Jean Dennison: Osage Nation Reform: From Colonial Entanglement to Citizen Engagement

Colonial Entanglement: Constituting a Twenty-First-Century Osage Nation, by Jean Dennison

[This article is crossposted at]

Jean Dennison’s new book, Colonial Entanglement: Constituting a Twenty-First-Century Osage Nation, is a grounded ethnographic investigation of the 2004-2006 Osage reform process in which sharply differing visions arose over the new government’s goals, the Nation’s own history, and what it meant to be Osage. The primary debates were focused on biology, culture, natural resources, and sovereignty. Dennison’s research documents the reform process in order to reveal the continuing effects of colonialism and to illuminate the possibilities for Indigenous sovereignty. In doing so, she brings to light the many complexities of defining Indigenous citizenship and governance in the twenty-first century. In the following guest post, she discusses her recent travels to the Osage reservation, where she held multiple book events and hosted a roundtable discussion along with participants in the 2004-2006 reform process.


Driving diagonally across the 1.5 million acres of the Osage reservation this last month I had plenty of time to reflect on the state of our nation. From my parents’ home in Skiatook, Oklahoma northwest to Ponca City, the trip to Brace Books, a local independent bookstore where I was holding the third event of a three-day book tour, took a little under two hours. The rolling prairie had been scorched from the drought of the summer, which was the worst since the infamous dust bowl of the 1930s. The withered soybeans, tall grasses, and other vegetation were not the only casualties. Water, usually filling the area’s many ponds and streams, had vanished, leaving the cattle with little relief from the lingering Oklahoma heat. Osage farmers and ranchers were the hardest hit, leaving few financial options.

The day before, I had gathered with over 100 Osage to talk about the 2006 Osage Constitution, the primary subject of my recently released book, Colonial Entanglement: Constituting a Twenty-First-Century Osage Nation. From 2004-2006 the Osage Nation went through a drastic change in governance from a small board serving 4,000 shareholders of the Osage Mineral Estate to a tripartite constitutional government seeking to meet the social, economic, and political needs of approximately 15,000 Osage citizens.

Osage Nation panel discussion led by Jean Dennison, 2012
Author Jean Dennison leads a roundtable discussion with nine of the authors of the 2006 Osage constitution.
This photo was originally taken by Jacelle Ramon-Sauberan of the Osage News and is used with permission.

After introducing my book and some of its themes to the audience, I asked the nine assembled writers of the 2006 Osage Constitution to reflect on an aspect of the Constitution that was important to them. They spoke of their desires to unify a Nation divided by so many years of colonial policies, and of the trials and tribulations of citizen engagement. About the writing process, Osage Government Reform 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. . . . The reform process was hard, being an involved, good citizen is hard. We created this [constitution] to show that we could govern ourselves fairly and with grace.”

They also reflected on the work that still needed to be done. Commission member Dr. Joe Conner said, “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.” Behind his and others’ statements on this day was a sense that the Osage Nation, like all active democracies, is in the continual process of shaping itself. It requires active civic engagement and tireless work by elected officials, employees and citizens. It requires negotiation, compromise, and faith, sometimes beyond all evidence and logic, in our own ability to pick up the shattered pieces of the colonial process and build something that will ensure a strong Osage future.

Jean Dennison signs copies of her book following the Sept. 29 Osage constitutional reform roundtable
Jean Dennison signs copies of her book following the Sept. 29 Osage constitutional reform roundtable.
This photo was originally taken by Jacelle Ramon-Sauberan of the Osage News and is used with permission.

As part of my ongoing research on Osage governance I spent this past summer having conversations with various Osage about the functioning of the six-year-old government structure. Through my discussions with six different Osage Nation program directors it was clear that one of the largest challenges facing the nation was the issue of separation of powers. The primary concern was that the current government structure had created a great deal of fighting among the nation, particularly the Osage Congress and Executive branches, as the two clashed over how authority was to be divided in the nation. Under the old structure there was just one council that made the laws, oversaw the programs, ran the finances, and acted as the supreme court of the land. Now the Osage Congress had to share its authority with a strong Executive branch, which was in charge of all programs. Too often in the last six years the Congress and Executive had worked against each other in an effort to bolster their own authority.

Vann Bighorse, the director of the Osage Cultural Center, expressed the opinion that Congress could take a lesson from the Osage In-lon-shka dances. He had explained that during the dances, everything (especially political fighting) was put aside for those three weeks in June and everyone from the drum keeper to the cooks focused on making the whole thing run smoothly. Each person had a set role and they didn’t interfere with the roles of others. In having clearly defined and accepted roles the dances were able to run smoothly. Likewise our governing officials needed to come together and create more clearly defined roles for themselves and agree on initiatives they could all work on together.

Separation of powers was certainly not the only issue facing the Nation. The Monday after my book tour, a group of over 20 residents, many of them elders, held a protest during the last day of the Osage Congress’s legislative session. They held up signs that read, “We are tired of Stone Soup” and “Feed the People.” After years of operating at a loss the Osage-owned Palace Grocery store serving Fairfax, a remote Osage community, had been shut down. The community is now officially a “food desert,” meaning there is no place to buy fresh meat or produce. In a community already devastated by type 2 diabetes and other diet-related illnesses, and which also has a large elderly population, the lack of access is particularly problematic.

Drought, citizen engagement, separation of powers, and community health are hardly issues unique to the Osage people. American Indian and other nations across the globe are all dealing with similar struggles. The main difference for the Osage people is that in this twenty-first century moment, we now have the chance to resolve these problems with our own unique solutions, something the colonial process has worked hard to deny.


Jean Dennison (Osage) is assistant professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her book, Colonial Entanglement: Constituting a Twenty-First-Century Osage Nation, is now available from the University of North Carolina Press.