MARY HEPSIBAH ("HEPSI") BARNETT MPA 2000 experienced a life-changing moment when she visited a class on nation building taught by Kennedy School professor Joseph Kalt. As an Osage Indian growing up in Oklahoma, both on and off the reservation, Barnett had first hand experience of many of the class discussion points, including issues of sovereignty and self-determination. “As soon as I sat down, I thought: This is what I want to do,” she recalls.
Today, Barnett, 48, is fulfilling that goal as coordinator of the Osage Government Reform Project, a position that requires her to lay much of the groundwork for drafting the tribe’s new constitution, while communicating with its members about proposed changes and overseeing the ratification process. History of a Western-style tripartite government dates back to the Osage’s first 1881 constitution, which was abolished by the United States in 1900. There was a conscious decision to adopt that system in 1881, Barnett notes, and many reasons to do so in 2006. The challenge will be to create an even closer cultural match and reflect values the tribe has held for thousands of years. “The basic structure can work, but it won’t be fully successful until we make it Osage,” she says. “It’s like going full circle, and we’re halfway around now. We have quite a bit of work ahead of us.”
BARNETT DID PART of her growing up in the Osage reservation town of Fairfax, Oklahoma, attending a small Catholic school there with her brother and sister until junior high, when her parents decided to move to Edmond, Oklahoma. Like many Native Americans, the Osage have struggled with the bitter legacies of “life on the rez,” including alcoholism, drug abuse, and poverty. “Once you pass the age of 13, there’s not a lot to do on the reservation except get into trouble,” says Barnett. “Looking back on it, that move probably made a big difference in my life.”
In the complex, often tragic history of Native Americans, the Osage have their own story to tell. A seminomadic tribe with a culture based on hunting, foraging, and cultivating crops, the Osage were among the first to acquire guns and horses from French explorers, doing so in the late 17th century. They used these assets to their advantage, extending their territory and controlling the distribution of European goods to other tribes. This power earned them many enemies in the area of Louisiana, where the Osage lived and traded in the late 18th century. The Caddo and Wichita peoples were driven out by the Osage, and the Chickasaw and Shawnees steered clear of the fertile, game-rich region for fear of attack. Pressure grew for the Spanish government to stop trading with the Osage in order to cut them off from growing stores of guns and supplies. But relationships with the tribe were too valuable. Illicit trading continued, and anti-Osage factions were unable to form a strong enough coalition to fight their expansion effectively.
The Osage lived under a form of self-government that divided tribal villages into Tzi-Sho (Sky People) and the Hunkah (Earth People), with five representative chiefs sharing authority over all. Respected elders known as the Little Old Men maintained tribal customs and advised the chiefs as needed. This system held for hundreds of years until the pressures of white settlement and assimilation began to encroach on the Indian way of life. Like so many tribes, the Osage were forced to move more than once, first from Virginia to the Missouri Valley in the 17th century, then to Kansas, and finally, in 1871, to 1.5 million acres of Indian Territory that would become the state of Oklahoma.
Recognizing that the best way to win recognition from the U.S. administration would be to create a Western-style government, the Osage wrote a constitution in 1881 to organize the tribe into a tripartite government with three representatives from five districts who could set taxes, arbitrate disputes, and interpret government treaties. The council would be presided over by a chief and assistant chief. The chief would have veto power, but could be overridden by a two-thirds majority vote of the council.
While the United States never officially recognized the Osage government as sovereign, it did occasionally acknowledge the council’s authority. As the 19th century drew to a close, however, pressure grew for Oklahoma to seek statehood — one condition being that all land had to be allotted and owned by individuals. Over the course of 12 years, pressure mounted for the Osage to give up Indian ways and divide their land. In 1900, fearing the tribe’s growing economic and political independence, the United States abolished the Osage government. A council of 15 tribal members was established in its place, reporting to the commissioner of Indian affairs. By 1906, the number of mixed-bloods outnumbered full-blooded Osage. Resisting assimilation was clearly a losing battle, and in June of that year, Congress passed the Osage Allotment Act. Parcels of 658 acres were given to each of 2,229 Osage, with the remainder of the land going to white settlers.
The discovery of oil in 1894 was another complicating factor in the allotment process. In the end, tribal members shared in the total proceeds from oil and other mineral rights, with only children born to Osage women inheriting the headrights. Children born to Indian men and non-Indian women did not qualify, and headrights could never be sold. Barnett herself is not currently a shareholder; her mother, who is half Osage, does hold headrights, which will eventually pass to Barnett and her siblings.
