performance-based management

James R. Gray: Rebuilding Osage Governance from the Ground Up

Producer
Native Nations Institute
Year

In this informative intervew with NNI's Ian Record, James R. Gray, former Principal Chief of the Osage Nation, details his nation's effort to design a new constitution and government from the ground up, and provides an overview of the thorough education and consultation process the nation developed to ensure that its new governance system reflected the voice and enjoyed the support of the Osage people.

Native Nations
Resource Type
Citation

Gray, James R. "Rebuilding Osage Governance from the Ground Up." Leading Native Nations interview series. Native Nations Institute for Leadership, Management, and Policy, The University of Arizona. Cambridge, Massachusetts, September 17, 2009. Interview.

Ian Record:

“Well, I’m here with Chief Jim Gray, who’s chief of the Osage Nation. Thank you for being here today.”

James R. Gray:

“Glad to be here.”

Ian Record:

“We’re here today to talk about Native nation building, governance, and specifically what the Osage Nation is doing to not only rebuild this nation, but build a healthy community for its citizens. I’d like to start by asking you the same first question I ask everyone I sit down and chat with and that is, how would you define Native nation building and what does it entail for the Osage Nation?”

James R. Gray:

“To me, the definition of nation building has to do with setting up a structure of how a nation does its business. And there’s a lot of different ways governments do that around the world. I think in our case, we had to go back to our past and our history and understand that we’ve always had some form of institutional governance that predated the Europeans. We wanted to capture as much of the theme of that as much as we could in the modern era that we live in. And so in terms of how we integrate nation building is that we really did try to understand as a nation, how you do business with other governments, how you take care of your own people, how you make decisions, how you resolve conflicts, and how you provide some measure of accountability for your citizens? And in the process of that, nation building is the foundation upon which we build these institutions, but that’s the purpose.”

Ian Record:

“The next question I’d like to ask you, ask for your view of a statement of a fellow tribal leader who once said, ‘The best defense of sovereignty is to exercise it effectively.’”

James R. Gray:

"I think that’s an excellent point. I think a lot of tribes -- certainly during the last century -- really operated under the notion that if you stay quiet, you stand under the radar screen, they’ll leave you alone. And I think what is happening in the last generation of tribal leaders and tribal governments is that they’ve kind of broken out of that model and have taken the initiative to the states, to the federal government, to the communities in their area and say, ‘You know, we have the ability to help solve community-wide problems. We have the ability to address the social problems that we have in the community. We now, in other words, instead of blaming somebody else and just operating under the radar screen, we’re taking just the opposite approach, which is taking the fight to the streets and taking the...using the sovereignty of the nation to create programs and departments and initiatives that actually address the needs of our community.’”

Ian Record:

“It’s interesting you mentioned this issue of going back and really taking a look at your culture and seeing what from your culture you can incorporate into your modern governance. The NNI and Harvard Project research has found that for Native nation governments to be viewed as legitimate by their people, which is absolutely critical to its success, that they must be both effective, and also culturally appropriate. How is Osage trying to tackle that challenge?”

James R. Gray:

“Well, I think we borrowed quite a bit from some of the research that you all have done over the years and looked at it from our standpoint about how we would go about trying to effect the kind of institutional change that had to take place at Osage and realizing that for a hundred years that we did not have that right and we did not have that capacity to do that and we did not have the support from our own community to even try. When we endeavor to try and go down that road to recognize that the United States and their efforts to reaffirm the inherent sovereign rights of the Osages to make these decisions for themselves through legislation, it empowered us in a way that we weren’t really fully grasping what exactly we had accomplished immediately. But after some reflection, we realized we had a blank slate. We had an opportunity to remake Osage in a way that made sense for us. And realizing that so many other tribes have traveled down this road before, we felt like we could maybe not, and certainly that wasn’t the point, was to copy what any tribe had done, but to learn about the process and realizing that, ‘Let’s not devote ourselves to a whole lot of time on certain outcomes. Let’s devote our time to a process that is inclusive of all Osages that includes Osages on the reservation, of the reservation, those that are full blood, mixed blood, those that have head rights, that don’t have head rights, that are educated, that are not educated, employees, department heads, programs. We tried...we cast the widest net possible to include all the voices of the tribe in to this conversation about what kind of government you wanted and realizing that that effort was not going to be something that we were going to be able to predict accurately what that outcome was. But if we did the process right, it wouldn’t matter.”

Ian Record:

“Dr. Cornell of the Native Nations Institute and the Harvard Project has often framed the process of nation building as centrally a process of remaking that nation’s governance tools. And based on everything I know about Osage, that’s precisely what you guys are doing.”

James R. Gray:

“Yeah, everything from...going from a one-branch government to a three-branch government clearly indicated to us that what the Osage people were saying is that they did not want a...they wanted checks and balances and they wanted accountability and they wanted some attention given to the needs of the people through a process that they were maybe familiar with by living under the United States democracy or the state democracy where they live, that it was something familiar with them that they knew that if we set up this way, then we knew that our money would safe, we knew that there would be certain responsibilities on elected officials. We knew that communication was going to be more important than it had ever been in the past, two-way communication. And so the effective marching orders that we got from our own people was to build a system of government that was focused heavily on accountability, focused heavily on getting people with the right ethical backgrounds to actually do the work of a public servant. And to create institutions that actually had powers, and it wasn’t a power based on personality, it was a power based on law. And these were dramatic changes from where we’d been for the last hundred years, but that’s what they want, and that’s the government that’s been created for us. And so building those, taking those words and put them into action has been the work of the last three years of building institutions, separating our business from politics, and ensuring that every citizen, no matter where they live, is legitimately involved in the political process of the tribe.”

