Jim Gray | Reforming Tribal Government

Jim Gray is Osage. Not only is he Osage, he is the former Principal Chief. Jim is one of the few (so far) elected leaders to appear on NextGen Native.Jim served two terms as Principal Chief from 2002-2010. During that time, he led significant reforms to the Osage government, eliminating almost one hundred years of U.S. government say in who was an Osage.

Jim Gray

Jim Gray

I’ve shied away from interviewing elected leaders on NextGen Native. The reason is there are so many people serving or working in Indian Country that are not elected leaders that I thought they needed a spotlight of their own. However, I think Jim’s story as a former leader, in particular one who accomplished what he did as a young leader, is worth sharing his story.

It’s amazing to see how small events cascade and facilitate into life changing moments. Jim did not seriously consider college until he realized he could play tennis at the collegiate level. Sport is what pushed Jim into college and set him on his course.

Jim’s first job was with his tribe as a grant writer. Eventually he found a job in the newspaper business where he found the work suited him. He continued working for the Tahlequah Daily Press for about ten years. An opportunity arose to buy his own newspaper, the Native American Times. At the time, there were only a few papers in Indian Country that were not owned and published by tribes.The Times was able to cover all tribal issues in Oklahoma and across Indian Country with a unique viewpoint.

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Jim Gray ran for office after a controversial time in Osage politics. He wrote a piece that described the need for a serious alternative candidate. After reading this piece, tribal members urged Jim to run. Jim won by a handful of votes. And just like that a tribal leader was created. The tribe typically did not elect young leaders, so Jim’s election was a dramatic call for change. 

Jim dove into the work of reforming the Osage government. Under his leadership, the tribe was able to enact a law at the federal level to pave the way for tribal reforms, create a commission to consider the reforms, draft a constitution, and enact it despite small pockets of resistance in the tribe. The reforms were recognized by the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development Honoring Nations program. He accomplished this as someone that had never run for office.

Jim finished third in the 2010 election. It took him some time to adjust to life outside of office. It included a stint in DC. But ultimately, he needed time away to realize what he accomplished while in office, and to appreciate life outside office.

For anyone looking to enact big changes-his story is one worth listening to and studying. For the rest of Jim’s story, check out the episode.

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