Blood, oil, and the Osage Nation: The battle over headrights
SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.
(SOUNDBITE OF COIN SPINNING)
SAM YELLOWHORSE KESLER, HOST:
When Richard Lonsinger was in his mid-40s, he learned that his birth mother, Barbara (ph), had passed away. And Richard made a choice to try to get a particular piece of her estate to which he felt entitled. At the time, he believed that securing that inheritance would help him belong, to connect to his birth family or maybe his heritage. But gradually, Richard came to doubt the choice he made.
AMANDA ARONCZYK, HOST:
It was in March 2010 that his birth mother passed away. There had been a service, but Richard didn't find out about that until after it had already happened.
RICHARD LONSINGER: I unfortunately did not get notified for the funeral. And it's one of those things where I'm shocked. You know, I'm like, well, why wouldn't they tell me?
KESLER: Richard was adopted. He was in contact with his birth family, but they weren't very close. But even so, missing his birth mother's funeral, it was hard on him. It was especially complicated for Richard considering the circumstances under which he was adopted, which are pretty horrifying.
ARONCZYK: Richard is part of the Ponca tribe of Oklahoma, which is a small Native community. One day when he was a toddler, Richard's birth mother drove him and three of his seven siblings from their home in Oklahoma across the border into Texas.
LONSINGER: The tragedy of that story is we got abandoned in Amarillo and at a bus stop, and so the police picked us up. And that's how we got into foster care.
KESLER: From there, he was adopted without any of his siblings into a white family of three - a mom, a dad and a sister. And it wasn't until Richard was in his 20s that he really started to wonder about where he came from.
LONSINGER: I was trying to figure out, you know, what am I supposed to be? Who am I supposed to be? - unsettled, and it was always that just hole that I had and felt pretty alone.
ARONCZYK: So that is when he decided to reconnect. Richard always knew he was a member of the Ponca Tribe, and so he decided to start there.
LONSINGER: I called the tribe, and I said, hey, I'm Richard Lonsinger. And, like, they said, oh, yeah, we know who you are. And I'm just like, wow. And they are like, yeah, your family's here. Yeah. Sure. Yeah. Right. I mean, it was like it was an everyday call, and it was like, hey, we've been waiting for you to call us.
KESLER: We mentioned this was a small tribe. It was actually his Aunt Paula (ph) who picked up the phone. So, of course, she knows all about Richard. She knows he was adopted. She knows where his birth family is and how to reach them.
ARONCZYK: He drives the four hours from Kansas to Ponca City, Okla. There he meets his biological grandfather, who introduces him to the rest of his family - some of his siblings and Barbara, his birth mother.
KESLER: Now face-to-face with the woman who left him at that bus stop, he asks the question he's had on his mind all these years.
LONSINGER: I mean, I just asked, you know, why did we get adopted? I mean, well, what every kid would want to ask, right? And she - you know, it was interesting. Her comment was just, you know, Richard, I wasn't in a position to make good decisions, and I didn't make them.
KESLER: Richard would struggle for years to understand some of the decisions his birth family made.
ARONCZYK: Over the next three decades, Richard and his birth family settled into a friendly enough, but distant, relationship. And when he wasn't invited to his birth mother's funeral, it was just more evidence that they didn't really see him as belonging.
KESLER: And when her family inherited her estate, Richard was left out of that, too.
LONSINGER: Why wouldn't I be included in the distribution of the estate? I mean, I'm part of the family.
KESLER: Richard starts looking into his birth mother's estate and finds that she owned a couple plots of land, some small assets, this thing called a headright - a headright, which she had inherited from her late husband, a citizen of the Osage Nation.
LONSINGER: I started asking business associates and friends, you know, in Oklahoma about, what does it mean to have an Osage headright? And they're like, well, Rick, look, that's a big deal.
ARONCZYK: An Osage headright is a share of profits from oil, gas, coal - resources extracted from the Osage Nation's land. And these payments can be big - thousands and even tens of thousands of dollars a year.
KESLER: Richard had been abandoned at a bus stop, not invited to his mother's funeral, and now he was being excluded from what he considered to be his inheritance.
