OSAGE LAND: Former Turner bison ranch sold for price of $73 million

Mike Erwin |

On a vast tract of hallowed ground in central Osage County, the Osage Nation hosted a special homecoming last week.

The Osage were celebrating the recent re-acquisition of 43,000 acres of historic tribal territory. The Osage Nation purchase of Bluestem Ranch from media mogul/conservationist Ted Turner closed on June 8. Cost of the property was $74 million.

“This is the same land our ancestors walked 100 years ago,” Osage Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear said.

Approximately 400 persons attended Wednesday’s event, which was held in an air-conditioned tent erected 10 miles west of Hominy near the ranch’s southeast entrance. Special guests included tribal officials, federal dignitaries and representatives for Turner, who was unable to be there.

Turner Enterprises President/CEO Taylor Glover said Turner wanted to attend the event, but health issues prevented him from traveling.

During Turner’s 15 years of ownership, the ranch was operated as an ecologically-friendly wildlife refuge which produced bison to restock his ranches in Nebraska, New Mexico, Montana and North Dakota. Glover said Bluestem’s proximity to other Turner bison operations was the main reason the decision was made to sell the Osage County property.

“Bison don’t like to travel long distances,” Glover said.

In recounting the property transaction, Standing Bear said it was “worthy of a small movie.” The Osage leader said he first heard about Turner’s intention to sell the ranch from a tribal elder, who “told me the Osage Nation must buy it.”

On Dec. 23, Osage officials received a bid package. Following a collaborative effort by the ON’s executive and legislative branches, as well as officials of the Osage Casinos, the tribe submitted its bid in January and was awarded the purchase on Feb. 28. The final paperwork for the purchase was signed June 8.

“The owners of this land are now 20,190 Osages,” Standing Bear said.

Casino profits financed the transaction, ON officials said. The deal also included a transfer of all water rights.

The tribe is discussing possible uses for the property. Standing Bear pointed out that dozens of proposals are being considered, including some he said “cannot be allowed to occur.”

One such proposal, the chief said, called for establishment of a preserve for 7,000 wild mustangs. Standing Bear said such an enterprise might bring in a bigger return on the ON investment than other possible uses, but its affect on the land would be significant. He stressed the tribe’s commitment to being responsible stewards of the land.

Standing Bear said that, by next year, he hoped to see the property being used as “a refuge for sacred bison, a classroom for our people, a place where Osage companies and individuals will conduct profitable cattle operations, and the site of well-regulated (for-profit) hunting and fishing.” He expressed hope that the land will help Osage youth “reconnect” with tribal culture and traditions.

“My conclusion is that it appears 43,000 acres is big enough for more than one use,” the principal chief said.

The Osage tribe was removed from their former “diminished reserve” in Kansas in 1871. Sale of the tribe’s Kansas land holdings allowed it to pay cash for a 1,470,559-acre reservation (what is now Osage County) in Indian Territory. Osage land remained one tribal parcel until it was divided into individual allotments by the 1906 Osage Allotment Act. By 2014, tribal land holdings comprised less than 5 percent of the original Osage Reservation.

With the Bluestem purchase, the Osage Nation became one of the three largest landowning entity within the former Osage Reservation, controlling more than 9 percent of the original tribal landholdings.

Another speaker at the event, Osage Minerals Council Chairman Everett Waller, spoke passionately about the ancestral land. He noted that the site contained former tribal battlefields — not just hunting grounds. He asked tribal members to remember “what all our warriors died for.”

“Never forget what they did to get us here,” Waller said. “This is our last home and we need to protect it at all costs.”

Other featured speakers included Osage Congressman Otto Hamilton III, Glover, ON Gaming Enterprise Board CEO Byron Bighorse.

Two special guests from Washington, D.C., also made presentations Wednesday. Vince Logan, an Osage, is the special trustee for American Indians with the U.S. Department of the Interior. Justin Wilson, a White House adviser to the Office of the Special Trustee, read a letter from President Barack Obama congratulating the Osage Nation for its efforts in reclaiming the tribal land.

The Osage Nation is seeking to have the Bluestem property designated as federal trust land, which Standing Bear said would give it “Indian Reservation status.” In addition to establishing Osage sovereignty, the federal land classification would reaffirm the tribe’s trust relationship with the U.S. Government (as guaranteed by treaties), the principal chief added.

Making the ranch property trust land will serve an even more important purpose, according to the principal chief will afford the property maximum legal protection against being sold or given away in the future.

“We cannot ever again be separated from this land,” Standing Bear said.