Ian Record:

“And building that government really took a major step forward in 2006 when the Osage Nation ratified a new constitution, entirely new constitution and a new system of government. And I guess without going into too extensive historical detail, but for perhaps a general overview of what prompted the Osage Nation to undertake reform in the first place?”

James R. Gray:

“I think the idea that Osages in the '90s had a taste of what political empowerment meant, especially those Osages that did not have an interest in the mineral estate, the 'non-shareholders' as they called them back home. And the non-shareholders outnumbered the shareholders by a two-to-one ratio by that time. And given the unfortunate fact was, is that a fourth of Osage head rights had been willed out of the tribe over the years. And it wasn’t stopped until the early '80s, I believe, that they actually amended the 1906 acts to prevent any further head rights from going out of the tribe. Because often time, before that, an Osage would marry a non-Osage and if they died earlier, then they could put it in their will that that spouse would get their head right. And then that spouse would remarry someone else and then they would have kids and those head rights were gone, they never came back. So a fourth of the value of Osage mineral state has gone out of Osage hands over the years and that created a bit of a problem, too. So you had a really odd situation in the early part of this decade where the vast majority of the Osages weren’t even part of the tribe, they weren’t considered members, they did not have any political rights, they couldn’t vote, they couldn’t run for office, and there was no hope that they were ever going to. And still, the head right issue was something that I think is still part of us today, it is still a protected property right of all the individuals who had head rights before, still have those head rights now, myself included. And the thing that I think is probably the biggest challenge for us was to ensure that that head right was going to remain intact and we weren’t going to lose any more. And while we may not be able to get those head rights back under the normal way in which we had lost them, there seems to be a growing sentiment among our people that we need to redefine what being Osage is. And that included recapturing our culture, recapturing our history, and providing other programs and job opportunities and educational benefits and health benefits to all our citizens. And at the time, we were building casinos and we were making money and really we were never in a position to actually, independently fund these kind of things either. So we had an interesting cross section of a cultural renaissance that’s been going on for the tribe over the last 25-30 years, where our ceremonial dances are populated at a level that we’ve never seen before and a resurgence of reclaiming our culture and our language and our history and our ancient history, combined with the financial resources to defend issues that are important to us and advance issues that are important to us and address the problems in our community. We have the ability to reorganize our government. So all these things came at once. So the fact that all that happened in the last seven years is pretty remarkable, it is. And it’s almost historic in a sense that if you can imagine what a historic moment is while you’re living it, it’s kind of hard to, but at the same time, it’s kind of...it’s like watching the wall fall down in Eastern Germany. You knew something big was happening. You knew that that wall wasn’t going to go back up. You knew that this change was permanent. Now it may not look the same 20 years from now than it does right now, but that change means is that the dynamics of what the Osages are going to be like and what kind of government they’re going to have is going to be up to the Osages and not somebody else.”

Ian Record:

“Following up on that, if you can paint a picture for us of what the previous constitution system of government looked like and how decisions were made, how the government functioned. Why was it deemed, ultimately, why was it deemed inadequate?”

James R. Gray:

“I think I touched on some of that already when I talked about the fact that it disenfranchised a great number of our citizens. But between the years of 1906 and 2004, the Osages -- well 2006 -- the Osages for those hundred years lived in a...what they call an imposed system of government. That means it wasn’t one of our creation, it wasn’t one that we had, would’ve picked for ourselves if we had the right to do that. The Indian agent at that time abolished the tribe’s 1881 constitution, opened up the rolls, and had a ratification of sorts, of a new form of government that was eventually passed by United States Congress in 1906 called the 1906 Osage Allotment Act. But it did so much more than just the allotment. I mean yeah, it did an allotment, but it did a whole lot more than that. One of them was is that it defined who an Osage was. It defined what rights the Osage had. It defined what powers their Osage tribal government was to have, which was an eight-member elected council whose primary function was to approve oil and gas leases and oversee the allotment of the lands on our reservation. And over the years...and of course there was a chief and an assistant chief who served basically a formal role. It wasn’t a title that actually endowed any authority except to break a tie, and that was it. And we had chiefs under this system; I think we’ve had eight or nine chiefs over the years that have served in that capacity. And there was always an attempt by an element within the tribe to reform out of that and going back to the 1950s. And throughout the years they had always tried to break through and tried to get the attention, but like I said, when you’ve tied the membership of the tribe to collecting a per capita check every quarter, tying those two issues together as a legal issue, you can see how difficult and literally impossible it was for the tribe to achieve any kind of reform even though their heart ached. You had to die in order for your children to be a part of the tribe. There was something almost morbid about it and it wasn’t anything that we created. And realizing that so many head rights had gone out of Osage hands over the years that by the time I came around and the 31st council came around in 2002, there was a growing appeal from our own people that said, ‘We need to fix this membership issue.’ And ironically, it was the biggest wholesale election upset in tribal council history. You’d have to go all the way back to 1912 to find a period of time when the entire council lost their job in one election, and the chief, and the assistant chief. I think only one person survived and she was the rebel. So as it turned out, you ended up having a brand new slate of people coming into office with a mandate, if you will, of reform. And so during that period of time, it became real obvious to me that that was the first thing we took up when we go into place was to address this membership issue and the sovereignty issue of actually finding a way to be able to get out from under the structure. And we realized that we couldn’t go to the courts, we could only go to Congress, and that was the message we received from the appeals court ten years earlier or eight years earlier when they made that decision. That this is an issue for Congress to fix, not the courts, and so we did that. And as far as the government structure and how it operated, basically over the years, we had become the so-called de facto government of the Osage Tribe because there was nothing else there. So we became administrators of federal grants, federal programs, and different departments of, whether it’s title six or 477, NAHASDA, we ended up being the de facto entity that would receive these funds and administer these programs, but even a benevolent dictator is still a dictator to a lot of the people who had no role in selecting them or electing them. So the vast majority of Osages that received benefits from the tribe utilized their CDIB number in terms of determining population, things like that, service area. And even though we were in charge of administering, we knew that this was inherently flawed. That you’re trying to represent a group of people that had no role in putting you in office and they outnumber the people who did by a two-to-one margin. So it didn’t come as a big surprise, but it is remarkable in a sense that we did grow out of that through what limited democracy we did have through an election. Through selection of eight people and a chief and assistant chief who ran on the issue of reform at a time when that would’ve been unheard of 50 years earlier.”

Ian Record:

“So the election happens and then constitutional reform begins to unfold. And I’m curious to learn more about the approach that the nation took in commencing with constitutional reform, what process it employed.”

James R. Gray:

“Yeah, we realized that probably the best thing that, the smartest decision that the 31st Council did, and if I recall it was a unanimous decision by all members, that we wanted to create a government reform commission. We didn’t want any elected official who was holding office at that time to have any role whatsoever in sitting on that commission, or anything like that. So we instituted a very interesting approach that what we will do is we will nominate people that we believe are effective representatives, that have open minds, that have the capacity to learn and listen, and make sure that they conduct a process that is fair and open and inclusive as possible. And so everyone got to put like five names, including the chief and the assistant chief, and we put them all in the box, and then all of us in a secret ballot, voted our top five. And so we had this very elaborate election, selection process that nobody knew who their favorite was, there was no coordination, it was all done right there at the moment. And everyone picked their top five and put it in a hat and then the secretary went around and started putting the names on a grease board, started putting names, lines next to each one of them. And effectively, we put together the top ten individuals that were in that commission, were the ones that were selected. And some of them are elders, some of them are cultural leaders, some of them are successful business people, there are people that have backgrounds in government, the BIA [Bureau of Indian Affairs], there was lawyers. It was a very interesting cross section of many, many Osages that I felt really did capture the historic significance of it immediately upon getting installed into that office.”

Ian Record:

“So what major challenges, we often hear about constitutional reform taking place throughout Indian Country and some sort of process, some sort of dialog at least. And we often hear that the reform actually doesn’t happen for a variety of reasons, and I’m curious to learn from you what sorts of challenges or obstacles did Osage encounter during the reform process. What things did you perhaps not expect or said, ‘Oh we’ve got to be very methodical in how deal with it if we’re going to keep this process moving.”

James R. Gray:

“I’ll tell you one story. This happened about five months into the commission’s work and after a series of meetings that the commission had, and like I said, these people come from a very broad cross section of Osages. And as you may imagine in their initial meetings, they didn’t know each other, some of them didn’t like each other, some of them didn’t understand each other and there was all those usual feeling their positions out. And I think it became real clear that after a series of meetings over those first few critical months, they weren’t getting much done. And at one meeting they got up and they said, ‘You know, we’re probably going to have to go back to the council and tell them we just can’t do it.’ And this one little lady that sits on there is the vice chair, her name’s Priscilla Iba, you’ve had her to your events before. I remember this to this day. If there was ever a Patrick Henry of the Osage Nation it was Priscilla Iba who just stood up and this nice little meek librarian at the City of Tulsa Library who spent her whole life working in that field and very serious, very earnest, but taking the seriousness of what she was being asked to do by her people and realizing that she had to get up and say something and she is, she’s very introverted. She’s not the kind of person that’s going to go...she’s not that...she’s just very quiet and meek and very careful with what she does. She’s earnest and genuine; she’s got a heart of gold. She got up there and talked to all those other commissioners and she just put her little foot down and said, ‘I am not going to be a part of something that fails. We are going to roll up our sleeves and we’re going to get this done.’ Now she said a lot more and I wasn’t there, but the word I got back from several different people at that commissioner’s [meeting] that had told me later on that, ‘it was that speech by that little woman is what made me stick it out.’ Now I can imagine that there has been situations like that with other tribes where they felt like they just hit a wall because they couldn’t get through some of these initial personality issues or feeling the weight of the responsibilities so much that they just shut it off and say, ‘Look, this is too big for us.’ You can easily see how people can come to that conclusion. But it took real courage and it took somebody on that commission who was just like them to get up and say what had to be said. That little speech turned that whole room around and they got serious and they got busy and they got back on track and they finished their job.”

