Oklahomans of the Year

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Reclaiming the Nation

Osage Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear focuses on expanding the tribe’s land, language
and heritage.

The refrain is simple: “Language, culture and territory.”

Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear chants these inseparable entities regarding the sustenance of the Osage Nation. In 2016, he took major strides toward expanding the Nation’s growth in those three areas.

Over the summer, the tribe bought the 43,000-acre Bluestem Ranch from tycoon-preservationist Ted Turner. In November, the Osage Nation began to expand its primary casino in North Tulsa. And throughout the year, the tribe grew the language immersion program that Standing Bear has pushed for children.

That last accomplishment gets him excited.

Photo courtesy the Osage Nation.
Photo courtesy the Osage Nation.

“We now have 28 kids under the age of 6 in the classes,” Standing Bear says, “and they come up to me and talk Osage. That’s never happened before! And they expect me to reply in Osage, so I have to pick my words carefully. Our language is coming back!”

Standing Bear, chief since 2014, understands that Osage language, culture and traditions are interconnected with territory, “which was governed by our people long before the United States of America became a country, long before Oklahoma became a state,” he says.

The double play of the Bluestem Ranch acquisition and the casino expansion will help the Nation grow because “if we don’t sustain now, it’s gone forever,” he says. “We cannot maintain our culture and language without territory. We have to share the songs of our ancestors … and we have to have territory to express this.”

Acquiring the Bluestem is personal with Standing Bear because “we reversed a trend of losing land since 1890s,” he says. “It’s a great honor as a chief to sign a document to acquire land instead of giving it up. And we have to keep going because that bond we have with our ancestors going back 1,000 years through the land is strong. They’re talking to us. We listen to our elders through our songs and their stories.”

The United States forced the Osage to cede nearly 1.5 million acres of land in 1906, but the Bluestem adds to the tribe’s viability for generations to come. The purchase came through profits from the Tulsa casino and financing for the casino’s expansion. Everything goes together for Standing Bear and the Nation.

“Language … culture … territory … or we’re done,” he says.

Standing Bear, 63, wants 9,000 acres in the northwest corner of the Bluestem to become the Wah-Zha-Zhi Nature Preserve (the name is the Osage word for its people) with bison and rolling plains. Standing Bear, on the Nature Conservancy’s board of trustees when it created the Tall Grass Prairie, foresees something similar with the Bluestem. With a few more acquisitions, the two preserves may eventually connect.

“The Tall Grass Prairie works because it’s all based on science and ecosystems,” he says. “That’s the model we want to duplicate.”

Outside the devotion to Julie Standing Bear, his wife of nearly 40 years, the Osage chief is synonymous with Native American causes. He was the winning attorney for the Muscogee (Creek) Nation against Oklahoma in 1985 in a case that opened the state’s tribal lands to gaming. In law school at the University of Tulsa, he vowed that he would delete the chapter on Indian law known as the Oklahoma exception, which severely limited tribes’ power over their lands.

“I have a natural passion for this,” Standing Bear says. “But I’m just one person in a situation that’s gone on for a long, long time.”

– Brian Wilson

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