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Oklahoma Historical Society could soon return headrights to Osage Nation

A photo of Lillie Morrell Burkhart inside her home known as the White Hair Memorial.
Shane Brown
A photo of Lillie Morrell Burkhart inside her home known as the White Hair Memorial.

The Oklahoma Historical Society could soon return Osage headrights to the tribal nation.

Osage Nation Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear says his nation has been approached by the Oklahoma Historical Society about returning headrights formerly belonging to Lillie Morrell Burkhart. The return would mean that the Osage Nation would manage Burkhart's trust.

Lillie Morrell Burkhart was an original Osage allottee who lived outside Fairfax in Osage County. She was a world traveler, an interpreter for Chief Fred Lookout and an ambassador for Oklahoma in 1958 during the World's Fair.

When Morrell Burkhart died following a heart attack in 1967, she willed her home as a shrine of her ancestor Chief White Hair to the Oklahoma Historical Society along with her land and headrights. A headright is a quarterly distribution of funds derived from the Osage Mineral Estate to citizens.

Now, almost 40 years later, KOSU learned from Standing Bear that the Oklahoma Historical Society wants to transfer the responsibility of the trust and the headrights back to the Osage Nation.

"Such a return at least for the use of the property for an Osage person… is always welcome," he said.

The headright has paid out more than $1 million since 1984, when adjusted for inflation.

Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Cheyenne, is currently working on a bill to make it easier for non-Osage people and entities to transfer headrights back to the Osage Nation.

Today, out of the 2,229 thousand Osage headrights, about a quarter of headrights are no longer in Osage hands, according to The Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The Oklahoma Historical Society is one non-Osage owner. Others include the University of Oklahoma, various trusts, Catholic Churches, a defunct care home called Hissom Memorial and the Jack Drummond Trust. That trust is connected to the Drummond family, which includes Attorney General Gentner Drummond and Ree Drummond, more popularly known as television personality The Pioneer Woman.

Historical Society leaders met with members of the trust Wednesday afternoon about its current status. A message left about that meeting was not immediately returned.

KOSU asked the Historical Society’s president Trait Thompson the following question in advance of the meeting: “If there was an opportunity to give the headright back to the Osage Nation for them to run the White Hair memorial, would you be open to doing that?”

Thompson responded, “Yes.”

The transfer wouldn't happen right away because of the complexity of the process.

It’s been illegal to transfer a headright share to a non-Osage person or group since 1978, when the law was amended to prevent more shares from leaving Osage hands.

Allison Herrera is a radio and print journalist for KOSU