Honoring Nations: James R. Gray: Sovereignty Today

Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development

Former Osage Nation Principal Chief James R. Gray discusses what sovereignty means today through the lens of his first term in office under his nation's new system of government.

Native Nations
Resource Type

Gray, James R. "Sovereignty Today." Honoring Nations symposium, Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University. Cambridge, Massachusetts. September 17, 2009. Presentation.

"This is difficult having to follow what an excellent presentation you just heard. And I'm going to kind of steer not down that same road but try to talk to you more on a personal level -- what I think exercising your sovereignty is like as a tribal leader in the environment that we're in today -- and basically, just kind of maybe go through what basically a week in my life is like. I think this might give you some illustrations about how the exercise of tribal sovereignty is measured in moments, windows of opportunities, certain conversations you have with certain individuals, different institutions you interact with, your internal conversations -- with your staff, your departments, your programs, your employees -- your conversations you have with other institutions -- like our enterprises and our Congress and the Minerals Council. In all these capacities, whether you're doing this or not, you find yourself always wearing that hat. That you realize at some point during the course of your term -- the election's over, the confetti's already been swept away -- and you've now got that look on your face that Robert Redford had in the movie 'The Candidate,' where he looks at that guy at the end of the movie and goes -- he just won the Senate seat in California -- he looks up and he goes, 'Now what?' And that's exactly what I'm going to talk about is what happens after that moment. And realizing that I can draw upon from a lot of different experiences, just because I went through four years under a very federalized paternal kind of structure, to a transition of more of a modern tribal government exercising sovereignty in a way that's been very foreign to our own tribe for the last 100 years.

And so to illustrate that, my period as Chief of the 31st Tribal Council -- basically I had a ceremonial role. I cut a lot of ribbons, I made a lot of speeches, and I did a lot of 'grip-and-grins' -- as they call them in the newspaper business -- and occasionally I'll get to run the council meetings. Now the leadership that is expected of you in those meetings is that you have to understand Robert's Rules of Order and you have to run the meetings appropriately. The council that came in, came in basically attacking the previous chief. And I came in personally attacking the previous chief running for that position. After the election was over, we had the biggest wipeout in the history of Osage tribal government under that 1906 structure. And so I had eight people who were mad at me that just recently got elected. Even though it wasn't personal -- it wasn't mad at me personally -- they were mad at what the previous chief had done. And so they wanted to make darn sure that that wasn't going to happen under their watch.

So I paid for the sins of the previous chief by having a lot of my duties restricted. And so basically I was relegated to a very, very limited role in the tribal government, and realizing that the first thing they did was cut the salary of the chief -- who had a $70,000 year salary -- to getting paid $100 a day for running the meeting; and realizing that that was a huge hit to my family's income. I walked in the office one day about six months into my term and I said, 'You know, I used to run a newspaper and I still have an interest in it. And I'd sure hate to go back to writing news articles just in order to make a living. Because all I know is what's going on here at the Osage Tribe and boy, I'd hate to think that I had to spend all my time writing stories about my own tribe and about all of you nice people on the council if I end up having to make a living.' That next cycle, I got a $50,000 a year raise.

And then I started finding that there were opportunities where I could exercise a limited amount of my authority, given the formal and informal role that I had. The formal role not so much, but the informal role was that, as the person who got to run the council meetings, I was able to make a legitimate decision on who I would recognize to speak. And oftentimes I would have conversations with members of the council before the meeting would start about certain issues and topics that were important to them and things that I was sharing with them that were important to me; and recognizing that during the course of a meeting, like a conductor of a symphony, you can bring different elements of the conversation into ultimately leading to a decision without sacrificing any responsibilities that these individuals had. But just by sheer, the nature of the relationships that I had to build with these individuals -- because let's face it, I was the youngest chief the tribe had ever elected and everybody on the council was way older than me. And so first off, 'What's this young pup doing in here trying to run this tribe?' And then it was, 'You know, it's probably good. We needed some youth in the tribal government to kind of speak to some of the issues that are facing the younger folks.' And then it was like, 'You know, we really need somebody who can actually speak directly to the folks and start engaging the community in a way that none of us had ever done before.' This was...all this was going on while we were trying to get our legislation passed. And so over time there was a transition building.

