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Questions and accusations spark fiery debate among chief candidates

The Osage News Editorial Board held its Primary Candidate Debate via Zoom on the evening of March 16. Video of the debate is available on YouTube

The debate between three candidates running for principal chief of the Osage Nation turned testy, with Joe Tillman poking at the management skills of Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear and Standing Bear, in turn, expressing disdain for his opponents’ ignorance of certain issues.

The debate, sponsored by the Osage News Editorial Board, was held via Zoom on March 16. Questions were submitted by Osages from across the country and selected by the board.

Standing Bear, who is seeking a third term as chief to “finish the work” his administration started, repeatedly skewered Tillman and fellow candidate, Osage Congress Speaker Angela Pratt.

Spreading the impact

The first question, submitted by Marsha Harlan, centered on what the Nation would do to improve the economies of Fairfax and Hominy since that of Pawhuska is already blossoming.

Standing Bear was first to respond, noting that new senior housing is being built in both cities, that the Nation just purchased 40 acres in Hominy for a WahZhaZhe Early Learning Academy and Title VI elder nutrition, and that Hominy was home to the new Butcher House Meats, a large meat processing plant that sells some cuts of beef and bison, often well below normal retail and with a 10 percent discount to members of the Osage and four other tribes.

He also said that the Nation has preserved the Tallchief mansion in Fairfax as a future tourist attraction and that he hopes to persuade Congress to help fund its renovation.

Tillman was dismissive. “I don’t know how senior housing is geared to economic development at all,” he said, adding that Butcher House wasn’t expected to turn a profit for at least two years. He advocated infrastructure improvements, including broadband, to help build tourism.

“It all starts at the hub in Pawhuska,” Tillman said. “It’s about being able to divert all that traffic to go to Fairfax/Grayhorse, to go to Hominy, and see what those wonderful towns have to offer.”

Pratt said that she had pondered the issue for a long time and believes it boils down to communication, a skill she said she strongly possesses.

“I do believe that we have not prioritized the other communities,” she said. “I even sponsored an appropriation for a piece of land in Hominy and no one showed up to the auction.”

When it came time for a one-minute rebuttal, Standing Bear struck: “Under my leadership we actually do things. A lot of people talk, and they don’t do anything … To say that meat at a lower price is not economic development is incorrect. It’s important that people have affordable food. It is also important that people have affordable housing.

“All of the propaganda I’ve been hearing from my opponents are critiques and no plan, they have no plan because they’ve never done it. They just talk. I hate to say it that way but I know these people and they’re good people, but they don’t know how to do it.”

Tillman shot back that a 10 percent discount on meat mattered little if one must drive any distance. He added: “We’ve been preparing for eight years for economic development in Hominy and Fairfax. Where are the results? I don’t see them.”

Repatriating headrights

The next question centered on what the candidates would do to recover Osage headrights that had been stolen or given to non-Osages and return them to their heirs of their former owners.

Tillman was first up. The fault, he said, lay with the U.S. government and how the 1906 Osage Allotment Act had been worded, errors that ultimately led to the Reign of Terror in which Osages were murdered and swindled for their headrights by greedy predators.

“We can pray about it all we want but it’s not going to happen,” Tillman said. He said the Nation needs to sit down with the churches, schools and non-Osage people who own headrights to negotiate their return. “If we just get one to start, then slowly the dominoes will start to fall,” he said.

Pratt noted that her uncle, Charles Pratt, was one of the original plaintiffs in the Fletcher federal lawsuit whose original aim was to recover headrights from non-Osages, a suit that caused a stir when hundreds of such people and institutions were named publicly for the first time. She said that she had heard that the Nation had been asked to join in the case but had declined. Lately, she said, “There was talks with the chief: ‘Is anyone going to go pick that up and start moving forward with it?’”

Standing Bear issued a withering response. “Speaker Pratt and Congressman Tillman just don’t understand what’s going on,” he said. “It’s complicated. It’s a tough question so I didn’t expect them to understand it.”

The latest incarnation of the federal lawsuit doesn’t seek to restore alienated headrights to Osage at all, but instead demands an accounting of how royalty funds were distributed to headright owners.

Standing Bear said that the 1906 Act had “allowances” in it that permitted non-Osages to obtain headrights, a flaw that was finally repaired in 1978.