ARONCZYK: This is when Richard makes a decision that he still questions to this very day. He goes to the probate judge, and he asks, look, can I and my three siblings - all of the children who were abandoned at that bus stop - be treated like part of this family? He asks if they, too, can have a piece of their mother's estate, a fraction of her headrights?
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KESLER: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Sam Yellowhorse Kesler.
ARONCZYK: And I'm Amanda Aronczyk. In the 1920s, the Osage were some of the wealthiest people in the world. But that wealth also made them a target and subject to paternalistic and predatory laws.
KESLER: Richard Lonsinger gradually came to learn that history and how the headright system was responsible for taking hundreds of millions of dollars in oil money away from the Osage people.
ARONCZYK: On today's show, Osage headrights, decades of legal disputes, and Richard's quest to understand what he could do to help set things right.
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ARONCZYK: In order to get what he considers his share of his birth mother's estate, Richard goes to probate court. It's a slow process, but in 2014, he successfully convinces a judge to take another look at the terms of the inheritance. The judge agrees, and the court reopens the estate.
KESLER: And it's decided. All eight of the siblings - the ones who were abandoned at the bus stop, the ones who were not - all of them should receive an equal fraction of the headright.
ARONCZYK: Richard starts getting his headright payments. They come every quarter. And the dollar amount varies. It depends on how much the oil and gas and coal from the Osage land are selling for at that time. Richard didn't want to say how much he received when he got his first check, but based on publicly available information, we estimate that it probably would have been about $1,000.
KESLER: Now, we're sitting around a table in his living room, and Richard has been showing us some of his other headright documents.
ARONCZYK: When you started to receive the headrights money, was it life-changing amounts of money? Did it impact - did your quality of life improve? Did you get to go to Aruba?
LONSINGER: (Laughter) Well, I mean, I kind of had a different attitude about that. And to me, it's just, like, another investment that I have. You know, another - yeah, and that's really how I kind of look at it.
ARONCZYK: Did you or did you not go to Aruba?
LONSINGER: No. I went to Oklahoma.
KESLER: To the home of the Osage Nation. Richard wanted to know more about where his newly inherited money was coming from, and he wanted to learn more about headrights in particular.
LONSINGER: I dove into really what it is and what it means. And that's what I found out, was, you know, the history of it, which, to me, is just a fascinating story in itself.
KESLER: We wanted to learn more about the story ourselves, so we decided to take a trip.
ARONCZYK: All right. So we just left the state of Kansas. We are now...
KESLER: We drove three hours from Richard's home in Lawrence to the Osage Nation in Oklahoma. Once we crossed the border, we started looking for signs of the oil industry.
An oil pump - it's not...
ARONCZYK: An oil pump where?
KESLER: It's not moving.
ARONCZYK: That one right there, that's an oil pump?
KESLER: Yeah, right there.
ARONCZYK: That's a cow.
KESLER: No, no, no, no, (inaudible).
KESLER: That's a cow.
ARONCZYK: What are you pointing at?
KESLER: Oklahoma is littered with, yes, cows, and these pumps. The ones we saw stand around 12 feet tall.
ARONCZYK: Tara Damron has heard this sound all her life.
(SOUNDBITE OF OIL DERRICKS PUMPING)
TARA DAMRON: You know, growing up here in Osage County, this was a familiar sight and a familiar sound. This is the (imitating oil derricks) pumping of the oil derricks, so...
KESLER: Tara is Osage. She grew up in the Osage Nation, and her father worked in the fields pumping oil, that same oil that generates the money that goes to all the headright holders. Tara is a headright holder herself, and she's also a historian.
DAMRON: I am the program director for the White Hair Memorial. It's a small museum, Osage resource learning center. So that's what I'm in charge of.
ARONCZYK: Here is the history of the Osage headrights. Tara says that in the 1870s, the Osage had been pushed off their land in Kansas and started looking for a place to settle. They came across a piece of land in what is now northern Oklahoma.