In the last two years of my office in the 31st Council, I was able to orchestrate enough informal influence with the council that they started to follow my lead on very, very important matters. And as a result I had to bend a little bit, I had to bend a lot in some cases, on involvement of the tribal council in day-to-day operations of the tribe. I had to involve myself, let myself, just kind of, not get mad permanently over certain decisions that they wanted to make because they had their own agendas that they had to pursue. But eventually, I kind of relegated to myself to just standing firm on two issues. And these two issues I would not back off of, I would fight for every chance I got and I would use the power of the bully pulpit that the chief has to exercise enough influence within the Nation to be able to exact change. And I was willing to fall on my sword. Everyone who is ever in this position knows that there's a give and take that goes on in this business, but eventually you're going to have to have some bedrock principles you're not going to back off of. And in my case, one was government reform that I felt like was necessary. A promise was made. We had a mandate of change and we were going to see it through. And I was going to make sure that that was never off our radar screen the entire time I was in office. The second thing was to do everything I could in my power to insure that the Osages got a fair and just settlement in our tribal claims that we had against the United States for mismanagement of billions of dollars of trust funds from the tribe that was developed over the years from oil and gas proceeds. And so those were the two main issues that I really would not bargain on, I would not back off of. I just asserted myself in the middle of those two issues to the highest degree that I could. Because of that, a lot of all the other issues I was able to work with the council on. And eventually they all took control over issues like health and education and economic development and things of that nature and we developed a kind of working relationship as a group.

And unfortunately, what I'm speaking to is that, this was a federalized system of government that we had to endure that was imposed on us, like Hepsi [Barnett] said. It was not something that we chose. We did not choose to govern ourselves...historically we never governed ourselves this way. Yet we had to adapt, over a period of 100 years, that the personalities of the principal chief had everything to do with how effective they were; it wasn't because they had any formal authority, it wasn't because they were granted any kind of legislative authority or judicial powers. We had all three branches of government contained in the tribal council and I was the figure head that represented the Nation. And so imagine how happy we were when President [George W.] Bush signed that bill into law in December of 2004. And within 60 days I had a big party, invited the entire Nation. We had Osages that flew in from Egypt to be a part of that big celebration. At that particular moment, we issued out medals to all the members of the tribal council who had fought for this and who had lobbied with me on Capitol Hill to make sure that we got this legislation passed. It was a great day for the tribe. It was a great day for the Osage Nation because in that moment, we embarked on the process of government reform, which is when Hepsi arrived.

And so what I'm saying is that the period of time, where I actually held the title of Principal Chief of the Osage Nation from 2002 to 2006, was an experience that was just nerve-wracking, because you never knew when that rug was going to get pulled out from under you by the council at any moment. And any decision that council made was subject to having the rug pulled out from under them by the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs]. At any moment, our world was coming to collapse at any given time. So it was this very nervous period of time. So in the process of building the constitution -- getting it ratified, having elections under it and swearing everybody in -- one of the more dramatic things that I experienced in that period of time was the oath of office I took in 2002, which believe it or not was the Federal Employees Oath of Office. That was the oath of office I took when I was elected in 2002. In 2006, I swore an oath to the Constitution of the Osage Nation and in that oath -- that was drafted by Osages, voted on by Osages and written by Osages -- and it was delivered to me by an Osage judge.

So a day in the life of an Osage tribal leader under this government is like -- I started my week on a Monday having a quick briefing with Hepsi, talking about the legislative agenda for Congress, preparing to deal with a daily response that we had committed ourselves to giving every morning no matter what happened so that we would always be on, not only just on the front end fighting issues, but we were defending ourselves against other issues that was taking place. Before noon we had broken out of that meeting and discussed how we were going to do that.