“For pre-1978 losses, which were the majority, we’re going to have to find a way to nationalize those headrights,” he said. “But when you do that, those people that have them have the right to compensation. So, if you take property, you have to pay for it one way or the other. The only way to get that money is to bring another lawsuit – or build on Amanda Proctor’s lawsuit (to recover alienated headrights) and sue the United States for an overall breach of trust responsibility and ask the U.S. Congress to appropriate funds to those families and heirs.”

 Tillman appeared to take offense at Standing Bear’s needling.

“These weren’t ‘allowances,’ Mr. Standing Bear. It was abused. It was clearly abused. So, when you say we don’t understand the facts, I think you don’t understand the facts. We’re going to have to try to find a way, and you’ve had eight years to try and find a way, and the question is posed tonight and you still don’t have an answer.”

Tillman said he would support federal legislation to reacquire the headrights: “We’ll make this happen.”

Pratt, too, complained about the lack of movement on the issue, repeating that Proctor had asked the Nation to join in the federal case that sought to repatriate headrights.

Standing Bear harrumphed. “It’s a Minerals Council matter,” he said. He added that he had met with Proctor and another attorney, Steve Stidham, several years ago and they had asked for money to send notices to everyone who might own a headright.

“The Osage Minerals Council should be the body that takes the lead,” Standing Bear said. “They’ve done some good work recently. I don’t believe in stepping into their business. And I don’t think that Speaker Pratt or Congressman Tillman know where that line is.”

Head Start

A question about bringing back the Head Start program elicited less heated – but still prickly – responses.

Standing Bear said he decided to axe the federally-subsidized program because it was too limiting for the Nation. Not only did it not allow the tribe to teach as much about Osage language and culture as he wanted, but its low income-based system often led to non-Osage children being admitted and Osage children being left out.

He said he went so far as to try to find a workaround when he met with then-President Barack Obama and his secretary of education, but none was to be had. As a result, the Nation started its own schools in which more than 100 children are enrolled and over which it exercises greater autonomy.

Tillman argued that the Cherokee Nation is spending $40 million to bolster its own Head Start program and said that the Osage Nation had lost a great deal of money by shutting down Head Start.

“For every dollar the Nation spent, we got $3.72 from the federal government,” Tillman said “And we did teach language in Head Start. We were talking Osage in Head Start. But after 40 years, this administration decided to eliminate Head Start.

“It’s nice to be sitting in the East Wing and all that but I was sitting in Buffalo Joe’s having a glass of tea, talking about the concept of investing in our children. All options are on the table.  We have lost income that we could be investing in our children.”

Pratt said that she agreed with the Chief’s decision. “He did have a disagreement with the director of Head Start on how much language and culture to incorporate.

“I didn’t really think at the time that you start a whole new school or learning academy because you have a disagreement with the director, but I did in the end agree with his other reasoning because non-Osage children were having preference over our children.”

Including Osages outside the reservation

Pratt was first in line to respond to a question from Dawn Bennett of Dallas about how the candidates intended to be more inclusive of Osages who live outside Osage County.

“Folks say ‘You want us to vote for you, what else do we get out here?’” Pratt said. “The answer is probably nothing, for now. Because No. 1, w­­­­e have so many needs locally. We can’t waiver when it comes to our language and culture because we have to maintain who we are as people.

“As far as direct services and benefits, it’s probably where it’s at right now.”

Pratt said she did support expanding virtual language and culture programs that could be tapped by Osages everywhere.

Standing Bear noted that the Nation has several programs that have no residency requirements: the health benefit card and Medicare Part D benefits, the crisis assistance program, and others. “There’s always something we can do better,” he added. “Always.”

He also touted the “amazing work” employees are doing working with engineers to develop virtual language and culture programs that will soon go live.

“I cannot tell you enough about the great work our people are doing,” he said. “You’re going to love it. Just give them a little more time.”

Tillman noted that some of his colleagues – Pratt, it turned out – had tried to repeal funding for the regional Osage gatherings that take place in Texas, California, Colorado and other states. “I think we should increase the amount of money for regional gatherings,” he said. He added that he would support more virtual technology to make legal advice and medical visits accessible to Osages outside the Osage.

Pratt said she had filed the bill not to deny funding for the meetings but because she thought the donations supporting the groups should come from the Office of the Chiefs.

