In 2014 Geoffrey Standing Bear was elected Principal Chief of the 20,000-member Osage Nation. This past June, he was re-elected for a second four-year term.
Standing Bear grew up in Tulsa and graduated from Bishop Kelley High School and the University of Oklahoma before attending law school at the University of Tulsa, where he graduated in 1980. An accomplished attorney with a deep knowledge of Native American law, his involvement in Osage politics began in 1990 as assistant chief and as a member of the Osage Nation Congress from 2010-2014.
He and his wife, Julie, are proud parents and grandparents.
What interested you in the law?
I didn’t know I was going to get into law until I was at OU. I studied sociology, psychology, anthropology. My wife, who I was dating at the time, and I were talking about career paths. She suggested I take the law school examination, which I did. I had a wonderful experience with the University of Tulsa because it’s a great school, for one, and then also they had a professor, Rennard Strickland, who was starting their Native American law program, so I was able to be a student while they were developing that program.
Your emphasis has been in Native American law?
I have practiced a lot, mostly in Native American law. While I was at TU, I interned at the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. In 1982, I went to work for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation as an attorney. That was an interesting time because the tribes in different parts of the country were looking at gaming and other issues. I was part of the team that filed the lawsuits and, in federal court, established the gaming rights of the tribes here in Oklahoma. That was a big victory for tribal sovereignty.
Then I was able to work with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in re-establishing the authority with the Nation to have tribal courts and police. And again, this was part of a nationwide effort at the time. It was very exciting. Since then, I have worked with many different nations.
Tell me about your former role with the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association.
I was general counsel to the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association. That’s a trade organization representing the tribes to express the policies, to show Oklahomans the benefits of Indian gaming to Oklahoma. Back when we started the gaming efforts in 1983, and when we opened the Tulsa Muscogee (Creek) Nation Bingo Hall in late 1984, most of the employees were members of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. The unemployment rate was extremely high at the time, and this was a great job opportunity for them. The tribes began to see the profits and were able to put those profits into educational and health programs.
Part of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association’s mission is to show the economic benefits that Oklahoma has received because we are taking responsibility for our own people. It’s important to understand this is not an unlimited pot of money. There is a set amount of people and tourists here in Oklahoma, and there are 39 tribes vying for that business. It’s very competitive. So the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association tries to find common ground where we can promote gaming for all the tribes, all the nations.
The real growth for Indian gaming and Oklahoma is to open well-regulated gaming activities that expand what we can do now. A big step was taken by the Oklahoma Legislature (with the introduction of House Bill 3375 in February) by doing the ball-and-dice amendments.
In April, Gov. Mary Fallin signed House Bill 3375, which legalized roulette and dice games at tribal casinos. What does it mean for casino expansion?
We need Oklahoma to become more of a tourist destination. With expanded gaming, we can bring in more people who would go to other places.
In the Tulsa area it’s about location, as in any business. (The Osage Nation) opened our new casino Aug. 28, which also has a hotel. We didn’t have that before. So we are trying to bring in conventions, people from out of state — and their funds — and make it an enjoyable experience.
Right now, Osage Nation Gaming employs 1,100 people. The majority of those are not Native Americans.
What are some of the challenges Oklahoma Natives are facing?
On the expense side, the tribes’ needs are increasing as the state and federal funding decreases. Recently I’ve met with representatives of the Pawhuska hospital authority and our own clinic on how to work together to deliver health services to all the people when all the funding is being cut. Those challenges are immense. We work in partnership with as many other entities as we can, and I’m just speaking for Osage, but I know the other nations have the same issues in how to deliver health services to the people. That’s a huge expense.
Then on our education side, we have the state situation with education funding and keeping the teachers here. We don’t have enough money to cover preschool to 12th grade. So we concentrate more on the preschool with the hopes to find ways to work internally and in partnership with the schools here.
Speaking to the education point, the Osage Nation has a strong language immersion program.
We learned from observing other nations that the immersion program is essential for maintaining our language. Our culture and language are connected so much that to maintain parts of our culture, our language is essential.
Right now the immersion program is relatively small because we have a shortage of teachers who are fluent in the language. We started at under 1 year old to kindergarten, and now we’ve expanded into first grade and the second grade. We have 40-some students.
Just like our other preschools and in our Head Start program, we’re working our culture, language and our STEAM curriculum — science, technology, engineering, art and math — so all our staff and teachers are taking this complex system and putting it together so the children will know culture, as much of the language as we can, and this STEAM curriculum.
In 2016, the Osage Nation purchased the Blue Stem Ranch, 43,000 acres owned by media mogul Ted Turner just west of Pawhuska. What did that mean to you as principal chief and to you as an Osage?
That was a tough decision, and we took it to our legislature and gaming board first thing. Given our size and our income, it was a hard decision. We finally decided this was an opportunity that was perhaps once in a lifetime, to have that much land, that once was ours, purchased and returned back to the nation. We established a board of directors to manage the ranch. Right now it’s primarily a cattle operation.
We also have started bringing in the bison. Our ancestors hunted bison, which were very sacred to us and essential for our lives at the time. We still have a buffalo clan. We made applications for an inter-tribal bison cooperative, which is a national organization that works with tribes to obtain bison. We have 19 bison that just came in, and we’ve asked for 75 more. It’s a big deal for us. It’s a big commitment.
Why is it such a commitment?
The Nation, our government, is funding and operating our programs. Our casinos are our money-maker outside of federal grants, so they are funding the ranch and also the casino expansions. So with the expansions from the casino, we expect greater income. But I’ll tell you, those were tough decisions. We spread out the costs of the ranch purchase over a period of 10 years.
You’re in the midst of budget planning for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1. I’m sure it’s a lengthy process.
We serve our people everywhere. With our gaming money, we provide health benefits to our people, which this year is projected to cost $10 million a year. We have an amazing scholarship program, where any Osage can apply for and receive up to $9,000 a year for tuition and books. We’re projecting that program will cost over $8 million.
What led you to serve in tribal office?
The controversy over voting rights. Until 2006, our form of government only allowed Osages who had a share in our mineral estate to vote and hold office. Now this was a major controversy. We had been this way since 1906. At the time though, the original allottees were 2,229 people and they each had one share of the mineral estate and one vote in tribal office. As the laws were interpreted at that time, the headrights (shares) are passed down to heirs. Today, for example, of the over 21,000 Osages, just over 5,000 have shares in the mineral estate. And that means they’re the only people who could vote or hold office if we had the former system.
So back in the late ’80s I wanted to see how we could address that and then also protect our federal trust. This issue was worked on by every Chief and every Council, along with many members of the Osage Tribe. Finally, in 2004 the U.S. Congress passed a law allowing us to decide our own form of government. Jim Gray was Chief at the time, and the former Osage Tribal Council led the effort for a new Constitution, which was enacted in 2006.
It was really critical if we were going to transition to one-person, one-vote, that our federal trust relationship was protected — to ensure that nothing would happen to the headrights because that’s a source of income for a lot of people. That’s a complex subject. So that’s what got me interested — all that discussion going on.
I ran for Congress under the new Constitution to take part in this new era of the Osage. I ran for Principal Chief to have Osage Nation place emphasis on preserving and growing our language, culture and lands.
As a child growing up, was being Osage something that was talked about a lot in your family?
Yes. My grandmother lived with us. Her name was Mary Lookout Standing Bear, and she was the daughter of Chief Fred Lookout, who was chief during the early part of the century. He was Chief in the 1920s, ’30s and until 1949.
So we had that connection, like a lot of families. But we didn’t speak Osage. We had a lot of Osage words in the house. But we were just part of the Tulsa Osage