DAMRON: They thought, well, non-Indians won't want to settle there. They won't want to live there because you can't farm it, it's rocky, it's not pretty, you know?
KESLER: This was happening during a time when the country was launching an onslaught against Native American people and cultures. The federal government wanted tribes to assimilate into white culture. They tried to wipe out Native languages and force children to attend Indian boarding schools.
ARONCZYK: In 1887, the Dawes Act was passed. The Dawes Act changed the way Native Americans were allowed to own their land. It broke up collectively owned Indian land and distributed it to individuals.
KESLER: The Osage, though, had a little more leverage to push back against the changes because they had purchased their land outright.
ARONCZYK: So even when the government passed a statute in 1906, forcing the Osage to allot their land, the tribe was able to secure two important provisions. First, even though the Osage land would be divided, it would only be distributed to members of their tribe.
KESLER: Second, the mineral rights for that land beneath the surface - those would continue to be owned collectively by the Osage. This was key because the tribe had reason to believe that there might be something valuable below that rocky landscape.
DAMRON: Lo and behold, Oklahoma is filled with a lot of natural resources and mineral resources underneath.
KESLER: Specifically, those mineral resources were things like gravel, coal and the big ones - gas and oil. And there was a lot of oil.
ARONCZYK: To divvy up the profits from the collectively owned mineral rights, a new system was put into place. Each Osage person on the tribal rolls in 1907 was given an equal share of the money coming in - what would come to be called a headright - 2,229 members at that time, 2,229 headrights.
KESLER: Now, anyone could lease land from the tribe to drill for oil. The people pumping the oil were required to pay a percentage of what they made to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Then the BIA would hold all of that money in a trust.
ARONCZYK: Once a quarter, the BIA would distribute some of that money to all the headright holders. By the 1920s, when the oil was really flowing, the Osage Nation had become, per capita, the wealthiest community in the world. Tara, the historian, says people bought fancy clothes, big houses and nice cars.
DAMRON: Well, when that happened and when they - non-Indians found out about it, it was like, oh, OK, well, maybe it's not such a bad place.
KESLER: Now Oklahoma is looking pretty good. News spreads about all these wealthy Indians.
ARONCZYK: Front page news, New York Times, June, 1921 - "Osage Are Richest People."
KESLER: And all of a sudden, practically every swindler and conman in the country descends upon Oklahoma - all these people trying to get their hands on this oil money.
ARONCZYK: So this is when the federal government steps in again. They do this ostensibly to help the Indians. They say, we're going to put a system into place to manage all of you people and your newfound wealth.
DAMRON: The guardian system, right? Here comes the guardian system.
KESLER: That system required Osages to essentially prove they could handle their own finances. If not, they'd be assigned a white guardian, some upstanding citizen in the area, like a lawyer or rancher. But this idea of competency would really just boil down to a single factor.
DAMRON: So if you were a full blood, considered a full-blood American Indian, you were automatically deemed incompetent. And so the more white you were, you were deemed competent. So let's assign you a white guardian who's supposed to handle your financial affairs.
KESLER: This system was filled with conflicts of interest. Guardians would pay themselves out of the money they were supposed to be protecting and then give their Indian wards a pittance in allowance.
ARONCZYK: Pretty quickly, things became violent. One way white people got a hold of this money was by marrying people in the Osage tribe, sometimes by force, becoming a guardian and then killing them for their headrights.
KESLER: There's a pretty famous book called "Killers Of The Flower Moon" by David Grann about this time, known as the Osage Reign of Terror. There were poisonings, shootings, even a house exploding.
ARONCZYK: There's actually a movie version of the book coming out soon, directed by Martin Scorsese. But Tara says that the killings weren't talked about much when she was growing up. Her mother did tell her one story that she'd heard from Tara's great-grandmother.
DAMRON: They would talk in Osage and - you know, but she says that she can remember one time that they were talking about when the house got blown up. And she just talks about how scared she was because she couldn't believe that that had happened, like - you know, like, a street and a block over from where she currently lived and just thought how awful and horrible. And then she thought, well, that could happen to us.
KESLER: At least 24 people were murdered for their headrights. Some estimates are much higher, but no one knows the exact number.
