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Osage citizens want to know what the future holds for a memorial dedicated to Lillie Morrell Burkhart

The entrance to the White Hair Memorial, a cultural center in Osage County that was the former home of Lillie Morrell Burkhart.
Shane Brown
The entrance to the White Hair Memorial, a cultural center in Osage County that was the former home of Lillie Morrell Burkhart.

In 1984, the Oklahoma Historical Society took over the management of Lillie Morrell Burkhart’s estate, and today they run the White Hair Memorial — just as Lillie wanted. But, there continue to be questions about what exactly that legacy will be moving forward.

This is the final piece in a series about the life and legacy of Lillie Morrell Burkhart. You can start from the beginning here.

Dan Swan was a young graduate student at the University of Oklahoma, had a new family, and was ready to move to Osage County.

"I was incredibly young and was very excited about the opportunity to move to the country and, you know, have this grand adventure with my Osage friends," Swan said about his opportunity to work at the White Hair Memorial, Lillie Morrell Burkhart's former home that was now being run by the Oklahoma Historical Society. 

It wasn't going to be easy, though. First, the house was stripped down to the walls. Her former brother-in-law Ernest and ex-husband Byron Burkhart had sold all of her furniture. The estate owed a quarter of a million dollars in legal fees, and he had to evict the Burkhart brothers – villains who are featured in the film Killers of the Flower Moon — from Lillie's house.

Dan Swan was the first director of the White Hair Memorial Museum.
Dan Swan
Dan Swan was the first director of the White Hair Memorial Museum.

"They just weren't going to go," explained Swan, who eventually handed them a notice from the Sheriff's office.

Swan even had to pry a lawnmower loose from them. As it turns out, Byron and his brother Ernest tried to take it even after they had stripped the house of all the furniture Lillie bought.

Swan enlisted the help of brothers Jake and Everett Waller, who grew up near Lillie and are also from the Morrell family.

Everett Waller remembers the incident well.

"That situation came up, and we were rather large men at our young age, and we were asked to take care of that, come over here and make sure that that didn't happen," Waller, who is the current chair of the Osage Minerals Council, said with a laugh.

Billie Ponca, Lillie's great niece, remembers going into the home after Lillie had passed away. The home she said once smelled of her aunt Lillie's jungle gardenia perfume was worn down and smelled like stale cigar smoke.

"It wasn't the same place, and it was sad to see that," Ponca remembered.

Lillie's ex-husband Byron Burkhart had been living in the home after she died. Part of the house had been damaged and repaired from a fire, and Osage people were upset about the outcome of the will.

"People would say, you know, this should have never happened — this is the last time this is going to happen," Swan said, talking about the reaction Osage people had about the OHS running the White Hair.

Turning White Hair into a cultural center

Today, Swan is well respected in the community and has written several books with and about the Osage. But back in the 1980s it was tough. He knew he needed to get people to trust him if he was going to be successful. He needed Osage input, so he turned to his friend, current Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear, for help.

"He said, listen, if you want to learn about the community, you've got to throw a dinner," Swan said.

Swan did just that and asked, 'what do you want to do at this house?' After the dinner, he said Osages spoke up.

"People were like, 'we've got to preserve this language, and they said, like we want to have classes — we want to teach our kids about plants,'" Swan said.

Language and culture classes became the center of White Hair. Tara Damron, the current director at White Hair, says that's how she learned it existed.

"We would have an hour of language, and then we would have an hour of culture," Damron said.

A lot of Osage first language speakers were still alive in the mid-1980s and would come and teach lessons. Damron says they would talk about the Native American Church, In-Lon-Schka and all facets of Osage culture.

Today, the Osage Nation has a strong language department. Their orthography is available on iPhones, computers and tablets, so you can write and text in Osage. And, in Killers of the Flower Moon movie — Robert De Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone all speak the language. These are things, Swan said Lillie Morrell Burkhart probably couldn't have imagined for her people but thought were important.

So, if the Osage Nation is teaching the language, what is the future of the White Hair Memorial?

A collection of books saved at the White Hair Memorial.
Shane Brown
A collection of books saved at the White Hair Memorial.

White Hair moving forward

Bob Blackburn, the former executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, says the White Hair is not for the public — even though they are welcome to come if they want.

"It's for Osage people. That's what Lillie Burkhart wanted. She wanted that to serve Osage people," Blackburn said.

