- Associated Press - Sunday, January 15, 2017

PAWHUSKA, Okla. (AP) - It is always somewhat emotional for Osage Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear when he looks out over historical tribal lands recently returned to the tribe.

He feels pride. He feels a responsibility to these ancestral lands. And, he feels determined.

“There is some emotion, sure there is,” Standing Bear said. “But there’s another side to it, too. The Osage tribe is a vibrant political entity. This is not a dictatorship. There are different points of view.

“So, we have to look at all the options. We have reacquired 43,000 acres. That’s a lot of land. There is room for different ideas and uses.”

The Osage Nation, armed with new financial muscle from successful casino operations, has reacquired 43,000 acres of sacred, historical land in the past six months. It bought the former Bluestem Ranch, in the heart of Osage County, from media mogul Ted Turner for a reported $74 million, according to the Tulsa World (http://bit.ly/2jb8rtW ).

“Our ancestors walked this land 100 years ago,” Standing Bear said. “Our land was almost gone from the face of the earth.”

Not anymore.

“I hear the voices of our ancestors right here,” Standing Bear said. “They are advisers to us.”

Standing Bear, just two years into his term as principal chief, is determined to preserve history while moving the tribe forward in a modern world.

“We only had a very small percentage of our original land,” he said. “We only had about 4,000 tribal members still living in this county. The number of people who could speak our language was down to just a few.

“If all of those trends continued, our language would be gone. We would have no land. All of our people would have left. The Osage people would be nothing more than a footnote in history. It was the path we were on.”

The Osage Nation once owned nearly 1.5 million acres, present-day Osage County, when the tribe was moved to Indian Territory in the 1870s.

However, the lands had dwindled to about 5 percent of the original total by 2014.

Standing Bear, a Bishop Kelley High School and University of Tulsa law school grad, has made it a priority to reverse that trend and return land to the approximately 20,200 Osage members.

The Osage gained possession of the Bluestem Ranch in November. It is a sprawling ranch in the central part of Osage County stretching from just southwest of Pawhuska all the way south to near Hominy and Fairfax.

Now, the land must be returned to reservation status through a federal process before the tribe can begin to operate the lands in whatever manner it wishes.

“So, right now, our hope for the bison preserve and any other tribal enterprises are on hold,” Standing Bear said. “We have a lot of different proposals for use of the acreage.”

Those include cattle ranching along with bison and a possible hunting-fishing preserve.

“Again, this is a big place,” Standing Bear said. “And in our tribe, there are a lot of voices and a lot of opinions.”

Regardless of final decisions, the tribe does seem to be committed to some sort of bison preservation similar to what has happened at the neighboring Tallgrass Prairie Preserve.

“Our northern reach of this land is about 15 miles south of the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve,” Standing Bear said. “But, as anyone can see that comes out here, it is very similar.

“We were very lucky. Ted Turner was a good steward of this land. When we took it over, we found it to be in great shape. The land has been preserved very well.”

The acquisition has proven to be, in a short period of time, a wildly popular move by the Pawhuska-based tribe, and more expansive purchases could come to regain more of its historical lands.

Standing Bear has made reuniting the tribe with its traditional homeland a priority.

“It is our history,” Standing Bear said. “When I do things as chief, I always think about the teachings from my parents, grandparents, all of the tribal elders I’ve known.”

The acquisition of the ranch continues to spread a huge preservation footprint in the county.

If the Osage fulfill a promise to return a portion of the land to bison grazing and preservation, it could mean upward of 80,000 acres of tallgrass prairie would be in some form of historical preservation in Osage County. The Nature Conservancy has about 40,000 acres in the 27-year-old Tallgrass Prairie Preserve.

About 20,000 acres of the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve is dedicated to a herd of 2,700 bison. Standing Bear hopes to dedicate about 9,000 acres for the Wah-Zha-Zhi Preserve, grazing lands for a bison herd.

“Again, until we get this land back in tribal trust, we’re waiting,” he said. “But, this is very important to a lot of people.”

The Osage were able to purchase the land because of the strength of its casino operations, seven casinos/hotels stretching from near Ponca City to Bartlesville to Skiatook to Sand Springs and Tulsa.

The tribe recently announced a $150 million expansion of its Tulsa casino including a 132-room hotel and an 88,000-square-foot casino.

“What we have been able to do is tap into our gaming money for a great purpose,” Standing Bear said.

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Information from: Tulsa World, http://www.tulsaworld.com

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