Then we went back and I had to sign a stack of documents about this tall -- contracts, travel requests, various other transition issues that place between the government and countries. And all these different things that's taking place that on a day-to-day basis comes before my desk for my signature. After a very short period of time of that, I sit down and visit with my scheduler for about half an hour, who goes over all the things I'm supposed to be doing this week. And she makes sure that if I want to change it, this is the time to do it because she's going to call everyone back. After that I go grab a quick lunch -- usually it's with my staff -- and we go over what happened in the morning.

After that I go back to the office and I realize that I have to be down in Tulsa because the Gaming Enterprise Board is meeting and they need me to help them go over one particular piece of their gaming plan of operation that they're going to present to Congress. So I run down there and I visit with them for a little while about it. We talk with the attorneys that works for the enterprises and then I go and have a quick meeting with the Gaming Commission, which is the regulatory body and I said, 'Are you guys satisfied with the plans? And they said, 'Well, we have some issues.' So I bring them all together and we sit down and we hash out the issues. They make the necessary amendments that everyone seems to be onboard. I leave that meeting.

I go to a meeting with our CEO of our Osage LLC and we talk about the new energy projects that are coming down from the federal government. I get on the phone with Tracy LeBeau, the executive director of Indian Country Renewable Energy Consortium. She gives me an idea about some of the things that's going on in Washington, D.C. We make a quick plan on how we're going to do it. She talks to me about the new meeting that we're going to be attending in Washington. We go over the details of that with my scheduler. I come back to the office, which is about an hour's drive from Tulsa.

I come back in the office; I've got a crisis on my hands. Congress is passing some crazy legislation that we have to fight them on. So we get busy and we craft a response and we give it back to our wordsmiths and me and Hepsi put the final touches on at the end of the day. Then I run upstairs and I talk to accounting because they're having problems with something that they can't do unless I give them the authority to do it. So I have to sit down with the treasurer and talk to him about getting it written.

By the time I come back downstairs to my office, it's the Associated Press calling because they want to do a story about a recent mound purchase we did in St. Louis. We bought one of our ancient historic mounds that had been left relatively undisturbed over the last 500 years -- or last 200 years since the Osages left St. Louis -- and they wanted to do a full-blown interview on that.

So when I get done with that I've got some Minerals Council people in my office wanting to know, 'How come you're not helping us with this election that they want to hold next year?' So I have to get in the middle of that issue and really kind of explain to them that, 'You don't have to have the Bureau run your elections anymore. Our election board is going to run your elections.' 'But we don't want the election board. We don't want Hepsi Barnett involved in it. And we don't want this. And...' And they all start going around and making crazy accusations and then I have to calm them down and spend some time with them. And realize that I'm not going to get resolution to this today. 'So it's just going to have to wait and you guys are just going to go beat yourself up against the wall and go run up to the BIA. And they're going to tell you that they can't do it because you're a sovereign government and you can run your own elections.' Well, they found that out yesterday.

And so while I was up here I was laughing at Hepsi. I said, 'You know, some of these issues, they take a while to percolate, but when they do, they hit the wall and then we're sitting here ready to help them.' But sometimes when they're not listening, they're just too angry and the passion runs high, reason runs low -- you know the whole thing -- it becomes real obvious that the idea of running that symphony that I talked about with the tribal council, I'm doing it with federal government, state governments, our own institutions of governance, our business interests, our legal interests, our employee issues. And just realizing that if you're going to try to manage, to operate a $200 million operation on a day-to-day basis, you better have some good people with you. You've got to have good people who are going to go to bat and bust through walls for you but, at the same time, you've got to be able to pull back and let issues come to you. That's the push/pull strategy of running a tribal government today, exercising the sovereignty; that without that, you'd be back there getting permission from the BIA to order toilet paper for your restrooms. And that's how far we've come in just a very short period of time. I know my time's up, so I'm just going to turn the mic over to everyone else, and thank you very much." 

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