Jim Gray: The Role of Citizen Engagement in Nation Building: The Osage Story

National Congress of American Indians

Jim Gray, former Principal Chief of the Osage Nation, provides an overview of how the Osage Nation completely overhauled its constitution and system of governance, sharing the strategies that Osage used to educate and engage its citizens in order to ensure that their new government reflected the will of the people.

This video resource is featured on the Indigenous Governance Database with the permission of the National Congress of American IndiansThe short film shown in this video resource is featured on the Indigenous Governance Database with the permission of the Osage Nation.

Native Nations
Resource Type

Gray, Jim. "The Role of Citizen Engagement in Nation Building: The Osage Story." 70th Annual Convention & Marketplace, National Congress of American Indians. Tulsa, Oklahoma. October 15, 2013. Presentation.

Ian Record:

"And at this point I wanted to turn the floor over to Jim Gray. I mentioned, for those of you who are just joining us, former principal chief of the Osage Nation, that is here to tell the Osage story in terms of how they’ve approached this challenge of citizen engagement, citizen education. Jim, if you wanted to stand and perhaps just say a few words about the video that you want to lead off your presentation with.”

James R. Gray:

“Good afternoon, everybody. The video that we’re going to see is one that was produced by the Harvard Project’s Honoring Nations group. A few years ago we received one of those honors and in order to help inform everybody about what we actually did to earn it they produced this video and I think it captures some of the things that we’ve already started talking about, Ian, so go ahead and roll.”



“One of the boldest acts any tribal government can take is to initiate a wholesale reform process that puts their office and voting base at risk. The 31st Osage Tribal Council did just that when they set in motion the Osage Government Reform Initiative.”

The Problem:


“For almost 100 years, the federal government had dictated that the only recognized Osages were those listed on a 1906 roll. Only those Osages who had inherited a share in the mineral estate from someone on this roll could vote in tribal elections. This alienated 12,000 of the roughly 16,000 Osage descendants from their own political process.”

Corgus Bear:

“My father, he passed away when he was 52 and he never got to vote. My mother votes and she has multiple head rights so she has more than one vote. She has several votes. So unlike me, I’ve been registered to vote since I was 18, but I’ve never been able to vote in my own tribe’s...any election process or be any part of it, and on paper I was not considered Osage.”

Joe Conner:

“If you’re going to have a government where half, three-fourths of your citizens are speechless in terms of the official operation of the government, then you don’t have a government.”

Jaime Butler:

“There are so many smart people out there that aren’t head right...don’t have a head right and are Osage that I think would be...benefit our government.”


“Citizenship however was not the only way in which the federal government had limited the possibilities for the Osage people.”

Charles Red Corn:

“As much as we revere the 1906 Act, it did not give a clue about how you’re supposed to run a government and it resulted in an organism of personalities where whichever personality was the most persuasive or came up with the best game or whatever could control the council.”

Mark Freeman:

“As far as the form of government, this resolution form of government is good for one thing, you can pass a resolution one day and then do away with it the next. That’s not too good a way of running a business."

Jim Gray:

“We needed to get our sovereign rights back. That was the big issue. It became more than just a membership criteria, it became...why should we go ask permission to exercise our sovereign rights? And that’s what we’ve always done in the past and because we...after a good look around, we realized we’re the only tribe in the country that was set up this way."

The Process:


“In December of 2004, the Osage Tribal Council sponsored federal legislation that lifted 98 years of direct colonial control, allowing the Osage people to once again determine their own citizenship and form of government. The federal government was no longer going to hold the Osage people under a resolution style government with its 4,000 shareholders, but what instead would take its place? Because they were already occupied with the general operations of the tribe, the Osage tribal council decided to create the Osage Government Reform Commission to oversee the reform process. The first step in the process was education for the reform commissioners.”

Joseph P. Kalt:

“The first thing that emerged was, well it really wasn’t economic development, it was really social development. How do you build a healthy society?”

Kathy Supernaw:

“You might have a recommendation but you set forth all the possibilities. [Audience member: We represent what the people have told us.] Yeah. You’re taking...you’re going out and doing all these public hearings and you’re getting peoples’ opinions and then you collect all those opinions and you try to get them all in groups.”


“And then education for the Osage people.”

