James R. Gray: Educating and Engaging the Community: What Works?

Native Nations Institute

James R. Gray, former Chief of the Osage Nation, discusses leadership and governmental reform through educating and engaging the community.

This video resource is featured on the Indigenous Governance Database with the permission of the Bush Foundation.

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Gray, James R. "Educating and Engaging the Community: What Works?" Remaking Indigenous Governance Systems seminar. Archibald Bush Foundation, Saint Paul, Minnesota; and the Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, University of Arizona. Prior Lake, Minnesota. May 3, 2011. Presentation.

"I have to admit that getting to go last, you get an opportunity to make some observations a little bit off the prepared script. And one of the things that's been going on this week -- that I'm sure all of you are aware of -- the recent events in Pakistan and the President's actions, recently. And I wanted to use this as an example to kind of comment on some of the discussions that I've heard over the last two days. One of them had to do with the questions of how much involvement the elected officials need to have in an action in order for them to properly take credit for it or to feel like they're accountable for it. And I think this is a big discussion. It occurred in the topic of economic development yesterday. I think it's occurring today in the discussions of government reform and the actions of your Nation. As an elected official, how much involvement do you personally have to have? Well, I think everyone is pretty well aware of the fact that if you're an elected official, you get way more credit than you deserve. And although I appreciate the low nut references and everything else, it's true. You do get more credit than you deserve. But with that you also get more blame than you deserve because a lot of things happen under your watch that you don't have control over but yet, regardless of the politics of your tribe or my tribe or the Nation, you're still accountable for it. Now had that accident, had that event that occurred in Pakistan to get Osama bin Laden failed, would they have blamed the Navy Seals? Nope. They would have blamed Obama. And that's just the way it is. Now you just take that as a given if you're an elected official. When you swear an oath to defend your Constitution and fulfill your duties in office that just comes with it.

Now having said that lofty idea here, now let's get down to the practical matters of how do you... what's the art of being able to do this? Now this is the part that I want to talk a little bit about because elected officials don't have to micromanage the process to ensure its success. They just have to make sure that the process they enact gives everybody the maximum amount of ownership so that the process results in an outcome in the best interest of the Nation. And I take seriously Sam's comment earlier that maybe what's in the best interest of the Nation may not be in the best interest of certain elected officials. And I'm aware of that but I promise you, whether you do it or don't do it, elected officials will always have that risk in doing something or not doing something. So the question comes back to you eventually, at what point do you make that decision if you're holding office? Because getting elected is only half the fun; and I say that facetiously because we all know how elections are in Indian Country. But governing is an entirely different matter. And doing the things that the Nation wants done is your biggest charge. And if you can do that and balance the differences between your own political interest, which you may put ahead of your Nation's interest, or putting the Nation's interest ahead of your own, these are questions that only you can answer. But I will say this, having been through several elections myself, having won my share and lost my share, I can tell you this, our motivations for moving the Nation into the need for government reform was not based on my elections. It was based on what I felt was the needs of the issues of our people.

I campaigned on the issue of government reform when I ran. And I found that when I did, I not only won but every member of the tribal council who also ran that same year who ran on that issue, they won. The people who didn't campaign on government reform didn't win. So as we got into the office we realized we had a bit of a mandate we felt to move this issue forward and realizing that it was going to require federal action in order for us to actually do government reform. And I take seriously the comments of our friend from Mandan Hidatsa Arikara who knows that the federal involvement in a tribal government needs that reform. And sometimes, in order to get the reform, you have to go to the feds to get yourself freed up to do that -- and that's what we did -- and realizing that that is a difficult proposition, having to ask permission rather than ask forgiveness. It's a difficult choice for anybody who's in the business of exercising tribal sovereignty. But when I went back and tried to look at this, capture it in my mind in preparation for this presentation, I realized that in order to step forward two or three steps you may have to take one step backwards first -- and that was to get that federal law passed, that reaffirmation of the Osage sovereignty where the United States government recognized the inherent sovereign right of the Osage Nation. I especially like the word inherent because that means the United States Congress did not give the Osage Nation their sovereignty. We had that sovereignty before the United States was even here. As Hepsi [Barnett] pointed out, we existed for millennia. We did not need the United States government to tell us we were Osage. But for certain purposes, of being able to grant ourselves the kind of sovereignty exercised in the modern era, we had to use the federal systems that were in place now that limited our ability to exercise the kind of sovereignty that we wanted.

