Finally free from federal law, tribe must choose its people

Saturday, December 25th 2004, 4:22 pm
By: News On 6

PAWHUSKA, Okla. (AP) _ Clark Batson's mother gave him his Osage blood, but it is President Bush who has made him feel more Osage than ever.

``I'm a real Indian,'' the 28-year-old announced to friends Dec. 3, the day the president signed legislation lifting 98 years of federal limits on who can be an Osage citizen.

The tribe may now welcome thousands of people who, like Batson, are of Osage descent but were denied Osage citizenship under a 1906 federal law. There's a major hurdle, though:

After nearly a century under the old law, the Osages must first decide who the Osages are.

``Before today,'' says Jodie Revard Satepauhoodle, one of eight tribal council members, ``Congress decided.''

That Osages are just now receiving rights held by every other federally recognized American Indian tribe is a reflection of a unique history _ and the tribe's legendary wealth.

In allotting the tribe's land in northern Oklahoma, Congress granted 2,229 Osages a share in a commonly held mineral estate. Only Osages who held these ``headrights'' could vote in tribal elections.

When the waves of golden prairie yielded a vast oil field in the early 1900s, the headright owners became some of the richest people in the world.

Osages rode in chauffeur-driven limousines, lived in mansions and studied at exclusive schools. A string of murders in the 1920s was tied to attempts by non-Indians to claim headright shares.

But the oil field has become marginal. Inheritance has fractured the headright shares.

When Osages need scholarship money to attend college or seek employment through minority job programs, those without headrights can't meet the required proof of tribal membership.

The tribe's government represents only about 4,300 of the estimated 20,000 people of Osage descent, says Principal Chief Jim Gray.

The old federal law created a class system that he likens to a time when only landowners could vote in U.S. elections.

``Never underestimate the social impact of inclusion on a society,'' Gray says. ``I think this process will give people a sense of self respect and self confidence.''

Tribal leaders in the past had little incentive to push for change with an electorate of headright owners. A court ruling that was eventually overturned opened up membership between 1993 and 1997, giving many Osages voting rights for the first time.

In 2002, new tribal leadership swept to victory on promises to push Congress for a change. Mark Freeman Jr. said it was the reason he decided to run for tribal council at age 82.

He didn't have a vote until age 73, when his mother died and he inherited a headright share.

``The pride in that didn't make up for the loss of my mama,'' he says, echoing a sentiment shared by other Osages whose voting rights came only when a parent died.

Some Osages believe membership should be based on the tribal rolls of 1906. Others have suggested only Osages who know the names of their original clan and band be included. Others have suggested membership based upon blood quantum, even DNA testing, Satepauhoodle says.

No matter what, she says, ``Osages will decide who's Osage. You don't need a constitution or a roll.''

The new law, sponsored by Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and unopposed in Congress, leaves the issue of headrights untouched.

For Batson, membership could mean the ability to legally use peyote in the Native American Church where he worships and to receive protected eagle feathers for use in traditional dances.

He's eager to have a voice in a tribe whose economic development he believes could be helped by participation from younger Osages.

``In other tribes, their youth are involved. They're helping build things up,'' he says. ``We couldn't if we wanted to.''

A celebration is planned Feb. 4 on the tribe's campus in Pawhuska to start the process of reinventing the Osage.

Gray would like to see a referendum on tribal membership by the end of next year and eventually a constitutional convention.

He is hopeful the tribe will avoid the divisiveness that came with the court decision in the mid-1990s but acknowledges the process will be ``slow, painful and complicated.''

``It is democracy in action,'' he says.

Gray points to another precedent _ the homecoming each June when Osages gather on the reservation for three weekends of dancing known as E-Lon-schka. There, no federal entity has ever decided who sits around the drum.

``That's why I hold out hope,'' he says. ``If we can do that, we can handle this.''