Leonard Maker:

“And in 1906, the United States imposed allotment on the Osage and imposed a government and membership standards on the Osage people.”


“The second step involved the collection of Osage opinions from 42 community meetings, a questionnaire, a phone survey and a referendum vote." [Voice: We’re here to figure out what the Osage people want in a constitution.]

Linda Lazelle:

“This one particular child -- although all of his ancestors was full blood Indian -- couldn’t qualify to go to a clinic or to get any social services because the government is pushing for blood quantum. That could happen to any of our children, any of them.”

Frank Oberly:

“We do need a legislative branch, we need an administrative or executive branch and we need a judicial branch because a lot of the tribes today, whenever they have troubles, it’s because they cannot enforce a law or an ordinance that they passed because the tribal council has precedence so then it just...it ends up being just a political mess.”


“Then the reform commission set out on the challenging task of using these opinions to write a constitution."



“On March 11th, 2006, a vote was held to ratify the constitution."


James R. Gray:

“And it’s my honor and my duty and certainly my pleasure to report the results of the referendum question. Shall the constitution be approved? Yes, 1,454. No, 728.”


The Payoff:

Corgus Bear:

“Today, I’m an Osage finally.”

Joe Conner:

“Now the citizens are important.”

Jackie Butler:

“And no longer will it be a minimal council government but a government of the people.”

Hepsi Barnett:

“Research will bear out that that’s a system that will create the stability needed for a nation to prosper.”

Gregory Clavier:

“And I think you’ll see more participation, you’ll see more people getting involved and people that have a lot to offer. Osage people are all over the world basically and by doing this I think it pulls the whole tribe back together again, so I think this is a very important day.”


Jim Gray:

“There’s a lot to be said about that video because it captures a lot of what I think Ian [Record] was trying to set this...tee up this part of the presentation for me at least. But let me just start with a couple of things. One was the Government Reform Commission itself. One of the most interesting aspects of this is that when you start looking at the personality dynamics of the 31st Council, clearly I was the youngest person in the room. I was I think in my early 40s at the time and the ages ranged from...I think we had one councilman that was in her mid 30s and we had one councilman that was in his mid 80s and then we had everyone else in between, and all these different personalities and different backgrounds and different perspectives as shareholders, as someone who like our eldest person on there was 85. You saw him, Mark Freeman. He was all the way up into his mid-to-late 70s before he actually inherited a head right because his mom lived until she was in her 90s, so we’re talking about a system of government that created scenarios where the oldest person in the room was actually the youngest tribal member in the room, as bizarre as that sounds. Is there a question?

The head right is like a corporate share and the share was a piece of the Osage mineral estate, it was 1.5 million acres, still is, and it was divided up between all the original allottees that were signed up on the rolls in 1906. Each one of those allottees were given one corporate share or a head right of an interest of the royalties of the oil and gas development that occurred there. Unfortunately, one of the things that they did when they did that was that they closed the rolls. So there wasn’t going to be any more Osages because they were tying property interest in the mineral estate to political rights within the tribe. So we went all the way up until 2002, when I got elected and the council came in, we were faced with a dilemma. There was nine original allottees still alive. Our senior planner at the time, Leonard Maker, had [written] to the solicitor in D.C., asked them a question as a citizen, ‘What happens when the last original allottee passes away?’ And I think his name was...gosh, I can’t think of it now. It’ll come to me at some point during this session here. But he wrote back and said that...Verdon, Terry Verdon, that was his name. He said, ‘When the last original allottee passes away, there won’t be a federal trust responsibility with the Osage Tribe because the Osage Tribe won’t exist any more in the eyes of federal law.’

So we didn’t need any more motivation than that. We decided to go get federal legislation passed, which happened in two years, from 2002 to 2004. So once President [George W.] Bush signed the bill into law, it became law, we called a big celebration, called it Osage Sovereignty and Celebration Day and that was in 2005. In 2005 we set up the commission and as I was getting into the discussion of the dynamics of the personalities involved, the commission was selected by members of the council. We got together and we said, ‘Okay, we’re going to do a secret ballot.’ We want four people picked by each one of us and each one of us would turn in our names of people that we want to sit on that commission and they wanted them to be people with good reputations in the community, good education, good cultural backgrounds, basically model citizens that would reflect the best in all of us, and that’s kind of the way we went into it. And so the people that you saw and some of them were interviewed in that video, were the ones that did the primary work of holding the meetings, getting citizen input and trying to consolidate the broadest consensus they could to make up the constitution, the key elements that they heard from the citizens and what they wanted in it.