We saw the obvious problems that we had. We had an interior solicitor tell us that the only Osages that they recognized were those that were still alive from the 1906 role. Realizing that we were less than five members left in 2002 we knew we didn't have much time to act. The second thing was, is that we had disenfranchised three-fourths of our tribal population from having any political rights whatsoever in the tribe. Now don't ever underestimate the power and the impact of a hundred years of paternalism on a tribe. Nothing can destroy your self-confidence, your ability to feel like you are in control, the ability to take action on behalf of your citizens, when you've had those rights completely jerked out from under you. And the old story goes that the Stockholm syndrome -- for those of you who may be familiar with it -- it's the Patty Hearst kidnapping issue. Suddenly after being kidnapped she adopted the attitudes and the politics of her kidnappers.

In some ways, when I campaigned for reelection in 2006 after our constitution was passed, I actually said this to a group of Osages who were demanding that I go back to the BIA and get permission to do what we already did on our own. And I said, 'look, I know we need the BIA. I know we need our federal trustee. And I will act in accordance with the constitution that allows me to work with them on a government-to-government basis because I know we need them. But don't ask me to love them because they have not returned that love to the Osage people.'

When we came out and did out constitutional reform, it did not happen with the active participation and support of our local BIA office. As Hepsi pointed out, it was quite the contrary. Many of our citizens were employed by the BIA so it had made it especially hard to try to work with our trustee knowing full well that when they were not at work they were busy trying to work up an agenda against this initiative. We overcame a lot in a very short period of time. And how did we do it? Well, it wasn't because of me jumping up and down. Maybe it was, I don't know. But I will say this; we took the initiative straight to the people. We did not waste a minute's time after Bush signed that bill into law. I think we took two months off. It was right during the holidays. By February we appointed our commission. And by April they were already having meetings. And by July Hepsi showed up, put the team together and got them focused. But once we did that we made some very clear directions.

The purpose of educating and engaging our tribal citizens; we believed this. We really did. It wasn't just rhetoric. We truly believed that the more information our citizens had about what was before them and what the challenges are, but more importantly what the opportunities were, we would be more successful in the end because we believed that the more informed citizenry will make for a better Osage government. We also had to get the buy-in and support so that they felt like the process that we laid out for the commission to carry out on behalf of the elected officials was going to be demonstrated in a way that any attendee that showed up at these events, to provide input into the government reform commission, that they felt like they owned that process. When they walked out of there they felt like their voices were heard, their concerns were documented, their questions were answered if there were. And there was a lot of demands for change and improved accountability. There was a lot of venting going on and it was fair. And the fact that we had our commission who were citizens themselves sitting in there hearing this, not me or the members of the council, but citizens there, it became more of an open conversation. And realizing all the tribe did was give them the funds to go do it. And I made a point to stay away as much as I possibly could. I actually attended one commission meeting and I pretty much got ran out of there by the commissioners, which was perfectly appropriate. Mary Jo Webb is an elder and she looked me up and down and said, 'you're not going to do this.' So I was just like, 'okay, okay, I know I'm not supposed to be here.' But that was the important thing. It wasn't my process anymore. It wasn't the Chief's commission, it wasn't the Chief's process; it was the Osage people's process.

The roles and responsibilities the Government Reform Commission was charged with was writing the new constitution based on input from our tribal citizenry. We sent questionnaires -- I think Hepsi covered a lot of this -- the Government Reform Commission meetings that they held, town hall meetings were held throughout Oklahoma and even across the United States. The areas for growth; in hindsight we did a much better job, I thought. Now others may disagree, but I felt like the work that we did in strategic planning, which came immediately right after the constitution was passed and elections were held and new government was installed... The last thing I wanted to look like, not only to the Osage people but to the world around us that interacted with us -- whether it's corporations, oil and gas companies, other agencies that had to deal with the Osage Nation -- I wanted to make sure we didn't look like what we call back home, like the dog who caught the car. Because we've been chasing this for a hundred years and once we got it -- what's the movie? The Candidate, Robert Redford; after he won this crazy election, he sat there and looked at his handlers and he goes, 'now what?' And that's kind of how I felt. I really did. I was like, whew.