Ian Record:

“Did you also encounter during the process, I guess, blowback from community members who may have been either comfortable with the status quo or who just were kind of wary of such a fundamental systemic change as you guys were undertaking?”

James R. Gray:

“Yeah, we had that, and they had their opportunity to say their piece during that process, but it seemed like there was such a momentum that even all the members of the council who, in the waning months of their term, because we’re talking about this constitution was ratified in March of ‘06. So we’re talking like February of ‘06. There was some members of the council who were getting calls from some people who felt like, ‘We don’t need to do this.’ And they started echoing their sentiments in the council chambers. And I felt like, if we were to have another election with just shareholders voting, which was just a few months away, that I really didn’t think that this change was ever going to happen. And I said, ‘You know, it may not be the perfect governing document and it may need to be amended, but the bottom line is that there’s people out there in our tribe, your relatives, my relatives, our relatives, our friends, our neighbors, the people in our community, they’re expecting to vote in this election and we have an obligation to give them something. But if you’re going to stop the commission from having this referendum, which is what they were talking about doing, just shutting it down, then you’re going to have a civil war here. And I really don’t think we have to go that route, that way.’ As a matter of fact, I made it very clear in that tribal council meeting that if we don’t do this and we don’t allow the people to vote on their constitution, then in three weeks I’m announcing a constitutional convention here in Pawhuska and whoever’s in the room’s going to be the ones that draft that constitution and that’s what we’re going to have. But we’re going to have a constitution one way or the other. And I know I get the heat too from people having second thoughts and questioning whether or not we’re doing the right thing, and all this stuff. And whenever you are at that moment of critical mass, you got to go back to why you even did it to begin with. And you've got to restate all those reasons why we did this. Why did we go to U.S. Congress to get the law changed? Why did we start a government reform commission? Why did we want to go listen to what everyone else had to think about what their government was? And why did we want to write it down? Why did we did we put it in the constitution? Because it allows people authenticity of knowing that they’re efforts actually translated into something real. To abandon the game at this juncture would’ve set this nation back a generation and it would’ve been very, very difficult to get us back to that day where we were at that point. And I think something happened. It was one of those kind of moments where I think people really kind of come to grips with the fact that we’re going to have to go forward, especially when I knew they were going to do a constitutional convention where...it was funny. But I really do think there was some hesitancy right there towards the end. But at the end of the day, two-thirds of the people voted in favor of it, and it passed big. And that constitution enabled us to go forward and have the elections and do all the rest of the stuff that we needed to do since then.”

Ian Record:

“This is a follow-up question. I’ve been struck by some of the tribes that I’ve worked with on the issue of constitutional reform about the rush to reform. The problems are so immense. And there’s been a consensus reached in the community that the main reason for a lot of these problems, or at least part of the problem, part of the reason for these problems is we have an inadequate constitution and system of government. We got to change it. But what we see in a lot of communities is that there’s not even a basic understanding of how the constitution affects peoples’ daily lives. And is that something that you guys struggle with, of this not only public education around reform and public’s input of reform, but actually, even before that saying, ‘Here’s what our constitution says, here’s how that translates into your daily life, here’s how it keeps us making good decisions,’ etcetera, etcetera. Is that something you guys encounter?”

James R. Gray:

“I think in practice, once we had the constitution because unlike other circumstances that you all probably encountered where some of the tribes are struggling with the process of amending their IRA [Indian Reorganization Act] constitution or in Oklahoma’s case, Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act, constitutions, and realizing that we were specifically exempt from those two laws, but that was because of the way the 1906 Act had tied those two issues of per caps and membership together. That we didn’t fit neatly into those categories that the other tribes did that allowed them to have some measure of self-governance. But even over time when they had to amend it or change it, it was still, you’re going to the Bureau for the approval and you still had to play the subject to the larger federal system that, what they were willing to allow, what they weren’t willing to allow. And so that always held a lot of tribes back. And in our case, we had an act of Congress that was our IRA and as a result, it made it very, very difficult for us to do it through the normal channels of changing the CFRs or something like that, because once we went out and started talking in the community, before we went to Congress we had a 90-day hold on a resolution. That was all we could pass, we could not pass laws; all we could pass was resolutions. And in that resolution, we wanted to go to U.S. Congress and amend the 1906 Act to allow everyone to participate without messing with the head rights. And I wanted to wait. I wanted to have some public comment. I wanted to have some meetings with the community. And we got some feedback from them and they said, ‘Don’t stop there. Yeah, go ahead. Fix the membership. Do what you have to do, but let’s get our sovereignty back while you’re at it.’ And that was the surprising thing. That didn’t come from the council, that came from the people -- a stack of written documents that were written to us by Osages living all over the country that wanted to see us change -– wholesale change. And in the practice of doing that, we had something to bounce back from. And maybe it was easier to change an existing constitution, maybe it was harder; I don’t know. All I know is we went from an act of Congress on provisions of what our governance was to a constitutional government. So we went from having really no constitution, to having one. And so that process, like you pointed out, became the challenge of this government, which is say, ‘Look, the power of the principal chief’s office is not embedded in my personality,’ which had been in the past, what power the principal chief had for a hundred years. It wasn’t based on any law that said, ‘You have the right to veto. You can do this. You can do that.’ There was no statement of authorities other than the fact that I broke a tie. And that 31st Council, I think they passed over 2,000 votes. I broke five ties and not one of them were good. They were...when you got a divided council like that, you’re going to make half the room happy and you’re going to make the other half mad. You don’t win those things. If you’re the chief, that’s a lousy spot to be in. And so realizing that that was the only authority I had, this constitution empowered the executive with CEO-like authority in our tribal government; to represent the nation, to speak for the nation, to actually have the power to veto the legislation and do things like that. So the education process of our own people, realize that even though this is what they wanted, they said it on paper, seeing it in practice was a completely different thing, was a concept that was foreign to not only the tribe, the people, but the program directors who operated services for the tribe, the process of reporting responsibility to the chief was not something they had to do before. Now they do. And there’s all these other communications that have to back and forth between the two branches of government.”