“The decision about who can inherit headrights created a class system that has divided the tribe,” Barnett explains. “You can only participate in the Osage government if you’re a shareholder. Some of the shareholders are full-bloods, and some it would be questioned if they have a drop of Indian blood.” In 1906, when the Bureau of Indian Affairs established the tribal membership list for the Osage tribe, an undetermined number of whites (some believe as many as 500) paid to be included. Then, in the 1920s, as the price of oil escalated, some whites intermarried with Osage to gain access to the sudden wealth — then murdered them (see sidebar). Known as the Osage Reign of Terror, the deaths by poisoning, shooting, and firebombing occurred from 1921 to 1926 and totaled some 60 Osage before the FBI was called in to investigate. A few people were brought to justice, but many went free.
Over the years, U.S. policy on Native Americans fluctuated. In 1975, the Indian Self-Determination and Education Act embraced the idea that tribes could best govern their own affairs — but the Osage were excluded due to earlier provisions for government rule laid out in the 1906 Osage Allotment Act. Then a 1991 lawsuit known as the Fletcher case challenged the validity of the Osage government, making the argument that it should represent all Osage, not just those individuals with headrights. The suit succeeded in reestablishing a tripartite form of government that existed for three years until 1997, when the Osage Tribal Council filed and won an appeal. In its statement, the court ruled that only Congress could make changes to government rule established in the 1906 act.
“The new tribal council ran on the platform of seeking a legislative remedy to the issue of a representative government,” says Barnett. “They’ve really followed through and demonstrated exemplary leadership, particularly Chief Jim Gray.” The council lobbied Oklahoma Congressman Frank Lucas to introduce a bill that would reaffirm the rights of the Osage to determine its form of government and redefine tribal membership by blood, not headrights.
The bill passed both houses unanimously and was made law on December 3, 2004, clearing the way for the Osage Nation Government Reform Project.
WHEN THE OSAGE TRIBE hired Barnett in June 2005, she took an 80 percent leave of absence from her position as a project manager at the New Mexico State Supreme Court, traveling to the tribal campus in Pawhuska, Oklahoma, from the home she shares in Santa Fe with partner, Robyn DuBoff. When asked about the process involved in writing the referendum questions on which the tribe voted in November, she laughs. “I would like to say it’s been completely planned out and organized, but it’s all been pretty messy.”
The Osage tribe appointed a 10-member commission to oversee the reform process; in between meetings, Barnett, as coordinator, did the legwork required to mail surveys, conduct phone polls, and organize public meetings to solicit the opinions of all Osage — not just shareholders — in determining the content of the referendum questions. With less than six months between her hire date and the referendum vote, Barnett struggled to educate and engage the disenfranchised members of the tribe. “They probably have the most to gain from reform, but it’s been difficult to get them involved,” she admits. “It’s been this way for so long that people generally aren’t aware of how the government works.” Turnout for the referendum vote was about 20 percent; Barnett hopes to have a better showing for the ratification of the constitution in June.
The 16 questions of the referendum vote sketch out a tripartite system modeled on the U.S. government. Most received clear majority results, with one exception. Under the new government, the tribal council will continue to manage the mineral estate; the question is whether the council should exist outside the new government or be folded into its legislative branch as the second part of a two-house system. Voters favored the option to maintain the tribal council’s independent status by a narrow margin of 52 votes.
“I came up with the option of a bicameral system in response to many Osage People expressing that they wanted the council to retain some legislative authority and by being part of the new government, that body remains protected by sovereign immunity.” says Barnett. “Everything the tribe owns is tied to the council — by being part of the new government, it offers them sovereign immunity. Outside of the government, it’s unclear that they’d have any immunity when it comes to lawsuits tied to the mineral estate. It puts them in a vulnerable position.” (After a series of town meetings, a compromise proposal was reached in January, of maintaining the tribal council as an independent entity while folding it into a mineral management agency of the new government.)
As a student at the Kennedy School, Barnett conducted research in association with the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, an initiative co-founded by Kalt. “What separates Joe’s research from most other work on tribal governance is that he’s examining Indians in the 21st century,” says Barnett. “Many tribes today are in the process of nation building, just like some Third World countries. It’s only been in the last 30 years that Indians have been granted permission to self-govern — although, obviously, they did just that and prospered for thousands of years before white settlers arrived.”
Barnett exhibits equal measures of optimism and realism when describing progress made on the reform project and the future shape of the Osage government, as the tribe prepares to ratify a final constitution and elect new government officials in June. As demanding as the experience has been, with many long hours and working weekends the norm, she feels lucky to find herself at this place and time in her tribe’s history.
“When I came to the Kennedy School, I tried to design most of my classes around what would give me the best skills to do this kind of work, never thinking that it would be possible,” Barnett says. “There’s a strong feeling of commitment to the Indian community and to my tribe. I’m convinced it’s the most important body of work I’ll ever do.”
Julia Hanna is a freelance writer living in Acton.