James R. Gray: Government Reform: Mobilizing Citizen Participation

Native Nations Institute

Former Osage Nation Principal Chief Jim Gray explains the significant citizen-engagement hurdle the Osage Nation had to overcome in creating a new constitution and governance system, and how its ability to cultivate citizen participation and ownership in the development of Osage's new government played a critical role in its development of a 25-year strategic plan for the Nation.

Native Nations
Resource Type

Gray, James R. "Government Reform: Mobilizing Citizen Participation." Emerging Leaders Seminar. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Tucson, Arizona. March 26, 2008. Presentation.

"Well, thank you all. I really want to recognize Priscilla's [Iba] work on this. One thing -- I like to tell a story about Priscilla -- is that, while she covered a good portion of what my experience was in watching what they were doing during the government reform process, it was pretty clear that things were not going well at first. And this was before Hepsi [Barnett] arrived and it was somewhat chaotic. The group of commissioners were holding a meeting and they were deliberating on that fact that they couldn't get anything done and they couldn't get anything started and they couldn't get momentum going to start this process and they were discussing the idea that we just need to call the, get on the agenda for the council and tell them that we can't do it. And Priscilla said, 'No, we're not going to. I'm not going to be a part of anything that's going to fail.' And she just put her foot down and rallied that whole group of people together and they got busy again. And I really admire her for that because when they start talking about this government years from now, and they'll talk about some of the critical moments that took place to make this thing go, I have to admit I think Priscilla's little speech that she gave to her commissioners that day was one of those critical moments that had she not done that I don't think we would have gotten it done. So I just want to thank you for that.

The topic that I've been asked to talk about is citizen participation. As a tribal leader yourself, you know that oftentimes -- once you hold an election and you're sworn into office and you start doing your job as a legislator or as a representative to the executive branch or in some kind of leadership role for the tribe -- you find yourself busy going about the business of governing; and that means doing a lot of internal work, doing a lot of program management, doing a lot of administrative work, budgets and various other issues, legislatively, of getting things accomplished. But in that respect what we have accomplished in this regard was that, while the campaign to elect officials was done in 2002, the mandate that the people gave us at that time -- and this is true for those people who were elected to the 31st Council -- ironically, I didn't think it was lost on any of us that once we got in, we realized and looked at each other, we realized that every one of us who got elected ran on this issue of government reform and membership.

And while the only people who were allowed to vote in that election were those individuals who had inherited an interest in the mineral state, that group only represented 25 percent of the tribe's population. And so you got a group of basically, people who owned a property interest in the oil and gas activity of our reservation. We're the only ones who had any political rights whatsoever. And while we used our CDIB program to recognize Osages with blood, they did not have any political rights to vote in an election or to run for office. And as Priscilla covered it greatly that these people were like second-class citizens within the tribe, and the only way you could get an interest in the mineral estate is if, your parents had to pass away, and you inherited their interest, your fractionated share of it, if you had brothers and sisters in your family. And so over the years, of the 2,229 original allottees and original head rights shares that were issued at that time, by 2002 they were split up to about 4,500 different people. So some people got to vote two, three votes. Some people got to vote one third or one half or an eighth or a sixteenth of a vote. And so it wasn't equal in any way at all, and it gave people a sense of superiority. It gave people a sense of inferiority if you weren't an interest, didn't hold an interest in the mineral state.

And so realizing the social dynamics of 100 years of that, that was managed and operated and enforced by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, it created a schism within our tribe that was really hard to deal with when we first came to office and we realized that what the people had asked for were two things. One, let's fix the government so that any individual -- Osage -- who desires to be a part of the tribe can be a part of the tribe in a new government that respects them politically. But don't mess with my head right because that's mine. And given the high oil prices that we're having right now, you can imagine how valuable that is. The current head right prices are going about $28,000 a year for each individual share. So it's a property interest, it's a money issue, but it's also the social dynamic of trying to convince 75 percent of our population of our tribe to get back involved. And it was a very timid, it was a very nervous, it was very -- I guess the right word was -- is that they were humble, they were quiet and they were very introverted about the whole process. [Because] they didn't want to say anything, they didn't want to do anything, they didn't want to speak in any kind of way constructively to the government reform commission or even our strategic planning task force -- that had town hall meetings last year -- on the issue of whether or not there was people that were related to them in the room. Elders, grandparents, aunts and uncles who were head right owners and they didn't want to make any of them mad by saying anything that was going to offend them.