ARONCZYK: This was a terrifying and gruesome chapter in the history of the Osage people. It also meant that over the past 100 years, many of the headrights intended to ensure the financial future of the Osage people left the tribe.
KESLER: There have been a number of changes over the years to the original rules governing the headrights meant to make the system less prone to abuse.
ARONCZYK: For example, at a certain point, to try to keep more of the oil proceeds within the tribe, Congress made it harder for head rights to be bought and sold. And they prohibited Osage people from leaving their headrights through inheritance to people who are not Osage.
KESLER: But the way the money in the trust is managed for the Osage by the federal government - that remains under dispute even today.
ARONCZYK: This brings us to the present. The Osage have been fighting the U.S. government about the headright system in the courts. In 2011, the U.S. government settled for $380 million with the Osage tribe in a case that alleged financial mismanagement of the trust.
KESLER: But lawyers for the headright holders say that the settlement didn't right all of the wrongs. They argue that the fund continues to be mismanaged and that there is a lack of transparency in how the money is handled. And even though the U.S. settled with the tribe, the individual headright holders still feel like their complaints were never properly addressed.
ARONCZYK: So another series of lawsuits tried to voice those concerns...
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Fletcher v. United States - counsel.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Thank you, Your Honor.
ARONCZYK: ...Fletcher v. the United States. In addition to damages for years of alleged financial mismanagement, Osage headright holders asked for an accounting of the money being held in trust by the government - you know, the way the money from the Osage oil fields goes first to the Bureau of Indian Affairs and is only then paid out to the headright holders.
KESLER: The Osage wanted to know how the oil money was being collected and dispersed. Here's the lawyer for this case, Jason Aamodt, arguing on behalf of the Osage.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JASON AAMODT: Right now, the plaintiffs receive an arbitrary government check in an arbitrary amount, and they've never received an accounting, nor has anyone ever received an accounting that ever gets one of these checks.
ARONCZYK: The government side - they disagree. They say there is an annual report. They do provide information.
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: The Osage Nation publishes on its website and has, you know, for all years, the amount paid per headright.
ARONCZYK: The lawyers for the Osage side argue that what's missing is how the money is calculated, whether or not the money is invested well, how these millions of dollars are being managed.
KESLER: Now, we're going to go back to Richard Lonsinger, who we heard from at the beginning of the show. Now that Richard has his headright, and he's been learning about all the history of the Reign of Terror, he also starts to learn about the system that governs the headrights. And as he reads more about the way the Bureau of Indian Affairs manages the headright money, he starts to hear an echo of the early days of the trust.
LONSINGER: It's like reading a piece of history of what it used to be in 1800s towards Native Americans. And let's - you know, let's get rid of them. Let's - you know, you get rid of them by taking their children or their asset or - you know, I mean, it's just an enormity of a much larger attitude.
ARONCZYK: An attitude that, to Richard at least, belongs in the past.
LONSINGER: In today's times, it is so - I think it's kind of racist, you know. And I don't think about things in that context, but it is real.
KESLER: One of the things that came out of the Fletcher lawsuits was a list of some of the names of people and organizations who had headrights who were not part of the Osage tribe. And last year, Bloomberg News reported that nearly a quarter of all headright holders are non-Osage.
ARONCZYK: One and seven-tenths of a headright is owned by the University of Oklahoma. Two headrights are owned by the Frank Phillips Foundation. And there's one owned by the Kalamazoo First Assembly of God in Michigan.
KESLER: Richard was not on the lists that were disclosed, but he is a non-Osage headright holder.
LONSINGER: All I know is how I became one, and which is - I mean is - the story by which I became one, people would say, probably, well, that's negative; you shouldn't have one either, you know?
KESLER: So a few years ago, he starts to think, I'm not so sure. Should I have taken the headright? Should I not have taken it?
LONSINGER: This is that struggle I have because I can hear, well, why do you have it, anyway? You didn't have to take it.
ARONCZYK: You do struggle a little, it sounds like.
LONSINGER: Oh, I do. I do. I do - because I want to do the right thing.
