Osage Congress, voters face important choices

Robert Smith
Pawhuska Journal-Capital

The Osage Nation Congress will apparently have a decision to make March 28 about the propriety of a Principal Chief putting forward major spending legislation just a week before a primary election in which he is a candidate for re-election.

The ON announced March 10 that Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear will be seeking a wage increase for full-time tribal employees, to help them cope with financial pressures caused by inflation. The legislation is to be introduced just a week before the April 4 primary election for principal chief. Standing Bear is running for a third term. His opponents, Joe Tillman and Angela Pratt, are members of the Osage Nation Congress.

Inflation in the broader U.S. economy is a problem right now, and Osage households may be feeling pressure. Nonetheless, Chief Standing Bear's move to provide relief raises a question for the Osage Nation Congress about whether any chief should be encouraged to propose important spending measures so close to an election.

Had Chief Standing Bear waited until April 5 to announce and pursue legislation for an employee pay increase, his initiative would likely have looked much less like a last-minute effort to influence votes. As things stand, there is no way to avoid suspicion that he is attempting to burnish his reputation as a fighter for the well-being of the Osage people just before citizens of the nation head to the polls.

This puts members of the 12-seat Osage Nation Congress in the odd and uncomfortable position of having to decide whether to agree to the pay increase to avoid being criticized for alleged insensitivity to the needs of tribal employees, or to resist -- at least until after the primary election -- to make a point about propriety.

But the issue now appears to be on the table -- how much can an incumbent executive officer, while campaigning for re-election, be allowed to promise voters right before an election? When does the responsible protectiveness of a fighter for his people become shameless pandering by a would-be emperor? We all know the observation of the Roman writer Juvenal, who is credited with the words, "Give them bread and circuses and they will never revolt."

How much is too much? And what about timing? These are questions for the Osage Nation Congress. Chief Standing Bear has consistently demonstrated that he conceives of the role of the Osage executive in strong terms. He assertively defends the legal rights of the Osage Nation. He has also been criticized, however, for allegedly demanding too much personal loyalty from ON employees. If one thinks he demands too much, then how much more reason should he be allowed to give employees for demanding that loyalty from them, especially right before an election?

Osage Nation voters will also have to decide these matters for themselves. The stakes are substantial. The Osage Nation is engaged, as are the political institutions of other Native American nations, in the long-term attempt to give credible and effective expression to Native sovereignty. That project is much more important than any one election.

So the Osage Nation Congress and individual Osage voters have important decisions to make about the future of the ON's elections and political institutions.