So we had to really work hard to break through a hundred years of what I call bureaucratic dysfunction that split this tribe in two. And the goal to try to bring the tribe together was probably the biggest challenge. And even though we accomplished it on paper -- and we went through a lot of hard work internally to make sure that the process was as open, as fair and as transparent as we possibly could -- we were not free from ridicule, we weren't free from gossip, conspiracy theories, undermining and -- I would even go as far as to say that -- we got some of that undermining from the Bureau of Indian Affairs themselves. Because unlike other tribal governments and constitutions...Well, let me just ask you. How many here are governed by an IRA constitution? So there's some of them. Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act? There's some others out there that are governed by federal law that require the Bureau of Indian Affairs to manage the control of what goes in your constitution and how it's enforced. And we didn't have a constitution for a hundred years. We were governed by an act of Congress that not only allotted our lands, preserved our mineral state, but at the same time defined who an Osage was and who got to participate in the political process of the tribe, what the powers were of the council, what they could and couldn't do, and how long their terms were, and a whole variety of other things that was outlined in Section 9 of the 1906 Act. So the big thing that we did by getting this new legislation passed was to take Section 9 and just throw it out and insert that into this process. So despite how it was done in the past, we were free to redesign it with only one caveat is that we weren't going to interfere with anybody's interest in the mineral estate. So if you got ahead right before, you're still going to have a head right after this process was over with, and that we made sure.

But to get back to the point, is that we had to overcome such an internal and external effort to try to derail it and undermine it or capitalize or make fun of it or in any kind of way devalue what took us a hundred years to get back, which was our inherent sovereignty to form our own government and determine our own citizens. And so while this process managed to go down the road, we realized early on that just getting the constitution passed wasn't going to be enough. We got it on paper, we got people to vote, we got a positive result and it became really clear at the outset that once these new officials were put in, they were of the same mindset of the old tribal council model that was in the 1906 Act that we operated in over the last hundred years [because] it was the only thing they were familiar with. So they brought all their expectations and ideas and the way they wanted to get things done into a government that wasn't reflective of that. And so there's some real cognitive dissonance out there. Everybody wanted change but just keep everything the same. Well, you could understand how impossible that was going to be. So what we did was that we went back and tried to make a couple of efforts.

One was to have a process called strategic planning. Not just for this term of office for these elected officials, but more importantly for the next generation of Osages that are coming down the road. [Because] there were a few things that I identified really quick. One was that during the 31st Council we got into gaming in a very big way. And so when this new administration came on board, we had four operating casinos at that point. In the last two years since the election, we've opened three more. We now have seven casinos -- a couple of them you can fit in this room, so I'm not going to brag too much about our efforts here. But really we put a lot of people to work. We've done a lot of good things with it. And we've reinvested those monies back into tribal programs providing services, educational scholarships, preservation of our language and our culture and our museums, providing additional services for our elders, expanding our health care services and moving down a road that many other tribes have already gone down.

But what was really clear at the very beginning is that, especially during the campaign for chief and council and the minerals council positions and all these candidates, we had 64 candidates run for 20 offices. So whenever there was a political forum, it was a four-hour affair. There were more candidates than we had citizens who were looking to vote were showing up at these things. And they were going out and they're saying, 'Okay, if I get elected we're going to build a lake on our reservation and we're going to provide tourism capabilities. If I get elected, we're going to buy our land back and get our reservation back, get our land base started. If I get elected, I want to make sure everyone gets universal healthcare coverage,' and it goes on and on and on. One day I was just writing it all down and I said, 'Unfortunately, there's a lot of good ideas out there,' and what was really clear was that everybody had a pretty good idea of what we could be doing with our gaming money when they were campaigning.

We've never seen it before. All the money that we got in the past from oil and gas royalties went straight to those shareholders. The tribe never saw a dime of it. So once we got gaming we had, administratively speaking, millions and millions of dollars sitting in our laps where before we'd never even had it before. So I was explaining to the public one day, I said, 'We're going to have maybe $10 to $20 million dollars on any given year that we can reinvest in any short-term or long-term projects that's unobligated, that's not taken away from health, social, educational and cultural programs. This is just unobligated funds that we could put in the bank, we can reinvest it, put it in the stock market, whatever.' And during this forum I started adding it up and if all these candidates got what they wanted by getting elected and was able to implement what they promised if they got elected, there's $800 million roughly of expenses that are tied to everyone of these promises. Now if you only got $10 to $20 million a year to play with, how are you going to deliver on $800 million worth of promises?