Ian Record:

“So you undertake reform, you complete it, and you essentially produce an entirely new system of government. And I was wondering if you can talk about perhaps, the three or four major features of that new constitution and system of government, how they differ fundamentally from the previous systems.”

James R. Gray:

“I say the biggest change obviously is the membership, the definition of who a citizen is. Anybody who is a lineal descendant of that original roll that was done in 1906 is a member of the tribe with no more rights and no less rights than any other citizen. Those fundamental principles shifted the balance of power in the tribe, it shifted the politics of the tribe, it shifted the priorities of the tribe in such a big, big way that I don’t even think now I could really grasp how significant of a change that was because for so long we were just completely focused on the price of oil. Because if you weren’t increasing the price of oil, your political future was bleak because the future hope of any tribal elected official was that there was always going to be oil and gas production to ensure a healthy head right check every quarter. And people voted based on how they did during that time they were in office. So even though the tribe had very little control over the price of oil, our political fortunes were totally tied to it, but it dominated the politics of the tribe, it dominated what we felt was important. It identified who the representatives were going to be. And so for the longest time, I can tell you that that was probably the biggest significant thing because once we went a one-man, one-vote government, the whole priorities changed. Language, culture became very important; jobs, economic development became very important. Diversifying an economy out of a total reliance on oil and gas became very important. Education became incredibly important. Health care became very important. Even though we did some of that all on the way during all those years, it never became a mandate like it became with this new government. Because you had all these different people who had all these different interests at work here. The second thing, I would probably have to say is the structure that the minerals council, which is now an independent agency within the tribe that still does the oil and gas leasing responsibilities, and their elections are by shareholders. So that’s the one vestige of the old government that we went with, that we kept intact. And those individuals continued to interact with the BIA and their regional offices and the oil and gas industry. They still do their oil and gas summits. They still do the communications directly to the shareholders. And the shareholders will still continue to be the voters in those elections. So that’s the other significant thing. I think the third thing, and of course there’s other, but I think to stop there would be the empowerment of our tribal court and the executive branch. Basically the tribal court...the courts, the executive branch and the legislative branch all resided in the tribal council for a hundred years. All three of those functions were all there. When we broke those things up into three individual parts, no one was more powerful than the other; every one of them had a role to play. The thing that is probably the most significant thing is realizing that to all those elected officials that serve on the legislature, they felt like this was a diminishment of the old tribal council’s authority because they could not jump in the middle of a court case, they could not come in and overstep the chief and direct a program and actually run a program. I made it real clear, if you just look at the constitution, you look what people said, they didn’t want 12 program directors, they wanted 12 legislators that were going to be in charge of protecting the purse of the nation as well as passing law or enacting legislation and realizing that that was one full-time function that was never given enough attention in the past because we never had the power to make law. So the legislative branch had a massive education program that they had to undertake to understand how laws are written, how the committee systems work. They had the National Society of State Legislatures come in and give them training and there was just this amazing fundamental shift. And those were probably the big three.”

Ian Record:

“So we’ve already touched on this issue of citizen education and engagement, and I was wondering if you could speak a little bit more about that particularly with respect to its importance in the constitutional reform process. If you could talk a bit about the steps that you guys took to ensure that the peoples, the voice of the people would be incorporated fully into this new constitution system of government. The voice of the people came from a lot of different sources, and some of it came strictly as shareholders interested. Some of it came as residents in the housing community. Some of them came as residents in our three villages. Some of it came as a form of an employee club kind of wish list of the things they’d like to see done in the tribe. Some of it came from the little Osage clubs that built up over the years like in Southern California, Northern California, Texas, and New Mexico and Arizona. There’s Osage organizations of people who live out there that they get together and socialize. All of them participated in involvement in one level or another in communication to myself and other elected officials about how they wanted the government run. As far as the process goes ongoing, me and the assistant chief went on the road a couple of times over the last few years to go back and just say, ‘Hey, did we get it right, are we still doing...here’s where we’re at right now, here’s what’s going on, here’s the challenges before us today. Anybody got any questions?’ And of course with the blogs and the internet becoming a source of, ‘Hey, did you hear what the chief did’ kind of stuff, a lot of times I’ve spent on the road trying to just knock down rumors and things like that and realizing that some of the stuff they hear is coming from the least informed individuals in the tribe. And so naturally, they latch on to any kind of conspiracy theory and things like that so it becomes...communication is becoming more and more of an issue. And the method by which we communicate is through our tribal newsletter and our tribal website. The tribal newsletter has gone through a lot of fundamental shifts and changes. We’re trying to create, by Osage law, a fourth estate that actually, there will be an independent newspaper that will report on news of the Osage Nation free of any interference from the tribal congress or my office and the courts and realizing that that is a truly remarkable achievement for any tribe, especially a new democracy like ours. But recognizing that once Osages got a taste of democracy, they want the whole meal, they want an independent press, they want the structures in accountability, the treasurer of the Osage Nation has to issue an annual report. There’s all these fundamental calls for action to insure accountability because the Osages have never really seen the tribe have this kind of money before. We have seven operating casinos today generating $200 million a year in economic activity. We’re the largest employer in Osage County by far. We’re the largest employee of non-Indians by far. We do a lot of charity; we do a lot of community outreach. We have outstanding agreements with the state and federal agencies, local communities, municipalities, school boards, county commissioners, drug courts with the district courts. We have a lot of relationships that we’ve created because the priorities of the nation had changed.”

Ian Record:

“So you mentioned it’s been three years since, a little over three years since the new constitution was passed and new system of government was created. I’m curious to learn what sorts of growing pains you’re encountering as you continue to build and expand and strengthen this amazing system of government.”

James R. Gray:

“I think the biggest challenge for us is communication. I think we have to be better at communicating to each other. We need to be able to do constructive debate. I think that sometimes in a tribal political environment, or even in politics in Washington or at the State Capitol, you’re going to run into elements in our community that are more on the fringe of responsible discourse. And I think the...combine that unbridled right of free speech that is now in our constitution with the access to the internet, with the access to the blogs, with the personal agendas being advanced by a lot of different folks, some of it worthy of attention, some of it not. I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide what’s important. Communication, clear, open, a degree of transparency that not only provides for assurances and accountability, but also, accountability and transparency with a certain caution that you are going to protect the rights of the individuals, you are going to preserve personnel files, you’re going to preserve health records, you’re going to preserve the Social Security numbers that are contained in our enrollment list in our membership office. So there’s an obligation that we have an open records act, that we also have an obligation of creating a privacy act to go right along with it just so that we balance out the needs of the individuals against the needs of the tribe and the responsibilities both have. And there’s a lot of work to do in this area. There’s a mountain of work to do in this area. And probably right now we’re just struggling through the simple little petty power politics that happens with a new tribal, a new government of any kind. So unfortunately we’ve been digressed a bit by some of those side issues, but the primary function of the tribe is to take care of its people. And the institutions that the nation has are all there. We have a mandate from the people to protect and preserve our culture and language. We have a mandate from the people to create jobs and economic diversification. We have a mandate to the people to ensure the protection of the Osage mineral state. We have enormous beneficial financial resources from our gaming operations. All seven of our casinos are paid for and they’re all just bringing in money right now. And so we’re at a point now where we can reinvest those dollars in all different kinds of ways, reclaiming our history and being able to tell our story because we’ve never been able to do that. Going back to setting up systems of accountability to ensure the compliance is done for federal and state and tribal laws that have overlapping jurisdiction in our communities, making sure that whenever we hire someone, that they are allowed due process rights. And so political hires are separate from all that. Everyone else -- just like in the federal government system -- has their own employee protection rights. They have it in state governments as well because those employees are career employees. They’ll be there long after I’m gone still doing their job. And they should be, if they’re going to commit their career and their family to living in Pawhuska and working for their tribe and working at capacity, that at the very least, the tribe owes them a commitment to assure that their pension is not going to get jacked with or their personnel rights are not going to be destroyed. And they’ll be expected to do a good job and if they do a good job, they’ll be financially rewarded for that. There’s a lot of things that’s put upon all of us to build this nation up right, and it’s an enormous challenge. It’s something that I did not really anticipate fully until I actually had to roll up my sleeve and actually get in the business of doing it.”

Ian Record:

“Well it’s probably good you didn’t fully anticipate it or you might have had second thoughts. Equally impressive, from our perspective, as the constitution is the comprehensive strategic plan process that you guys embarked on directly on the heels of the ratification of the new constitution. As if the constitutional reform wasn’t exhaustive enough, you said let’s do comprehensive strategic planning for the entire nation. Why did the nation decide it was so important to take that step at that time?”