As an elected official who was in charge of the day-to-day operations of the tribe, we were certainly of...well, let’s say from a political standpoint as [an] elected official, I think Congressman [Tom] Cole asked me the right question at the time we were holding committee meetings on our legislation. He said, ‘Chief Gray, why would any elected official change the constituency that put him in office?’ He was bewildered by that. He says, ‘I’ve never heard of a politician do that.’ And I told him, I said, ‘The mandate for change was in the election in 2002 when basically everybody who was running ran on that issue and those that ran on that issue got elected and all those that were opposed to it got thrown out.’ And it was the biggest wipeout in 90 years of Osage elections. Didn’t think we needed much more in a mandate than that. But after the meeting was over and they turned the cameras off and the Congressional Record was over, I walked up to him and I said, ‘You really want to know why I did that?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I really do.’ And I told him that my...I was watching the news one day, they were showing scenes from the period of time when the Soviet Union collapsed and I realized I had a choice because I was watching two different scenes on the screen. It was a split screen. One of them was Mikhail Gorbachev under house arrest by his own government and the other one was Boris Yeltsin holding the Russian flag sitting on a tank. And I really pretty much had my choice. Do I really want to be under house arrest or do I want to be on top of that tank with the flag. And I said, ‘But at a congressional hearing, that’s the last thing you want to put on the record about how the Russians came into power.’ We got a big laugh out of that, but the reason I bring this up is that when they counted up those secret ballots and each one of them, if there was more than one person picked, they got two votes and we just developed a consensus based without actually having to lobby or nudge or twist arms or anything like that. It was all a very personal decision among each one of us, and as a result we ended up getting the group that we did.

So as we turned them loose onto the Osage public, part of our biggest thing to overcome is, as you saw on there, there was 100 years of paternalism that was imposed on the tribe that basically split us in two. So it was not hard at all to get the shareholders or head right owners within the tribe to show up for meetings. The difficult thing was to get the non-shareholders to show up for meetings because they had any interest of expressing a political voice pretty much beat out of them as a child. And so it has taken us all these years to still, it’s still a trouble that I think still exists out there, that at a time when we really needed to hear them it was very difficult to get them to come out. And we had individual events that was targeted just towards the youth, we had big dinners, invited everyone to come, bring their families. We gave the employees that were working for the tribe special presentations. We tried every way we could think of to get them engaged. Social media didn’t exist really at that time, so we relied mostly on emails, that kind of correspondence, we used our tribal newspaper. We had to get people to update their addresses to us. It was a very, very challenging thing to do but during the process we were able to get a lot of feedback because once the momentum started, the buzz was starting and people were making phone calls, ‘Oh, so I hear they’re coming out to California.’ ‘Oh, I hear they’re coming out to Denver,’ or ‘They’re coming out to Dallas,’ and ‘They’re going to be in your...the commission is going to be in your town soon.’ So, as the word started to get out, you saw a lot more interest in participation and each week they would have regular business meetings and citizens locally would come in and express their concerns for the record. So there was never...I’d say the last six months it just took off, things were just moving really fast. They were getting a lot of good data in and they realized they hit a wall and part of it was that there was conflicts among the commissioners as to what certain fundamental issues they couldn’t achieve a consensus on.

So we backed up, instead of doing one referendum on the constitution, we basically had a mini referendum then the big one on the constitution. The mini one was a series of questions of things that there was not a consensus among the commission on; things like, how strong was the old minerals council going to be in the new form of government? Was it going to be a stand alone, was it going to be just a board within the tribe, was it going to have any other governmental functions beyond just approving oil and gas leases? Because if you read the 1906 Act, that’s all the government gave that minerals council. But as time went on, for lack of any other reason, they just became the de facto government of the tribe with all its imperfections of isolating three-fourths of the tribal members from participation as well. So we knew that that was unsustainable as an option. So as we went through that process of trying to figure that out, we had to put that back to the people and when I say to the people I meant everybody. Everyone got to participate on both of those referendums. I caught some crap for that. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to use that word, but there was just a lot of reasons for people wanting to keep it just with the head right owners. And at that point, I just realized it was -- I don’t know if you call it leadership or impatience or just determination--  that somehow we were going to allow the Osage people, all the Osage people, by lineal descendency participate in forming their own government and as many of you here probably think that, ‘Well, of course, that’s exactly what you would do,’ you would be surprised how outrageous and controversial and divisive that notion became because there were people that said, ‘Only shareholders can do the government reform.’ ‘Only shareholders can participate in the reform itself.’ ‘Only shareholders will have a say in drafting the constitution.’ And as that process seemed to permeate within the most politically organized group of the tribe, while being a minority, never really had any big answers for how and when and in what manner were the non-shareholders ever going to be a part of the tribe.

