A conversation with Chief Geoffrey M. Standing Bear of the Osage Nation, based in Pawhuska, Oklahoma

To what extent did the federal government honor the terms of the various treaties that resulted in the cession of Osage lands in the early to mid-1800s?
Not very much at all. Those treaties were written one-sidedly, and they were written in English. We have no idea if our people understood—beyond the words themselves as they were interpreted—what it actually meant to give up so much land. This begs the question, if there was one workable treaty, why were there so many more to follow?

We must also bear in mind that there had been a very sharp decline in our numbers in the 1820s, due mainly to illness. The people were in a state of constant mourning and perhaps not focusing on the details. Our numbers continued to dwindle. As I understand it, by 1872, there were only around 5,000 of us left. We had been decimated by disease. By 1890, that population had dropped to under 2,000.

Osage children were taken from their families and sent to boarding schools, to be reprogrammed along white guidelines. How did this impact the preservation of tribal language, traditions, and practices?
Every tribe has had that experience. But we were very fortunate, in that we sent our children to private boarding schools. We saw it as a great opportunity, whereby our people learned to speak English and Latin. The difficulty in not being allowed to speak the Osage tongue didn’t come from the private boarding schools, but from the federal government schools, where the Osage language and customs were discouraged. Still, we actually started seriously losing our language during the early 1900s, due as much to general civilization as anything else.

How did the late 1800s/early 1900s federal allotment of individual land parcels affect a sense of tribal unity?
It affected it significantly. While we had the benefits of the money that the oil boom generated; it proved a blessing and a curse: a blessing, since the money was there to provide good educations for our children and to keep our culture. It helped us maintain our traditional identity—at least at first.

Then things became very contentious, as people outside the tribe took something good and made it evil. David Grann’s book Killers of the Flower Moon accurately details what befell the Osage after the money started to come in.

Still, our people benefited by being able to care for their families.

Did the seemingly endless flow of oil ever dry up?
It didn’t completely dry up, but it slowed considerably. Although mineral extraction still plays a significant role in the life of the nation, we’re only at a small percentage of where we were during the boom days.

How many members of the Osage Nation are there today, and where are they mostly centered? Is it a cohesive group with common goals?
There are 21,000 members of the Osage Nation, half of whom live in Oklahoma.

We’re very diverse in our backgrounds. We have a common shared tradition and culture, but we practice various religions—Native American Church, Catholicism, Baptist, among many others …

Our common bond lies in our history, our lands, and our language. We still have some native speakers, but we also sponsor an immersion school for kids from 6 months of age to kindergarten, and Osage language classes on the internet. We also have our traditional dances, as well as other types of traditional ceremonies, such as clan namings and special dinners. Our ceremonial food and clothing are very unique!

How does the nation stay fiscally viable?
We rely primarily on our gaming operations. Although the money is not even close to what it was during the oil boom, it helps to take care of our people in terms of health care and scholarships. Every Osage gets up to $9,000 a year for tuition, as well as health benefits. We each have a health card, providing those under 65 years of age with an annual $500 of coverage, and $1,000 for those 65 and older, as well as a Medicare supplement program.

The money also funds our private academy and language programs, including the immersion school, which currently enrolls around 40 kids.

What is the current relationship between the Osage Nation and the federal government?
This is a complex question. Our lands and properties are guaranteed from interference by state and other governments, and we rely on the government to maintain our federal trust. Lately, however, we’ve had a very difficult time, because of too many unnecessary federal regulations. Oil and gas production have been slowed down considerably over permitting issues. As a result of actions by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, our production has been dropping steadily. We’re being confronted with environmental regulations that we hadn’t seen before. And while we’ve been trying to work out a solution, it’s been over five years, and things are still unresolved. We have nothing against environmental laws, but sometimes they can be too burdensome. This time, they caught us all by surprise.

What does the future look like for the Osage Nation?
It looks really strong. As you know, we’ve had our own constitution for 12 years, and we have been self-governing since 1906. As long as our laws are not inconsistent with federal statutes, we’re good. We have our own court system, and we have our own territory. And as a rule, despite our current difficulties, since the 1970s the government has adopted a very different attitude toward the Osage Nation, and has consistently promoted our right to self-determination.