at the allegations. “Once again, it’s more made-up stuff,” he said.
“We’re going to keep pushing forward. We have a good group of employees.”
Tillman agreed that communication with Osages nationwide is needed. “I just found out today we have 500 Osages in Colorado,” he said. “Who knew? Who knew? What are we doing for them? We need better communication. Don’t just send them to a website and a video. You’ve got to be on the phone engaging with these folks.”
When they made their final statements, Tillman thanked God and described himself as a man of faith. “I believe this nation has unlimited potential and we have not tapped that under the current administration,” he said. “There’s a lot of room for improvement. Together we can build this together and go forward in a positive and proud way.
“It’s time for change. If you want change, we need votes.”
Standing Bear countered that Tillman seemed to be all talk, no action.
As evidence of his own actions, Standing Bear offered a brief recap of the week leading up to the debate, during which he traveled to Osage Beach, Mo., for a benefit auction spreading goodwill as plans progress for a new casino there, celebrated the completion of new senior housing and a new Wakon Iron Chapel in Pawhuska, praised Harvest Land for holding a farmer’s market with fresh food and plants, and met with officials from Harp’s grocery store to help ensure that the chain stays in Pawhuska rather than shut down like groceries did in Hominy and Fairfax.
“All these things are happening because people are following a plan,” Standing Bear said. “We have a plan and people are working very hard. I’m asking for four more years to finish this up and solidify things.
“With the opposition and his team, it’s all going to come to a halt.
“I’m very concerned about Missouri. We need to close that deal, we need to make it work.”
Editor Shannon Shaw Duty and Senior reporter Benny Polacca contributed to this report.