And like Hepsi pointed yesterday, we thought the hard work of getting the constitution was the end of the work of itself. But we had no idea the work of implementing a new government, creating sound governmental institutions, continuing to have the buy-in from our tribal members to begin the process of nation building... Because like I said, 75 percent of our tribal members had no political rights for a hundred years, or at least leading up to those hundred years. By the time we finally got them, they were so used to being ostracized and left out of the process that it took really hard work to get them physically and mentally and spiritually and emotionally engaged in their government. And it was a real challenge, I'll tell you that. So the strategic plan process was designed to create a 25 year long range plan covering six major areas; education, healthcare, economic development, natural resources, governance and justice. What was that last one? 'Line!' Do you remember? There was a sixth one, I remember, what was it? It'll probably come back to me when I'm done. I'm sorry.

But as we went through this process, we had a team of teams of Osage citizens that went on the road and sat down and visited with our own citizens, applying the similar model that we did with the Government Reform Commission. This initiative was led by the executive branch funded by our Osage Congress. We had documented sitting down with over 2500 citizens in eight states across the United States, because most of our citizens do not live on the reservations, they live in New Mexico and Texas and California and Arizona and Colorado, Kansas. We still are connected in many ways but physically in order to get out there to have those conversations with them we had to go to their communities. So we went through that process, we documented the 25 year strategic plan in all these areas. Culture preservation, yeah, thank you. And as we did that, we put together a list of every single program and department within the Nation that we had. We put together every single project that the Osage people wanted and identified that they wanted to see us work on. And inside that grid we were able to identify every program that either had a leadership role in developing that program or support role in developing that program. At the end of the day we came up with nearly 300 projects in six major areas of the Osage Nation.

Putting together a plan, putting together a constitution is a process that I believe was probably the biggest thing that I did while I was Chief. It's not the length of time that I served that mattered to me, it's what I got done when I was there. For whatever it's worth, I don't regret any of that. I don't even regret losing. And I like what Frank's comments was because mine were very similar when I lost my election too because at that point I realized it wasn't about me anymore. It was about the Osage people and what was in their best interest. And was it in the best interest of the Osage people that I be a snit and pick up my toys and run away? Or was it in the best interest of the Osage Nation that I sit down and direct my staff -- who was also packing their bags -- to assist the incoming administration with everything they needed to know? So that when they came in on the first day of work they knew where everything was, they knew what the pending issues were, they knew where all the projects were, they knew where all the personnel grievance issues were, they knew where all the status of all our litigations were, they knew everything that we knew when we left.

And I'll say this -- we're probably getting way off topic here so I'm just going to go ahead and finish up -- but I'll say this. If you want to be remembered, I guess, and have a legacy personally, politically, it would be nice to be able to have total control over that process, but at some point you realize that that's not what it's about. The legacy is not so much what you personally do. The legacy is how much the Osage people or how much your tribe feels that they have ownership over their own sovereignty and their own government. And if you look at it from that standpoint, I know that my place in Osage history is okay because even after the process was over and the election was over, our Constitution is still there and it hasn't been changed. All the people that were elected in 2002 in the 31st council are no longer holding elected offices today. The people who were responsible for the Government Reform Commission are still actively involved. The people who were part of the team of teams in the strategic planning are still actively involved. Some of those folks are holding elected offices today in our new government.

And the new Chief of the Osage Nation, in his state of the Nation address just two months ago, pledged to continue to implement the Osage Nation strategic plan. To me, I always felt like that was probably the biggest complement he could have paid me because again, I tried to create a road map and I tried to give people some direction based on what they themselves have told me they wanted to go and to marshal the resources of the Osage Nation to give that to them. And in respect of all the people who had a chance to follow that process, whether it's in my own tribe or whether it's in your own community... I'm not saying a cookie cutter approach is the best because obviously, the presentation that was before me was incredible. I really appreciate the value of what the Tiguas did. And I can tell you that many of you who are thinking about doing something like this, realize that you have a wonderful opportunity to leave a legacy for yourself, to leave a legacy, more importantly, for your people, and if you can, there are rewards for that that go far beyond the next election cycle.

And I can tell you that when I came to office this in 2002 we had $300,000 in smoke shop revenue in our accounts. We opened seven casinos, we put 1800 people to work, we have an annual payroll of $50 million annually, we're a quarter billion dollar industry in Oklahoma, we're as big as Devon Energy, and we have a Constitution and a plan to take us to the next level. Now as far as I'm concerned I can sleep good at night and I don't have a problem supporting what's going on with our own tribe. I may never hold elected office again but I can tell you these were the best eight years of my life because I got to do some things I never would have dreamed I'd got to be able to do. So I wish you all the kind of success that I had. Thank you."

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