It was really clear that we had to come up with some kind of way of making the argument that this constitution that's up there on the screen a minute ago, that we can use this document to help meet our goals over the next generation, not just for this term of office. Because in the past, what we've always came across was that we would get people elected and they would engage in a series of four year projects, stuff that they could get done right before election day so that they can campaign on something. And so what we tried to do is get people to break out of that model and talk to our Congress and be able to say, 'Look, this...look at this preamble. This doesn't speak to anything about any four-year projects. It talks about the ancient history of the tribe and how we want to preserve it for future history of our tribe as well.' And we had to realize that growing out of this mindset of four-year projects, four-year campaign promises, and not really vetting anything, not really evaluating whether or not we can actually afford to provide universal healthcare for our kids and every member of our citizens of our nation of 15,000 people. There's no way we're going to be able to come across with a legitimate plan that is going to buy land back, advertise it in public so everyone knows the Osages are dedicating millions of dollars to buy their land back, and then have all the white ranchers come up and jack up the price four times its value. You can think of all kinds of reasons why you need to sit down and think this through before you do it. And so we engaged in this process of strategic planning using this constitution as the base of how we're going to accomplish it, utilizing the three branches of government -- the executive, the legislative and judicial branches -- to prioritize what each one's responsibility is going to be. Take the tribal programs and put together a priority list of how many programs are going to be involved in engaging in this project and that project -- how we're going to vet them, how we're going to determine the value of them.

All these things we did over the last year and a half. It took us 15 months to do this. But we got research, we had Native Nations [Institute] come down and give us a presentation on strategic planning. We also went back out in the communities again. We got past the issue of what kind of government you wanted. The question at that point was, 'What do you want the government to do, not just for you today but what do you want your children and grandchildren to do?' And so we engaged in a series of public hearings, we had this discussion, it was facilitated by an outside facilitator from the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, and we put together a document of understanding who we were in our past, understanding what our history was -- not only our tribal history but our personal family history. And then once we got an agreement on how our history evolved, then we took it to the next step of telling everybody, 'Now that we know this, what do you want us to do with it in the future?' And all these ideas came out. Instead of campaign promises they were citizens and, believe it or not, it was remarkably different than what the people campaigned on that got elected.

So we focused on those projects diversifying our economic base, developing more tourism capabilities, becoming more green in our environmental policies, which is remarkable because we've been an oil and gas tribe for the last hundred years. Who would have ever thought the Osages were a bunch of tree huggers? But that's what you get when you listen. You learn things about your own people that you didn't know was there. And we didn't just confine our conversation to those Osages that lived on the reservation. We went to California; we went to Arizona, we had one of our meetings in Phoenix; Denver; Dallas and Houston; Albuquerque; and of course Oklahoma City and Tulsa. We engaged in a conversation with 24 percent of our population, almost 3,000 people were participating in this process once we added them all up. By doing that we have produced a document that we sent back to them and said, 'This is what you've told us, did we get it right?' We went back there and talked to them again. 'Did we get it right? Is this what you told us?' Just to reaffirm that's true. We then prioritized...we had a list of projects that everybody wanted us to work on and we sent it to them in the form of a questionnaire. It went out to all Osages no matter where they lived and we got 24 percent return on those. Those things just kind of prioritized what people wanted most and how quickly. From there we were able to put implementation plans around each individual project. Once we got the implementation plan we were able to prioritize our legislative agenda to Congress. Congress got involved. They reconfigured all their Congressional committees to consistently fit each one of the six main areas of the strategic plan.

So now everyone's busy about the business of implementing a plan that I never would have thought possible six years ago. Because we're now thinking about the year 2029 and it's phenomenal, it really is, when you think about where we were and where we are now. Not to say we're still not free from gossip and conspiracy theories and various other things, but the vast majority of the Osages have become embraced with what we've accomplished at this point, because they now feel like they have just as much of an ownership in that plan and this constitution as any elected official does. Thank you."

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