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Theft of land and oil resources

By Sally Bland - Aug 19,2018 - Last updated at Aug 19,2018

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

David Grann

New York: Vintage Books, 2018

Pp. 377


It is common knowledge that the United States was founded on a genocidal campaign which decimated Native Americans and dispossessed them of their land, (similar to the ethnic cleansing enacted by Zionism to acquire Palestinians’ land). In “Killers of the Flower Moon”, journalist David Grann relates a particularly horrifying, but underreported, chapter in this historic injustice which occurred only a century ago. The victims were the Osage Indians living in Oklahoma, and the motive was greed.

 In the early 1920s, the Osage “were considered the wealthiest people per capita in the world” (p. 6), owing to the discovery of vast oil resources underneath the reservation to which they had been consigned after being driven from their original territory in Kansas in the early 1870s. Prospectors had to pay them for leases and royalties if they wished to drill for oil, and soon members of the tribe were receiving hefty checks.

At the same time, however, the Osage community was plagued by an unusually high death rate, some by shooting, others by strange, unnamed illnesses or unexplained accidents or fires. At the time, law enforcement was in its early stages: “And few places in the country were as chaotic as Osage County, where the unwritten codes of the West, the traditions that bound communities, had unravelled. By one account, the amount of oil money had surpassed the total value of all the Old West gold rushes combined, and this fortune had drawn every breed of miscreant from across the country”. (p. 35)

Added to this, Native American lives were not highly valued. Many of the deaths among the Osage were not investigated properly, even when the evidence pointed to foul play. “A growing number of white Americans expressed alarm over the Osage’s wealth — outrage that was stoked by the press.” (p. 83)

Racism played a part in the failure to find and bring the murderers to justice. 

The most shocking thing about the killings is that rather than being the work of outsiders, they turned out to be the result of an elaborate conspiracy among white men respected in the community and some of them married to Osage women. The motive was to inherit the victims’ headright which entitled him or her to a share of the oil revenues. The conspiracy was facilitated by Native Americans’ reduced legal status. Many of the Osage had been declared incompetent to manage their own financial affairs and were assigned a white guardian to oversee their spending. Many a guardian pursued what they called“ ‘Indian business’ — the swindling of millionaire Osage”. (p. 282)

Only after the death toll reached 24 members of the Osage tribe, plus two respected white men trying to investigate the murders, did the federal government mount an investigation. At the time, J. Edgar Hoover was trying to make a name for the Bureau of Investigation, soon to be the FBI, which he headed. He assigned Tom White, an honest and determined Texas lawman, to head the investigation.

The author, David Grann, is a staff writer at “The New Yorker” and bestselling author of several books. He recounts this tragic and shocking episode in US history from close-up, drawing detailed portraits of the main actors and showing how the killings affected their lives. He also paints a vivid picture of life at that time, replacing romantic notions planted by cowboy movies with the harsh reality of what happened to the Native Americans.

His narration of the investigation that finally resulted in the conviction of the major players in the conspiracy, is as suspenseful as any detective novel, but it is all real and well-researched. “Killers of the Flower Moon” is a fine example of investigative journalism. Grann does not suffice with chronicling the conviction of a small group of conspirators, responsible for some of the murders, but returns to the archives. “And as I dug deeper into the Osage murder cases — into the murk of autopsies and witness testimony and probate records — I began to see certain holes in the bureau’s investigation.” (p. 277)

He kept digging and found connections between yet more murders and their perpetrators.

Perhaps the most valuable aspect of Grann’s narrative of this shameful chapter of American history is that it shows how racism is “convenient”; in the past, it enabled the stealing of Native Americans’ land and oil rights. Today, it is being manipulated by certain politicians against immigrants.

The book also shows how oil wealth is a double-edged sword. In view of how oil has provoked war and invasions in this region, perhaps many would agree with the words of an Osage elder in 1928. “Some day this oil will go and there will be no more fat checks every few months from the Great White Father. There’ll be no fine motor cars and new clothes. Then I know my people will be happier.” (p. 28)



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