And those were the two competing issues that really was the theme that ran through the Government Reform Commission’s work. And as somebody who was in part a participate as an Osage citizen and a shareholder myself, but also as an elected official under the old form of government and as somebody who’s an advocate for change as was my colleagues on the council, you could see the obvious dynamics even within that small group. We’re like, ‘Well, maybe we should wait on this, maybe we should wait 10 years and just ease into it.’ Like I said, I snapped. I could be a next episode of that movie, that show 'Snapped,' because I just said, ‘We’ve waited 100 years for this. The United States government says, 'It’s your decision now. It’s not ours, we’re not imposing this on you anymore. It is your responsibility.'‘ So our response to getting this responsibility given to us is to give it right back or to ignore it? I just wasn’t going to accept that and I just...they were wanting to put off the referendum, they wanted to put off the vote, they wanted to keep the government in two pieces, they wanted...there were some that were advocating, ‘Maybe we need two Osage tribes.’ Because all the other options were comfortable because it didn’t require them to deal with the heavy matters of bringing some unity within the tribe, realizing that even though this was an imposed designed structure that was never meant to last more than 20 years. And by federal law we were able to get extension and extension and extension, but it was never designed to last more than a generation.

And so beholden to a structure that was never designed to last very long seemed like a dangerous option and the only way out of the mess was to continue going forward and the citizen outreach began to pay off towards the end. People started to get it, it started to click and they were starting to embrace it and they were starting to see elements of that constitution appear in early drafts that were being sent out to everybody in the mail. And once people started to get the taste for what those words coming to life actually would look like in a new Osage government, it gave you a sense of hope and inspiration and a feeling that, 'This is ours.' We had the hardest time letting go of the idea of being able to blame the Bureau [of Indian Affairs] for all the problems at the Osage Tribe, and we had to come to grips with the fact like my old friend Mark Freeman said, ‘Well, this thing lives or dies, it ain’t gonna be nobody’s fault but our own. We did this to ourselves and by god it’s a long time coming. The days of blaming the BIA for our sorry lot in life are over. We’ve got to grow up and grow out of that.’ And in a way, he couldn’t have said it better. This came from a man who by federal law and Bureau interpretation was never given his head right in restricted status. It was immediately decided that he was going to be a competent and he had to pay taxes on all the royalty that he got and he had to wait 77 years before he even got on. Well, you saw Curtis Bear up there. He got one the second he turned 18. Unfortunately, it was because he inherited his because his parents died and what a morbid way to run a government anyway. Your parents have to die before you inherit any part of the political franchise of the Osage Tribe. Like I said, there wasn’t any other tribe set up this way and at some point along the way like some victim of a hostage crisis, we didn’t...at some point after about four generations we didn’t realize that what we were living with wasn’t right. It became normal.

So when I advocated the fact that, ‘No, everyone gets to vote on a referendum, that everyone gets to participate in the government reform process.’ To try to explain the heresy of those words to a group like yourself who maybe are not even familiar with such a thing, back home it was crazy. And at that point, you just tried to do the best you could and just say, ‘Look, the only way this government’s ever going to reflect the will of the Osage people is that the Osage people participate in voting for it or voting it down. That’s the only way it’s going to last,’ because at that point we were no longer defined by our property possessions, we were defined by what was in here and that our connections were all related to the same rolls and it became something bigger than that. All of a sudden, it became a matter of people issues and not necessarily property.

