Although it’s no surprise that the U.S. government hasn’t always treated Native Americans as it should, this meticulously researched book has many other revelations that are guaranteed to take you aback. For instance, did you know that the Osage Indians in Oklahoma were the richest people in the world in the 1920s? Although a succession of questionable treaties had relegated them to the most barren and inhospitable area in the Midwest, they were astute enough to retain the mineral rights . . . so when an “underground reservation” of oil was discovered, the Osage began living in mansions and sending their children to the best schools and colleges.
But that’s where the trouble began. Osage began dying – lots of them. Sometimes the people charged with investigating their deaths also died. They were shot, poisoned, blown up, and many just disappeared. The Osage weren’t allowed to control their own money – court-appointed guardians held the purse-strings, and those appointments were highly coveted and often illegally gained. The guardianship system enriched the white men in charge, and impoverished the Osage, who lived every day in fear for their lives.
Grann follows the story of Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman married to her white guardian, a common arrangement. Mollie’s three sisters died; her mother died; numerous cousins and other relatives died; she herself often seemed close to death from an “unexplained illness.” Local officials were either helpless or, more likely, involved. Enter the fledgling Federal Bureau of Investigation. J. Edgar Hoover, intent on building his kingdom rather than achieving justice for the Osage, luckily assigned a former Texas Ranger to the case. Tom White stands out as one of the few good guys in this book. Tough, determined, and shocked by the bloodshed, White follows leads, brings charges, watches as the guilty go free in spite of overwhelming evidence. Eventually some go to jail, including William Hale, self-styled “King of the Osage Hills.” Thanks to White’s efforts, Hale is eventually convicted of murdering two dozen people to gain control of their oil rights.
This is a story of the Old West, of boomtowns and gunfights and frontier justice. As moving as is the story of Mollie Burkhart and her family, even more affecting is the last section of the book where the author talks about his many visits to the Osage reservation, and about his search to find the truth of the reign of terror that still haunts many of the tribal members today. The more people Grann interviewed, the farther the tentacles of this story seemed to spread.
Killers of the Flower Moon does not include a list of those who died but It is now believed that the oil-related Osage death toll between the years of 1907 and 1923 numbers in the hundreds. It was a tragedy motivated by pure greed and flagrant racism, and perhaps the saddest part is that it has been totally forgotten today. Kudos to Grann, who also wrote The Lost City of Z, for bringing to our attention a piece of history that should not be forgotten.