People are Greedy and Heartless

My Book of the Month selection for April is Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.  It is nonfiction, and the author David Grann apparently spent a good five years or more compiling primary sources of all kinds to portray a story, and a horrific one.  One that I had never heard of before.

Before I get into the book itself, let’s back up and start with what I knew going in.  The Osage are one of the many tribes that lived in this land before the coming of Europeans.  Their reservation is in Oklahoma.  This is also the tribe that Jennifer Talldeer belongs to in Sacred Ground by Mercedes Lackey.  But I have to think that Lackey knows nothing of the events detailed in Killers of the Flower Moon else there would be a very different tone to her book.  (And yes, most of my posts have to mention Lackey in some way, shape, or form.  Sorry.)

It seems that when the Osage were being forced to move in the 1870s, they chose a hilly country in what would later be Oklahoma, reasoning that white farmers wouldn’t want that land.  And because a rainbow sheen had been discovered on a small body of water, the controlling language of their land was such that anything beneath the earth would be the property of tribe members only, a headright as it became known.  So in the 1920s, the Osage were the richest people in the country with oil money from the deep wells beneath their land.  What’s unsurprising is that unscrupulous individuals are willing to kill for that money.

It was called the Reign of Terror, and seemed to run from 1921-1925, ending in one of the FBI’s first big investigations.  This was national news and I had never once heard of it before!  Admittedly, I am no history buff, but it’s rather unsettling to realize how effectively something so major has been forgotten.  My reaction was apparently mirrored by David Grann, prompting him to delve into the years of research which produced this book.

Grann sifted through years of documentation to distill what was a sensational story buried under the moniker of “everyday life” into something comprehensive and succinct.  There are three sections to the tale: first, that of Mollie Burkhart and how she seemed to be central to the murders.  Second, that of Tom White, the head of the FBI investigation team who managed to arrest, convict, and see the ringleaders in Burkhart’s case brought to justice.  The last section was the surprise.  It was excerpts from Grann’s own tale of investigation.  Not only that, but he managed to dig deep enough to see that what the nation though to be the end of the Osage Murders was simply the most widely known part.

It’s not surprising.  Fullblooded Osage, and others of partial blood, were considered by white men to be incapable of handling their own money and so were appointed guardians who controlled their literal fortunes.  The ever-valuable headrights to the oil money could not simply be transferred out of the tribe, especially not to strangers, but could be inherited.  And then there were insurance scams on such a brazen scale that it makes some of today’s practitioners look cowardly and overly cautious.  Grann found evidence that the Reign of Terror lasted more than a dozen years in all, and it has left a lasting mark on the tribe today.  Not a single family was untouched, and the killers showed no mercy to any victim, regardless of age or gender.  Some were gunned down, some were poisoned, some were elaborately trapped with methods like faulty brakes.  One pair was blown up in their own house.

And yet, despite all this horror that was clearly committed, very few people outside those connected to the murders remember that it happened.

I go back to Sacred Ground as proof and comparison.  Jennifer Talldeer and her family are not actually registered Osage tribe members, having lived among whites by choice when all that was going on.  This means their life had been easier in some ways, but they never got any reparation money when it finally came through.  That’s almost a direct quote, for the record.  No mention of oil money, no mention of murders for that money.  I cannot imagine that the Osage Murders would have gone unmentioned if Lackey was aware of them.  Considering that the Talldeer have been shamans for generations, they likely would have felt responsible for the spiritual wellbeing of the tribe in such a dark time.  Which means that an author who I assume to have a better-than-passing-familiarity with Native Americans and lives in Oklahoma in the next county over, knows next to nothing about a relatively dark chapter in local history.

Don’t get me wrong, I think the fact that all of this happened is horrid.  That white settlers arranged things for people they consider to be “lesser” and “primitive” to be utterly helpless even when they are the richest people around, and then coldbloodedly killed them for that money is absolutely disgusting.  I’m glad that David Grann’s book will help to shed some light on that dark period for the Osage, and help to improve reparations and apologies owed to them and many other First Nations groups.

It’s hard to judge nonfiction the say way I do fiction.  Was this a good read?  Well, I can’t say it’s enjoyable to read about awful events, but it was well-written.  Did I like it?  I think I’m a little better person, a little more aware person, for reading it.  I am very glad that I chose Killers of the Flower Moon this month, and I hope that Book of the Month continues this streak for me.


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