ARONCZYK: After the break, Richard tries to figure out how to navigate the gray area he's found himself in and what he should do about the inheritance that he was once so sure he wanted to get.
LONSINGER: By 2018, Richard had had his headright for a few years, and at this point, he was doing more for his community. He had joined an economic development committee at the Ponca tribal headquarters. They were developing a casino, a convenience store, and as part of that work, he became friends with the lawyer, Jason Aamodt, who was arguing that big case, Fletcher v. the United States.
ARONCZYK: The case had changed over the past few years. Jason and his team had gotten a good look into some of the government's accounting of the trust, and what they saw only made them more certain that the government was mismanaging the money.
KESLER: Jason was getting ready to file a class-action lawsuit seeking damages. And one day, he and Richard were discussing all of this.
LONSINGER: And he said, you know, well, gosh. You're a headright holder. I go, yeah, I am. And he goes, but you're a non-Osage Indian headright holder. And I go, yeah, what does that mean? And he goes, well, that's very interesting, Rick (ph). Yeah.
ARONCZYK: Jason realized that if he could recruit Richard to this case, he could strengthen his argument. His thinking was because Richard was a Native American headright holder but not a member of the Osage tribe, it would widen the group of plaintiffs on a lawsuit, which he hoped would increase their odds of winning. And Richard's like, yeah, sign me up.
LONSINGER: And I have an opportunity to join that to help them in their in their cause and their fight. And so I would want someone to do that for me.
KESLER: Here's where Fletcher v. the United States stands today. The U.S. government argues that they have already settled this. They paid the tribe $380 million and the government keeps trying to get the case thrown out. They filed seven motions to dismiss.
ARONCZYK: We asked the Bureau of Indian Affairs for an interview, but they declined. They sent a statement saying that they weren't able to comment on pending litigation. Now, the headright holders allege that the trust is still mismanaged. And even though the federal government may have settled with the tribe, they haven't reached any kind of agreement with the individual headright holders.
KESLER: The case has been grinding along, not making much headway. But for Richard, being part of a case like this one, that fights for Indigenous rights, has been deeply meaningful.
LONSINGER: I'm so proud that I have an opportunity to be a part of this case. It means something. You know, here I felt like I wasn't part of something, but I'm part of something that's much bigger.
ARONCZYK: In the decades since Richard first tried to get his share of his birth mother's headright, he's had a lot of time to think about its significance and who he thinks it should really belong to. If he had to do it all over again, he's not so sure he would go to that probate judge.
KESLER: A few years ago, he made a decision about what should happen next to his headright. As we all sit together at his house in Kansas, Richard opens a binder and shows us some of his documents.
LONSINGER: You know, I have in my trust documents and my estate stuff that it goes back to the to the Osage tribe. I already made that declaration.
ARONCZYK: You have made a declaration?
ARONCZYK: A written declaration. And it's sort of like an amendment to your will?
LONSINGER: Yeah. Yes. And it says it goes back.
ARONCZYK: The Osage Nation has said that it wants these headrights for the tribe. After all that Richard learned, he feels that giving his share to them is the right thing to do.
LONSINGER: I mean, half my life was without it. So, you know, what's it mean when I'm gone? They deserve it more.
KESLER: He told his kids that they won't inherit the headright, and he says they understood. As for himself, Richard believes that he deserves the money from the Osage Trust. The headright is his inheritance.
(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE NEIL TOLLIDAY'S "MY CITY LIFE")
KESLER: Today's episode was produced by Willa Rubin, with help from Alyssa Jeong Perry and Emma Peaslee. It was engineered by Brian Jarboe and fact-checked by Sierra Juarez. It was edited by Keith Romer, with help from Shannon Shaw Duty from Osage News.
ARONCZYK: Special thanks to David Butler, Allison Herrera, Jim Gray and Everett Waller. I'm Amanda Aronczyk.
KESLER: And I'm Sam Yellowhorse Kesler. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.
(SOUNDBITE OF GEORGE NEIL TOLLIDAY'S "MY CITY LIFE")
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