‘The Osage found themselves surrounded by predators—“ a flock of buzzards,” as one member of the tribe complained at a council meeting.’ – Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

July 8, 2017 at 2:15 pm (Book review, books, History)

 

Yet another Osage chief, Bacon Rind by name, enlarged on the subject at a congressional hearing, testifying that the whites had

“bunched us down here in the backwoods, the roughest part of the United States, thinking ‘we will drive these Indians down to where there is a big pile of rocks and put them there in that corner.’  ” Now that the pile of rocks had turned out to be worth millions of dollars, he said, “everybody wants to get in here and get some of this money.”

Pile of rocks worth millions? What happened was this: After being driven from their land in Kansas, the Osage finally settled – were permitted to settle – on the stony ground of northeast Oklahoma, in the early 1870s. It was thought that in this region, so inimical to agricultural usage, the Osage would be left alone.

And so they were, until these began to appear on the landscape:

The Osage owned not only the land, but also the mineral rights pertaining to that land.. Oil barons like J. Paul Getty and Frank Phillips came calling; they paid enormous sums for the right to drill on Osage property. Unexpectedly, almost unimaginably, members of the tribe became wealthy. They spent lavishly on houses and cars. They were living the good life. At first.

It’s not hard to envision the reaction of their white neighbors. First, astonishment. Then resentment. These could have been borne. But they were followed by something far more dangerous: greed. Greed, in its most insidious yet ruthless guise, masquerading as friendship and benign caring. In particular, with regard to one William Hale, Hamlet’s bitter exclamation concerning his uncle comes to mind:

That one may smile and smile, and be a villain….

William Hale, supposed friend of he Osage; in reality, their scourge

The wave of crime that decimated the Osage’s rightful gain and culminated in multiple murders, committed by varied and nefarious means, was ultimately traced back to him and his henchmen. The period in the 1920s in which these depredations occurred became known as the Reign of Terror.

Who did the above tracing? To being with, local and state law enforcement. At first, the crimes having been so cunningly executed and forensic evidence gathering being so new and largely untested, the investigation proceeded at the proverbial snail’s pace. It didn’t help that while some investigators were committed and resourceful, others were being suborned with threats and payoffs. It was indeed a fiendish set of circumstances, with the deck heavily stacked against the Osage victims, real and potential.

Eventually, a key development kick started a series of breakthroughs. Because in  some cases, the crimes had been committed on federal land, the federal government was  duly brought in. A little known and relatively small agency, an arm of the Department of Justice, assumed responsibility. At the time it was called the Bureau of Investigation. Its low profile was about to change dramatically, largely because it was headed up by a man who was young, smart, incredibly focused and utterly driven:

Hoover and  the Osage had the great good fortune to have an agent in the field who was indefatigable in his pursuit of justice. His name was Tom White.

Tom White and J Edgar Hoover

Mollie Burkhart and her long suffering family are the heart and soul of Killers of the Flower Moon.

Mollie Burkhart, center, with sister Annie at left and another sister Minnie. Annie was shot and killed execution style, Minnie died of “a peculiar wasting illness,” their mother Lizzie was almost certainly poisoned, yet another sister, Rita, was killed when her house was bombed.

The story David Grann tells in this book should never have been allowed to lapse into obscurity. It is both mesmerizing and enraging and needs to be remembered. Although the Osage paid a terrible price, justice was done, at least to some extent. Grann believes that there are more murders than those officially acknowledged in the public record. What a job of research he has done here; I cannot praise his efforts highly enough. It’s the good fortune of readers that his skills as a researcher are matched by his gifts as a storyteller. Still, I think he remains haunted by “the ones that got away.” We should all feel the same.

Click here to view a segment on David Grann and Killers of the Flower Moon aired on April 30th on CBS Sunday Morning.

1 Comment

  1. kdwisni said,

    Thank you for calling attention to The Witness Tree. As it happens, we had to cut down an enormous maple tree 2 years ago, and I opted to replace it with a red oak after reading a column by Adrian Higgins in the Washington Post exhorting local gardeners to plant a variety of oak trees. I had never heard of The Witness Tree, but I certainly plan to check it out.

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