October 09, 2012
Dr. Jean Dennison and nine members of the Osage Government Reform Commission held a discussion at the Constantine Center in Pawhuska from 1 – 3 p.m. on Sept. 29, followed by a reception and book signing at the Osage Tribal Museum. The event was dedicated to the memory of Edward Lookout, who had also served on the reform commission.
Dr. Jean Dennison, who received her doctorate from the University of Florida, began working as an Assistant Professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill three years ago. She is the granddaughter of original Osage allottee, Bus Dennison, and is the daughter of Gene and Sally Dennison of Skiatook.
Dr. Dennison explained that in her book “Colonial Entanglement”, she had endeavored to document the Osage Government Reform process -- an effort to move from a tribal council form of government to the current three-branch system envisioned by the Osage Nation Constitution, which was ratified March 11, 2006.
Dr. Dennison accomplished this by sharing the histories, desires, facts and experiences of the participants as they worked to arrive at a consensus which became the document known as the Osage Nation Constitution.
In Dr. Dennison’s book introduction she observes, “I argue that the constitution must be understood as a container, always striving to encompass more than it can reasonably hold. It must also, however, be understood as a boundary, keeping particular bodies and authorities at bay. This kind of focus on constitutions keeps us from ignoring the stakes involved in national formations.”
During the panel discussion, the former Osage Government Reform Commission members, who had worked to create the Osage Nation Constitution, recalled their experiences working on the Commission. William Fletcher, who gave the opening prayer, spoke first. Mr. Fletcher said that he was satisfied with the Constitution as written with one exception. In the preamble, he thought that the reference to Wah-kon-tah should have been followed by the words, “the Creator.”
Mary Jo Webb next spoke and said, “For me, this was an act of great courage to be done…it’s a good document.”
Of her experience, Hepsi Barnett, who was on Principal Chief Jim Gray’s staff at the time said, “I coordinated the effort … and it really was the culminating experience of my life.” Ms. Barnett shared, “If they asked my opinion, I was going to give it to them.” She said that her work on the reform commission had been “an opportunity to unify the tribe.”
Commission member, Dr. Joe Conner said, “It was an excruciating experience in some respects but it was also very rewarding. We produced a document which was written by a committee of Osage citizens…We took very seriously all of the suggestions we received…It might have been very seductive to accept blood quantum but what we heard from the community was not that.” Dr. Conner said that instead the community meetings had revealed a desire “to unify a nation that had been divided for many years.”
Dr. Conner explained, “We took it upon ourselves to produce something that was unifying…It is an imperfect document…but it was decided to make it a difficult thing to change it.”
One of Dr. Conner’s final thoughts was that, “Government is only as good as we are. We can have a good government if we step up as good citizens…with generosity and care about one another. If we don’t, it’s a piece of paper and a bunch of people angry with one another.”
Commission member Marvin A. “Tony” Daniels, congratulated Dr. Dennison: “Thank you Jean. I’m very proud of you today.” Mr. Daniels said that he was pleased that “all Osages 18 years and older can vote in our elections – they have that freedom.”
Commission member Jerri Jean Branstetter said of the commission’s efforts, “We were trying to look for something that was for all of the people of the Osage Nation…We did listen to the people -- to what they wanted to have. All of our meetings were open to everyone. This group had your heart in their hands. They wanted what you wanted…It is working. I’m proud of the new government they have.”
Commission member Priscilla Iba said, “We respected each other and our diversity. We could disagree wholeheartedly, but not be angry with one another. Having a common goal made all the difference…Part of the [Osage Nation] Constitution that has been criticized is the preamble, but Charles Red Corn and others spent weeks and days putting it together.” Ms. Iba read a portion of the preamble and then said in conclusion, “The reform process was hard, being an involved, good citizen is hard. We created this to show that we could govern ourselves fairly and with grace.”
Commission member Charles Red Corn said: “We recognize the value of those ancient people and what they’ve given us, and what we need to hang on to…Let’s do it well and let’s hang onto it.” With regard to the Osage Nation Constitution, Mr. Red Corn said that some have called it an imperfect document. His response to this criticism was to say, “I disagree with that because there’s a provision which says you can change it and that makes it perfect.” Mr. Red Corn also thanked the late Leonard Maker who had assisted in getting this started.
James Norris was the last commission member to speak. “I was coming out of anesthesia after a procedure when John Williams called and asked if I could sit on some commission…I didn’t know what I was getting into!” After the laughter from the audience subsided, Mr. Norris added, “I was very honored, happy and pleased to have been on this commission with a group of very dedicated and motivated people…At committee meetings, there was some anger but we worked very, very hard. We suffered some criticism but we survived.”
Dr. Dennison thanked the commission members for allowing her to attend and document the commission’s meetings and to witness the reform process: “It was an amazing moment and it will forever be the most important moment of my life to see this.”