And so as we got through that referendum process and the commission finished its work and submitted it for the council for final approval to be put before the voters, there was a 'cold feet' for lack of a better term of the councilmen because they had been hearing the voices of the concerned that, ‘We aren’t ready for this, we don’t need to be doing this. We need to wait, we need to wait, we need to wait.’ And because by federal law the United States government says, ‘From this point forward, August 4th, 2004, whatever you...however the Osage Nation is going to govern itself is up to the Osages.' They are recognizing the Osage Nation’s inherent right of self-determination, of what form of government they’re going to have and who are their members going to be as long, as those that were receiving an interest in the mineral estate are not affected by it.’ And that was the compromise that was made at that time because it was a Fifth Amendment issue, there was a property right interest. ‘You inherited that, that’s yours. The Constitution can’t take that away from you.’

And as the Government Reform Commission went about doing its business, according to them, that issue alone -- that was already decided when Congress passed the law, that issue was already decided before we even started the Government Reform Commission -- that nothing this new government can do can take away that head right that belongs to you. But unfortunately in all the meetings, that issue took up probably 80 percent of their time and only 20 percent of the time was spent on all these other matters. At one point, when we videotaped all these meetings, one individual citizen was beating this table and screaming as loud as he could, ‘It’s mine. It’s mine. It’s mine.’ With every ounce of energy he had, he’s beating that table. The passion of the fear that an Osage government will take away your head right was so deep and so pervasive throughout the communities of our nation, it dominated the politics of the government reform process, it dominated the process, it dominated the conversations, it dominated the agenda. And the sad part of it was is that that issue was already decided in D.C. when Bush signed that bill into law. So we had a communications issue that went far beyond the constitution.

And so when I try to explain the chronology of how we got through this process -- and as chief at the time I was looking at the end of my term -- they voted on the constitution in March of 2006. My term ended in July of that year. We had an election in June and there was a big debate as to whether or not we needed to have the election with everybody participating, so we had a communications issue there. ‘Well, of course.’ And they said, ‘Well, when does this constitution go into effect?’ It went into effect when the people voted for it. But what parts? The parts that call for a three-branch government or the part that calls for an election at the end of our terms. There was all these other little questions. Do elected officials, can they continue to serve on the gaming enterprise board? We had a corporate entity that did non-gaming businesses and there was elected officials on that board. Well, the constitution that was just passed by referendum says explicitly, ‘No elected official will serve on enterprise board.’ So what parts are in effect and which parts aren’t? And so the elected officials who were thinking about running for re-election under the new government had enormous things on their plate of having to grapple with while they’re even thinking about whether they wanted to run again. I was one of them. And so I just kept moving forward.

I use this quote because in this case it definitely applies. You know the movie John Candy was in called 'Canadian Bacon'? Ya’ll remember that? He had this great line in that movie. A group of United States citizens decide to invade Canada and that’s the comedy. He gets out, he’s got this stupid little hat on, he’s got his gun and he says, ‘There’s a time for thinkin’ and there’s a time for action and this is no time for thinkin’.’ As only John Candy can deliver a line and I was laughing to myself because I thought, ‘Osages have been thinking about this for 100 years. If there was ever a time you go for it on fourth down, this is it. This is the time you make your move.' And I had to do some subtle diplomacy with my councilmen and I had to create a boogey man of sorts.

The commission was worried. They were legitimately worried that the council was not going to allow that vote to go forward. There were two members of the council that got up and made very passionate statements that the tribe was not ready for this, ‘We want to...let’s go ahead and do another shareholder vote and another minerals council for another four years. Maybe we’ll do it after that, but definitely not now.’ And I was the only one who spoke on that council at the time saying, ‘No, we have to do it.’ And the only reason I had to do it was...the only reason I had that I think resonated was the fact that under the Public Law 091430...I can’t remember exactly what the public law was, but the government’s no longer in charge of telling the Osages how to run their tribe, their government. It’s our job now, and if you don’t like what the Government Reform Commission produced, vote it down, but if you’re going to use your position to stop the vote from even taking place, then I enjoy a certain degree of power under this constitution too, as now the executive branch. ‘I’m going to call a constitutional convention next month and whoever shows up at Wakon Iron Hall is going to decide how the government’s going to go.’ Well, the prospect of a mob deciding how the constitution was going to look like resulted in a quick vote of approval and submit it to the people and let’s get it over with. And that’s...you saw how relieved I looked when I did those results, because I didn’t know whether this was going to work. Nobody knew how this was going to work.