James R. Gray:

“I came up with this idea actually when I was campaigning for chief in 2006, when I was running for re-election. And I was sitting back there at all the political forums and I would just sit in the back row and usually I would let everyone else go talk first. One day I just sat there after going to about my 15th or 16th one, you hear the same speeches from the same candidates who followed me at all the other events that we went to and I took a note pad and I just started putting a dollar amount next to every campaign promise that was being made by every elected official. And so when I got up there and spoke, and at this particular event I spoke last, and I said, ‘Well, because of the casinos that we have right now we probably generate about $25 to $35 million annually...,’ that was the existing numbers that we had at the time, ‘...of revenue, of which about $20 million of it is spent on government operations. So that leaves us about $10 to $15 million that we get to save, invest, reinvest, create new program services, build, buy land, do all this other stuff; all the things that you’ve been hearing. I just want to let you all know...,’ and I was just talking to everybody in the room and I said, ‘...I just added it up, there’s roughly from when you add the oil and gas refinery to the, we want to build our own lake, we want to buy all our land back, we want to...and all of a sudden you start putting an actual dollar number next to this and I’m sitting here looking at about three-quarters of a billion dollars of campaign promises. And I just told you we only get about $10 to $15 million a year. Now, how are you going to prioritize the stuff that you know you could do now against the stuff that you want to do, but you know it’s going to take a long time to get there and realizing that there’s going to have to be some kind of prioritization of ideas that need to be implemented under this new government?’ And so after I got elected, and I was talking to our senior planner after I gave my speech, after I was inaugurated the second term, I said, ‘How many tribal leaders do you know of when given the opportunity to give a speech to this audience on this occasion would use it to give a policy speech?’ And I said, ‘I feel like I missed the opportunity here to do something really grand,’ but unfortunately all I talked about was strategic planning and realizing that with limited resources -- but significant -- it was necessary for us to prioritize what we wanted this government to do.”

Ian Record:

“And I know that in this strategic planning process, the Osage Nation essentially followed this same inclusive comprehensive approach to getting the citizens’ input.”

James R. Gray:

"I think we used that as an element of the process. Like I talked to you about earlier -- that I wasn’t really interested in the outcome. I just wanted to make sure that everyone had enough ownership into that thing that they felt like that’s their plan too. It’s not my plan; it’s the people’s plan. We drove that home again and again and again. I said, ‘Look, you’re going to be the one...we already know what our past is. We’ve seen, we’ve lived through it, and we know it from shared stories that we’ve had, oral traditions and things of that nature. Today we’re here to talk about the future and we want you to write it. And as an Osage citizen newly endowed with inalienable rights to pursue that goal is the focus of this work.’ So we walked everybody through it and it created such a tsunami of excitement, enthusiasm, optimism, political engagement that we have never seen before from the citizenry because they really did take that seriously. And we didn’t just go once. After we did the initial round of the town hall meetings we came back, we brought together a group of Osage citizens that were program directors, elected officials, judges, employees, community leaders, cultural leaders, elders, people who lived off the reservation, and we brought them all back to go through the results of all those town hall meetings and consolidate these projects and these ideas and notions of governments exercising their sovereignty in all these different ways, broke them down into six different categories. And then we broke them down even further into projects and we rewrote basically what we felt was probably the appropriate way to put it back out to the people in the form of a survey. And we asked them, ‘Based on these descriptions that you’ve told us, how would you rank the most important ones?’ So they were given the opportunity to yet again provide additional input. After we got the feedback from those surveys we were able to break them down in the six categories -- economic development, environment, education, health care, government and justice and minerals and natural resources -- and in those six categories, it had specific things that they were supposed to do. We listed all the programs and departments and institutions of the government in a different grid and depending on what the project was it indicated which program department was responsible for carrying it out, which one would support, which one was going to lead and so we had our marching orders. It gave us such clarity as to what was going to happen and how we were going to get there. That was the remarkable achievement and that’s why it was so much more of a valuable management tool, as was the constitution was for the people. The constitution gave you the road map, the strategic plan put you in the car and filled up the tank, who gets on the bus. I mean it was...in other words, you had to get that first and then you build upon it all these other things. And part of that strategic plan was to give us some sense of direction, that with this government, we can achieve all these things. And that became the major accomplishment out of that whole process.”

Ian Record:

“Doesn’t also, too, make your day-to-day challenge, your daily challenges as an elected leader that much easier, when you have that strategic plan to use as a guide to make those decisions to decide whether to put this fire out or not, or put that fire out or not?”

James R. Gray:

“Right. Like I said, it’s an excellent management tool because you know what your priorities are. You walk in the door every morning to go to work. You know what you’re going to do. Now, there’s uncertainty all the time in this business as a tribal leader. You never know what’s going to happen. There could be a water leak in the casino that forced [you] to close it. I mean you deal with the crisis of the day, but once that has been addressed, then you have all this other stuff that’s already been laid out for you. And our challenge right now is getting our employees and our directors in a structure, an employment structure that rewards their hard work, that doesn’t just reward quit and stay, that rewards accomplishments, that puts the programs on a performance-based management tool. All these things came right out of strategic planning. Then we realized, it’s not going to be easy getting some of these individuals that worked under that old system their whole careers to switch to something brand new without the necessary trainings. So we had to invest a lot into their education on working in teams and understanding the performance-based budget, and understanding how to draft their budgets. For years, the CFO [chief financial officer] did everyone’s budgets. And when I came in, I tore that thing down and really, I said, ‘Look, if you want to be paid as a director, then I think you should know what your budget is.’ So with all the assistance and providing from the accounting and taking them to classes and getting software installed on our computers, all the directors did their own budgets, and it was a major accomplishment. I mean these kind of changes don’t happen overnight. You have to really invest in education and training of getting your people motivated. And that’s that old saying, just because someone has the right degree, from the right school, that had X amount of years in the workforce, if they’ve got a lousy attitude, they’ll never work out. If you’ve got someone with just the bare minimum educational qualities, with just the bare minimum of work experience, but they are so on fire to do a great job, you can do so much more with that individual just because their attitude’s changed. And my job primarily is to keep people fired up about this and acknowledging our successes whenever we have them and reward these guys. And so the real challenge for us is to take the strategic plan off the paper and put it into a service and put it into program and put it into action. And so that’s the process we’re in right now. We’re doing this massive reorganization of the employee structure. How we pay, the merit pay system, all the things that we’re doing with training and education, working in teams, breaking this up into divisions, and getting ourselves out of that old tribal council mentality that any of these [Osage] Congressmen can come into your office and tell you who to hire, who not to hire, who to contract, who not to contract with, where you’re going to put your desk to where you’re going to order your pens from. That kind of micromanaging is gone and so they’re empowered with those responsibilities, but if they’re going to have the responsibilities here’s the parameters and here’s the training you’re going to get.”