Dr. Bob Blackburn address the Oklahoma City Human Rights Commission
Peggy Dodd
Dr. Bob Blackburn address the Oklahoma City Human Rights Commission in summer 2023.

Blackburn was involved with the White Hair during his time there and feels strongly the home shouldn't be a museum – but rather a research center for Osages.

An addition was built to accommodate a vast library donated by Osage historian Louise Burns and his wife Ruth Burns. It contains thousands of records from the National Archives, in addition to Lillie's own collection of Osage material cultural items.

Blackburn says because it's so far out in the country, providing security is difficult, and he said that a state agency trying to run a non-profit through a trust is complicated.

"So to me, it should remain a research center and not a museum…let's support the Osage Nation develop their tribal museum," Blackburn said.

Trait Thompson, the current executive director of the Oklahoma Historical Society, met with Osage Nation Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear earlier this year abouttransferring the trusteeship of Lillie's headrights, land and the White Hair Memorial over to the Osage Nation, basically returning everything back to the Osage.

"Are there other partners other groups within the state that could take on some of these and maybe devote more resources or tell the story better than we can," Thompson told KOSU after it was reported they were beginning conversations to transfer the headright back to the Osage Nation.

In emails exchanged with KOSU, Thompson acknowledged some of the financial challenges in fixing up Burkhart's home. He wrote there are about $500,000 in maintenance repairs needed that OHS "will continue to address them as revenue from the trust allows."

Right now, there is no law in place to transfer those headrights or the trusteeship back to the Osage Nation or to any of Lillie's living relatives.

In 2021, the Osage Minerals Council passed a resolution to seek federal legislation to make this happen. It's still sitting in Oklahoma Congressman Frank Lucas' office, waiting for approval from the Osage Nation and Mineral's Council before it can go to committee.

Billie Ponca is a relative of Lillie Morrell Burkhart and spent time with her during a childhood in Osage County.
Shane Brown
Billie Ponca is a relative of Lillie Morrell Burkhart and spent time with her during a childhood in Osage County.

A complicated will

Billie Ponca, Lillie's great niece, has some concerns over how funds from Lillie's estate have been handled.

"The Oklahoma Historical Society does not own anything," Ponca said.

"They do not own the land, they do not own the house…. They are just caregivers. It's under the guardianship of the OHS."

Ponca was concerned because the trust money from the headright has been taken out of Osage County.

The money was taken out of Osage County, but the decision was approved by Osage County Judge Pearman. A 1988 memo explains that money invested in the state treasury's cash management program would yield better interest rates.

"Such a return, at least for the use of the property for an Osage person… is always welcome," Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear said.

The headright has paid out more than $1 million since 1984, when adjusted for inflation. As a result of the lawsuit over mismanagement of funds in 2011 and failure to pay the highest posted price on oil leases, Osage shareholders received a settlement of around $100,000 or more. Because Lilllie has more than two headrights, her estate received $359,404.32 and Thompson said those funds were deposited into the trust.

Thompson said the other reason they are in talks with the Osage Nation about allowing for them to run the trust — all the attention being paid to the issue of non-Osages having headrights. He listened to the Bloomberg and iHeart Media podcast In Trust about how so much land and wealth left Osage hands.

"It really kind of crystallized some thoughts about, what's a good role for us being involved in that? And I felt like it was a good opportunity to take up those conversations again with Chief Standing Bear," Thompson said.

Swan, the former director, thinks White Hair needs to re-engage with the Osage County community. He thinks the White Hair has become too isolated

"I think that there's a danger with the movie because of the negative sort of association with the Burkhart brothers and that this would be an opportunity for them to get refocused," Swan said.

Transferring the trusteeship of Lillie's estate back to the Osage Nation would be a big deal. There is a fresh focus on returning money and property back to Osage hands, especially now that the Killers of the Flower Moon film will put a harsh spotlight on how some lost their property.

But the question remains: would this be in keeping with what Lillie wanted?

Osages KOSU has spoken with after the initial story in this series published said they want more transparency with what happens at White Hair, how the money is spent and what is happening with the land.

"So, I think it's an excellent idea to have more Osage input with White Hair," Damron said.

The Osages who were interviewed for this story feel it’s important to elevate Lillie Morrell Burhart. She was a trailblazer and an icon. Though the Osage people will have a moment in popular culture with the Killers of the Flower Moon movie to be released this week, they are so much more.

They are Wha Zha Zhe always.

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Allison Herrera covered Indigenous Affairs for KOSU from April 2020 to November 2023.
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