If you’re waiting for a roadmap to tell you exactly how everything is supposed to happen, it ain’t never going to happen in politics. Maybe you take calculated risks, you push it as far as you can, but at the end of the day, it’s all about a process, a process that involves a commitment from the governed and a commitment from the citizens. And those that are participating in carrying out the will of the people have all got to realize that this was a window of opportunity that was very unique in Osage history, that the timing, all the right people were in the right places at the time. Had this thing waited another four years, I don’t know, I don’t know.

My worry was that the day President Bush signed that bill into law in 2004 we were down to one original allottee and I did not want to wait to find out whether or not we could fight this in the federal courts and have our recognition restored, not while we had a chance to do it ourselves. And so I have enormous amount of respect for my colleagues who were just people living in a very unique period of time in tribal history to be able to build a process that would last, and realize that the 1906 Act was never meant to be a government for the Osage people. It was meant to be a way to extricate the Osages from their land and their property and their citizenship within 20 years. That’s what it was designed to do. The allotment acts that occurred at that period of time were designed to only do one thing -- to separate Indians from their land, Indians from their tribes, destabilize everything about them that was Indian. Boarding schools, all these programs came out of that era.

So it’s not so unique of a situation the Osages were in, it’s just that because of the oil and gas industry needed to have one entity they could work with that would approve their oil and gas leases so the drilling can go unabated and only have one entity to deal with probably was our saving grace. We also paid for our reservation with our sale of our lands in Kansas which gave us some property right interest even though there was some debate of whether or not Indians were human at the time I think and eligible for Fifth Amendment protections. A lot of uncertainty in the air. If you wanted to make a change for yourself and realize that this uncertainty is not satisfactory for you or succeeding generations, if you take the chance and realize the time is right and you have the people with you, you don’t need any more ammunition, you just go. You just go as far as you can and for me, I went as far as 2010 and I got thrown out of office.

I will say this though, Steve Cornell was interviewed after I left office and I really appreciated what he said because...at first I wasn’t quite sure how to take it, but after reflecting on that quote I realized that it was a very, very nice thing to say, because you’re not defined by how long you serve in office, at least I hope not. But I think you’re defined by what you get done while you’re in office, because in some ways that lasts and...because it’s not just about holding office, it’s about doing something, doing something important that you’re proud of that you can always look back and fondly remember the days that you were engaged in something important and realize that there’s...I don’t have any reason to regret any of this and I don’t, but when Steve Cornell was asked by a reporter about my experience as chief, because it made news of sorts at the statewide level that I lost and when you lose third place, you don’t have any second thoughts about, ‘Wow, if I could have only done this or done that I could have won.’ No, I think it’s better to get blown out, that way you don’t have any second thoughts. When you think about it, it’s like, ‘Okay, I heard you.’ But Steve Cornell said, ‘The thing that you have to remember is that the strength of the Osage constitutional government, one of the big questions was answered already, was whether or not it would sustain itself or was it only there as long as Chief Gray was there.’ And it was perceived by many people, in my own tribe and even outside, that this was Chief Gray’s constitution and I argued passionately that it was never my constitution. If it was up to me to write it, I would have wrote it very differently. I probably would have done something different with the minerals council, but at the same time I think that there was reason to believe that somewhere along the line the Osage people took ownership over that governing document and demonstrating the first ability to show that ownership of that governing document was to ask me to move on to something else because they put in new leadership and that constitution is still there, it is still being used, the legislative branch...and I want to recognize Speaker Raymond Red Corn back there, he’s speaker of the Osage Congress, and I want to recognize Benny Polacca who enjoys a very comfortable life in Osage Country being a reporter for the Osage News, which is one of only three newspapers in Indian Country that has a free press act and freedom of speech is governed and protected under the Osage Constitution. There are certain things that I’m really still proud of in this constitution and these are two of them right there: a separation of powers and three branches of government, a free press and the ability to exercise jurisdiction. It is one of the most, well, certainly with the work that I’m doing now with the Delawares it’s something that I’ve come to appreciate more and more each day about our own tribe because not every tribe is that fortunate and the fact that we were able to get ahead of the problem before it blew us over is probably one of the luckiest things to happen to our tribe. But with that being said, Ian, thank you very much and I appreciate the time to be here.”

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