Ian Record:

“So we were just talking about your...this issue of leadership and how the new system, the new constitution and the new system of government has essentially empowered you to do your job better, to manage more effectively, to administer the decisions the [Osage] Congress makes more effectively. I’ve heard the challenge of being a tribal leader described as drinking from a fire hose, in terms of trying to manage all the pressures that you face on a day-to-day basis and forge ahead on behalf of the nation, moving the community forward. And I was wondering if you could speak to that challenge and how, perhaps, what advice you would give new leaders as to how to handle that load, forge ahead and actually make a difference in the long run.”

James R. Gray:

“I think in my situation, because for four years I didn’t have that kind of responsibility, and in the last four years I have had that kind of responsibility, it became real clear to me that chief of the Osage Nation under this government has a lot more responsibility to communicate. There’s a lot more communication responsibility both internally and externally. I think we have a duty, more than anything else to let people know, certainly those that live within the Osage Nation, but aren’t Osage, that we’re not out to get them or we’re part of the community; we’re a good corporate entity that does a lot charity, that does a lot of community projects, that does a lot of outreach, that does a lot of outstanding agreements with municipalities and county governments and state and overlapping federal agencies that have a variety of different kinds of jurisdiction here, that interact with the tribe, that there’s an external component, almost like a secretary of state application. And if you don’t do that, if you’re not paying attention to that, that stuff can kill you as a tribal leader if you don’t take care of those things. So you’ve got to have someone that’s paying attention to that so that you can meet those obligations. Internally, like I told you before, the work that we’re engaged in right now of building, creating building blocks of institutions of governance that...in fact, contracting and employment policies and our due process rights of individual citizens and employees, whether they’re Indian or not, have enormous implications upon the tribe to have some kind of adequate procedures in place, whether it’s by law or by administrative procedures. In the effect of actually trying to create a nation that has all these moving parts and all these gears of information coming in and out, you can really tell where the gaps are because you end up spending more and more time on certain issues, the same issue over and over again. And so you’ve got to have a good, quality internal staff that actually manages the programs, anticipating the next big fight or dilemma or challenge or obstacle, and be able to look around the corner a little bit and try to prepare for that. Then you have the outstanding issues that you can only achieve by litigation, that you only have to achieve by getting legislation passed, and things of that nature. So your job as a leader is managing a thousand moving parts constantly and realizing that you don’t have the capacity to deal with all of that yourself. So the best advice I can give to a tribal leader is to hire a bunch of people way smarter than you because if they’re relying on my IQ then we’re in a lot worse shape than I thought, but at least I’m smart enough to know that if I can get some smart people to come work for this tribe and give them the resources and turn them loose to do those things, to anticipate the next fight, to deal with the crisis of the day, to implement the future strategic plan, to live within the confines of the constitution, to work with our counterparts in Congress, to work with the state and local governments in an effective manner that projects real sovereignty, one that we don’t ask permission to exercise, one that we exercise because it is inherent and to say that, but to do it is the implementation and to do it effectively with the right people and the tools that provide for the accountability and the transparency that the people expect. That is the...that, in essence, is the kind of thing that you have to do as a tribal leader.”

Ian Record:

“Well Chief Gray, I really appreciate your time. Thank you for sharing your experience and your wisdom and your perspectives on Native nation building with us.”

James R. Gray:

“All right. You’re welcome."

Best Practices Case Study (Results-Based Organizations): First Nations & Inuit Home & Community Care

Year

For more than 15 years, the lack of home care services relevant for First Nations and Inuit communities has been identified as a significant health and social issue. In response to this need, a Joint Health Canada / Department of Indian and Northern Affairs (DIAND) / First Nations / Inuit working group was formed to develop a framework for a comprehensive home care program...

Resource Type
Citation

National Centre for First Nations Governance. "Best Practices Case Study (Results-Based Organizations): First Nations & Inuit Home & Community Care." A Report for the National Centre for First Nations Governance. The National Centre for First Nations Governance. Canada. June 2009. Case Study. (https://fngovernance.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/RBO_FNCare.pdf, accessed March 8, 2023)