A Space for Writers of the World
In early June, I pull over to watch fireflies on a road outside of Fairfax on the Osage reservation. Their sparks appear and disappear against a scramble of almost invisible live oak. The nights aren’t like this where I live along the Columbia, even when crickets sing and frogs are loud in the ditches near our house. In Oklahoma, beneath the burring sound of insects, there’s the tick of a pump jack across the road, a pause and a metal whine regular as a pulse.
We’re an energy tribe. The New York Times wrote that we had the highest per capita income in the world in the Twenties. We were the Saudis of the day, attracting predators from every direction. We’ve lived boom and bust with the oil industry, from the oil leases auctioned under the Million Dollar Elm to the bricks shaking loose in fracking-related earthquakes almost a century later.
After Ladonna Brave Bull Allard calls the Nations to Standing Rock, Osages are among those who travel to North Dakota to stop the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which would connect oil to Cushing, the huge storage facility seventy miles from the Osage reservation near the historic Burbank Field. The Osage Wah Zha Zhi Youth Council brings firewood and women cook Osage food. Artists and activists follow their relatives’ footsteps in the protest at Wounded Knee in the 1970s. One veteran makes the journey mostly on foot, making a pilgrimage while filming it for social media. Two Osages walk with a group of middle-aged women onto the Backwater Bridge over Cantapeta Creek in bitter cold. Some carry white flags tacked to 1x2s to face soldiers with masks, vests and guns. One is almost hidden under a fur-lined parka, a white shawl crossed over her chest. The white flags in the dull landscape call up past atrocities.
In early September, when the protests at Sacred Stone Camp are growing larger, the Tzi-Zho session of the Osage Congress opens. Congresswoman Alice Buffalohead fixes long hair over one shoulder and steps to the podium in the council chamber lined with murals of the Osage creation story. The red oak tree is painted on bright blood-red walls along with modern leaders. Alice speaks in favor of a motion in support of the Standing Rock Sioux. “Clearly,” she says, “the Osages support oil and gas . . . We welcome it, always have and always will.”
A lot of Alice’s family members are pipeliners. My dad studied geology, though he didn’t work in the field. I receive a share of the mineral estate: oil and gas revenue that (some of) our ancestors fought hard to hold in common. The Osage traditionalists fought to keep the resource communal, the French-Osages and other more assimilated mixed bloods wanted both land and minerals allotted individually.
One of the first sentences I learned in Osage at my cousin’s house was When is payment? We laughed, because everyone wants to know when payday is, but especially Osages. There’s excitement when the price per barrel of oil is high, and headright shareholders buy a new car or something special.
White people laugh about Indians with money in a different way, especially Osages. Not every Osage has a headright now, and the low price per barrel of oil hits elders hard. For white people who don’t have enough money of their own, living in a culture that says there’s never enough, a rich Indian is an affront. When the Osage Nation negotiates tobacco sales or car tag sales by asserting the Nation’s sovereignty, some white neighbors dispute our right to exist. The envy focused on our reservation, in good times and bad, is background noise in local conversation and emanates from social media and the comments section of The Daily Oklahoman. It’s easy to see these settlers riding to the camps to kill all the indigenous people they can find.
We’ve had two years of worse than usual mismanagement from the BIA’s Osage Agency. Osage petroleum engineers with responsible ideas to manage the resource, struggle with the agency superintendent. Permits for drilling and refurbishing wells have ground to a halt. When I hear that our superintendent does not provide maps except through Freedom of Information requests, pressure rises up from the well of my gut. We have fiduciary trust and fiscal management for those deemed unworthy of respect.
Indigenous people know bad management. Elouise Cobell’s lawsuit brought a negotiated settlement of $176 billion. The Department of Interior/Bureau of Indian Affairs lost money like water pouring through the plank floor of an abandoned cabin.
The Osage Congress passes a motion in support of the Standing Rock Sioux, although some members think that the resolution the chief has recently issued is sufficient. This is family politics with glancing remarks from people don’t want to vote against the resolution. Oil and money bring out the worst in people. I was going to say brings out the worst in ishtahí, but I remember Osages who have sued their own family members over headright shares. My relative used to wonder what we Wah Zha Zhi would be like as a people if we hadn’t been oil rich, intimating that although we might have been poor, we’d have been more cohesive.
In January 2017, Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear calls a joint meeting of the Nation to consider the problems with the Osage mineral trust. We’re in serious conflict with the Osage Agency. We meet in the Wah Zha Zhi Cultural Center with George Catlin’s floor to ceiling portrait of Town Maker and rows of photos of each tribal council. Scattered in the audience are members of the Mineral Council, the Osage Congress, the Shareholders’ Association, the tribe’s economic development LLC, along with elders and local oil producers all with different ideas about how to proceed. We have orphan wells and abandoned wells in the Osage; shards of boom and bust scattered like metal bones across the land.
Everett Waller is the chairman of the Mineral Council, a tall, large man with hair down his back. “We’ve got the Republican guard [coming in],” he says in his booming, hard-edged voice. “I say we’re going to war.” I picture the old ways: the Peace and War divisions formed up and ready to go west to the enemy. “We’ve got to get together,” he says.
Myron Red Eagle was elected to the First and Second Mineral Councils, but he lost in his bid for a congressional seat this year. He’s got sleepy eyes and a wide smile. After listening to Osages affirming ways to work together, in his quiet voice, Myron says, “We’ve had these families who can’t agree. That’s got to go. I like the unity I see.”
Oil is like blood, like family. Finite, precious. In the darkness, my heart is still pumping.