Core traits

Jean Dennison of Seattle penned the fifth question, asking what core traits the candidates would seek for those they hired in their administration – she used the word “cabinet.”

“I don’t know if I’d call it my cabinet or appointments,” Tillman responded, “but my goal is to surround myself with brilliant minds, the smartest people you can find and let them do their jobs.

“I want to pull us out of the mess we’re in and move us in a good direction. You’ve seen the status quo and it’s not much.”

Pratt said she would look for people not only with good leadership skills but people who know the community’s needs. “I want folks that know and understand our government,” she said, suggesting that that means local people.

Standing Bear said he requires people who put sovereignty and the “WahZhaZhe first.” He said the past administrations had hired non-Osage attorneys and advisors who promoted the federal lawsuit that led to a disastrous ruling that the Osage Reservation no longer existed. He said that when he took office in 2014, two-thirds of the tribal employees were non-Osage and some were openly hostile to Osages. Today, he said, two-thirds of employees are Osage or married to Osages, and eight or the nine gaming commissioners are Osage, where before only one was.

“Joe Tillman worked for that administration and he’s partly to blame for having non-Osages come take over our Nation,” Standing Bear said. “Don’t let the outsiders come in … They want to take our money from us. Let’s make this whole place Osage.

“It starts with language and culture. That’s what I think.”

Tillman retorted with a question – “How many Osages have left during your administration?” – and said that he has always been a “huge advocate of language and culture.”

“Your words are falling on deaf ears,” he told Standing Bear. “Leadership isn’t knowing the answers, it’s empowering people to find solutions … It’s as easy as the nose on your face. It’s time for change.”  

Four treasurers, tardy audits?

The final question sparked some fireworks. It centered on a question from Leaf Mushrush regarding the reason the Nation has had four treasurers in the past eight years – and why the administration allegedly has failed to deliver audits to Congress in a timely fashion – questions that Tillman has asked repeatedly.

Standing Bear was first to respond. “We turned in the audit in December of last year,” he said. “I’ve seen all the false statements. It’s been in the hands of Congress and that’s the only audit I have any control over.”

Standing Bear squarely blamed Congress for the churn of treasurers. Callie Catcher, he said, resigned for health reasons but her successors, Sam Alexander and Jim Littleton, were run off by Congress. “Sam Alexander is a CPA of many years, a Vietnam combat veteran. He endured a lot of insults from people less educated than him.

“Jim Littleton was a good man, and he was asked to resign or they had 10 votes to remove him.”

The pool of experienced CPAs with tribal experience is small, he added, and they react to overtures from the Osage Nation with some revulsion because of how Alexander was treated.

“They will say why should we come to such a place where Congress behaves the way they do,” Standing Bear said.

Said Tillman: “Yeah, Chief: You have a Congress that demands accountability, that’s what you have.” Tillman insisted that audits are overdue, and that the 2021 audit hasn’t even begun.

Alexander, he said, was “doing illegal things and breaking the law, shifting line items.”

“Littleton resigned for reasons you didn’t state,” Tillman continued. “It was a lack of vision; leadership and it was censorship.”

Pratt piled on, saying that the past two treasurers were “derelict in their duty” and that the accounting office had been in “disarray” under their leadership.

She also complained of “juvenile” behavior, recounting an incident where Congress had to subpoena documents and around 60 boxes were delivered – containing a single piece of paper.

Standing Bear declared the accusations “pathetic.”

“I’m going to stand by Sam Alexander and Jim Littleton,” Standing Bear said. “The CPA board never found them guilty of anything or indicated that there was any wrongdoing.”


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Louise Red Corn
Louise Red Corn has suffered from wanderlust for decades: She has lived and worked as a journalist and photographer in Rome, Italy, New York City, Detroit, Kentucky, Mississippi and Oklahoma, where she published The Bigheart Times for 12 years. She loves diving in-depth into just about any topic but is especially fond of covering legal issues, perhaps because her parents were both lawyers. She is married to Assistant Principal Chief Raymond Red Corn, who enticed her to move to the Osage Reservation in 2004. She and her husband live south of Pawhuska with one extremely large dog named Max, one extremely energetic dog named Pepper, and, if he bothers to make an appearance, a surly cat named Stinky.

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