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Sovereignty Symposium honors Osages and advances strategic plans

The Osage Tribal Singers performed ‘Wahzhazhe (A Song For My People)’ at the Sovereignty Symposium, a law conference which honored Chief Standing Bear and Associate Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Homer, and also brought Osages to panels on culture, language, and more

TULSA, Okla. – Dean David Holt of Oklahoma City University’s School of Law was nervous for his school to host the Sovereignty Symposium—a prestigious Indian Law conference now in its 36th year. But after the Osage Tribal Singers performed at the opening ceremony, Holt appeared to be well-at-ease as he awarded a very shocked Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear a medal and gorget as “Honored One” at the symposium.

“We could not have asked for a more serious or focused leader,” said Holt, who had previously asked the chief to deliver a keynote speech on “Killers of the Flower Moon.”As a result, Standing Bear was unsuspecting as he accepted the award and remembered a friend of his who had received the same honor. “It’s very humbling, very humbling,” he said.

The chief opened his keynote speech with a story about “Killers of the Flower Moon” and sovereign storytelling. He said, “When we found out David Grann’s excellent book was going to be made into a movie, our main concern was not to let it become Hollywood telling our story. We have to tell our story.” To do so, he said, the tribe insisted the movie include the Osage language and the Language Department created a month-long immersion program for principal actors, with ongoing coaching that followed.

“Our language carries our culture, and we still have a huge amount of our culture, as you can see from these singers who know hundreds of songs,” Standing Bear said, as he gestured to the Osage Tribal Singers on his right. “Many of you say, ‘follow that drum.’ It’s just fitting that they got to [perform at the] Academy Awards. … Even Steven Spielberg stood up.”

Standing Bear also noted the Osage people have not yet mastered how to “recreate the process” of collaborating on more large-scale movies, but implied that they intend to do so because movies help the world understand what tribes are accomplishing. “While we were assisting with Martin Scorsese’s team, we were helping ourselves, showing we have come this far,” he said.

Following the keynote, the symposium entered into breakout sessions, beginning with concurrent panels on language and art. Braxton Redeagle gave an overview of the tribe’s language revitalization efforts in one panel while Oscar-nominated singer Scott George reflected on a life of singing, composing and painting alongside Ponca singer Brent Greenwood and other tribal musicians and artists.  

In subsequent panels, Standing Bear spoke on food sovereignty in agriculture. “If I was a young lawyer, this is the field I’d be in, full-time,” he said of agricultural law. He noted that in tribal agriculture, one focus of the Nation has been research, and universities such as Oklahoma State University, Kansas State, University of Missouri and University of Arkansas have helped the tribe with research goals.  

The chief also said the tribe is currently involved in strategic planning in how to best move forward when it comes to agriculture. “We need to know what is the best course of action,” he said. That is why he came to the panel—to learn from the other tribes’ efforts. “I’m going to be watching you guys and see how successful you are.”

One of the Nation’s collaborators, Carly Griffith Hotvedt, associate executive director of the Indigenous Food and Agricultural Initiative, was also on the panel and noted the Bureau of Indian Affairs did an abysmal job protecting areas on and underneath of the Ted Turner Ranch, and the Nation has now inherited that damage. For example, the portion of the Ada-Vamoosa aquifer underneath the Osage Nation Ranch is highly salinized due to fracking injections, and the Department of Natural Resources has the predicament of issuing further fracking permits which can threaten whether important water sources are potable.

Chief Standing Bear affirmed that agriculture issues also affect water, and this has put pressure on the Nation. “We’ve had two of our grant writers say this is just too much pressure, because water is connected to this issue. … The USDA is my new favorite federal agency. … [because the] USDA has a lot of programs,” he said, and expressed the hope that hiring more grant writers will help the Nation get grants that will both develop agriculture opportunities while mitigating damage to water sources. “You’ve got to be organized with your program folks to [get the grants.] There’s a lot of growth in this field [of agriculture],” he said.

On the second day of the symposium, Margo Gray of the United Indian Nations of Oklahoma presented on commerce and urged tribal people to go into business at an international level. “We can do anything,” she said, and shared resources for growing Native-owned businesses. In a concurrent panel, Associate Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Lohah Homer joined a panel on gaming and presented on her award-winning essay published in the symposium booklet, “Why Can’t We All Just Get Along.” The essay won the Sovereignty Symposium’s Hager Prize and serves as a resource for lawyers who are negotiating tribal gaming compacts.

The essay outlines a new definition of “meaningful concession, in gaming negotiations with the state,” she explained. “So, if the state is wanting something … they have to give something the tribe doesn’t already have [in return]. What was the state going to offer us that was of at least some value to the tribe? … The purpose [of gaming] is to provide resources so we can have a strong tribal government. We now have these definitions that take the most important points out of twenty years of litigation,” she said.

One panel at the symposium on water interested Osages and other Dhegihan people but did not include panel members from the tribes. Of the water panel on resources and law, Kaw Nation Tribal Council Secretary Carol Clark said water rights issues are ongoing and need more communication. Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear attended the session, as part of an ongoing effort to get abreast of and begin to tackle vast Osage water rights issues.

Due to the overlap of the symposium with preparations for the Hominy Inlonshka dances, Congress member and lawyer Billy Keene were unable to attend the conference, but he said he has been reviewing questions around water rights and will pick up on that work after his responsibilities around the dances are completed.

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Chelsea T. Hicks
Chelsea T. Hickshttps://osagenews.org
Title: Staff Reporter
Email: chelsea.hicks@osagenation-nsn.gov
Languages spoken: English
Chelsea T. Hicks’ past reporting includes work for Indian Country Today, SF Weekly, the DCist, the Alexandria Gazette-Packet, Connection Newspapers, Aviation Today, Runway Girl Network, and elsewhere. She has also written for literary outlets such as the Paris Review, Poetry, and World Literature Today. She is Wahzhazhe, of Pawhuska District, belonging to the Tsizho Washtake, and is a descendant of Ogeese Captain, Cyprian Tayrien, Rosalie Captain Chouteau, Chief Pawhuska I, and her iko Betty Elsey Hicks. Her first book, A Calm & Normal Heart, won the 5 Under 35 Award from the National Book Foundation. She holds an MA from the University of California, Davis, and an MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts.
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