By Charles Chandler
I recently read New Yorker Staff Writer David Grann’s #1 best-seller, The Lost City of Z and enjoyed it immensely. His next book out was Killers of the Flower Moon and at first I didn’t get too excited about this one. Ok let’s take a pause; this is going to be much more than a straight forward book review so here is the plagiarized thumbnail for those who are short on time.
“ In Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann revisits a shocking series of crimes in which dozens of people were murdered in cold blood. Based on years of research and startling new evidence, the book is a masterpiece of narrative nonfiction, as each step in the investigation reveals a series of sinister secrets and reversals. But more than that, it is a searing indictment of the callousness and prejudice toward American Indians that allowed the murderers to operate with impunity for so long.Killers of the Flower Moon is utterly compelling, but also emotionally devastating.”
Ok so READ THIS BOOK. It is great and will make you crazy.
Now for those that can tarry a moment longer here is long and very biased and personal review.
Grann's book Killers of the Flower Moon is a story that will never appear on the Hallmark Channel, does not have a happy ending, and is a model for a miscarriage of justice. It is a story that begins with the oil discovery on the Osage Tribes lands in Oklahoma and the royalties resulted in sudden wealth for the remaining members of the Osage Tribe. The story takes place between 1921 and 1924 on the Osage Reservation in eastern north-central Oklahoma a place where the news media called” the most dangerous place in the United States.” The Osage Indian called this time the “reign of terror” when unbelievably evil crimes were committed against Tribe members and specifically the Mollie Burkhart family.
As mentioned, at first I didn’t get too excited about this book because I had lived in Tulsa Oklahoma for about 30 years and right next to the big Osage county. In that time I had socialized with and worked alongside Osage men, attended their powwows, tramped and traveled on their vast Osage county and generally knew that this story ended very badly. Then I heard an NPR interview with Grann, saw another interview with him on CBS Sunday Morning where he and the CBS crew traveled back to the Osage Reservation in Oklahoma, retold part of the story and visited with some of Mollie Burkhart’s family that obviously were still grieving these horrific crimes and waiting for justice. After those two interviews I realized that this book contained several stories within stories that Mr. Know-It-All here had not heard before. So after a few clicks to Amazon and with considerable loss of sleep book was read and the foundation was laid for this rant.
This book has a sharp point and focuses on the two year “reign of terror “however in my humble opinion the context for the larger back story and the questions of how could these horrible crimes take place in the 1920s should be examined.
To do this you will need to revisit early American History from the 1730s to the 1930s to truly understand why so many Indians were located in Oklahoma. You will find that there were many reasons including really bad luck when it came to choosing which side to fight on in the French and Indian, American Revolutionary, and the Civil Wars. Other reasons includes the European and American caste system and philosophy toward Indigenous Peoples and land ownership, and our National and State policy toward Native Americans. Over the last 200 year these factors resulted in the Diasporas and genocide of our Native Americans. These practices continued well into the 1980’s when the federal government resettled as many as 40,000 Indians in the Dallas-Fort Worth area in a program aimed at integrating them into the wider American culture.
Another story in this book is about how this small section of the United States could become so dangerous and lawless. Again the reasons are many; for years the twin territories Indian and Oklahoma had been the last residue of the vanishing Wild West with a large and growing population of “cattle and horse thieves, whiskey peddlers, and bandits operating in these untamed territory where law and justice if any was usually administered by a Cavalry sword, old fashioned gun slinging lawmen or the infamous hanging Judge Isaac Parker in Fort Smith Arkansas.
Another and more familiar reason is that once again, land hungry farmers pressured the government to remove Indians from their reservations and once again they did and around 1880, by hook or crook, most of the Tribal lands in Indian Territory had been ceded or taken. On March 3, 1889, President Harrison announced the government would open an 1.9 million-acre tract of Indian Territory for settlement and precisely at noon on April 22 between 50,000 and 60,000 hopefuls participated in the in the much publicized Oklahoma Land rush. Keeping in mind that a just a moment ago this tract was the home of some civilized, educated, Christian folks that happened to be Indians.
As for the Osage, before the forced settlement of the Five Civilized Tribes in Indian Territory the Osage had held sway over a huge territory that covered parts of what would become the states of Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas and Oklahoma. The government of President Andrew Jackson and the army drove the members of the Five Civilized from their homes in the eastern state across the Mississippi River along what the Cherokee would call the “Trail of Tears” into Indian Territory. On this 2000 mile death march about 5000 old, sick and young members of the Tribe died. The result of this move was sort of like what happened after WW II when the British resettled the Jews in what the Palestinians considered their little piece of the desert and we know how well that worked out. Soon after resettlement the Cherokee pleaded with the same government to protect them from attacks from the wild Indians (Osage) and again their solution was the Cavalry sword. The troublesome Osage were then resettled in Kansas and finally in Oklahoma. The reason that the remaining 2500 member Osage tribe finally settled in those rugged dry rocky was that one of their Chiefs said that the White Men would not want that land because they only wanted flat land that they could farm, again bad Indian luck. In the late 1890s oil was discovered on the reservation and the Osage would again lose their Tribal lands.
An act of Congress in 1906 gave each Osage person a “headright,” or share of the reservation’s natural resources, by luck they retained their mineral rights and in less than three decades, the Osage people had become some of the wealthiest in the world. An important fact to note is that they could not sell their head rights but they could be inherited.
The Oklahoma land run and the oil discovery on Osage lands and subsequent wealth brought every variety of shysters, swindler, con men, and outlaw to this area many trying fair or foul to take advantage of the Osages wealth. Their sudden wealth and subsequent stories, myths and lies written by the media about the extravagances of the Osage made international news and brought notoriety, envy, and jealousy from far and wide. Their story was reported in Time magazine and written about in Edna Ferber's bestselling 1929 novel "Cimarron".
Some of those that that took notice and to the detriment of the Osage were again members of the US Congress. As always a friend to the Indians and in order to prevent swindles on the Osage people, the government appointed guardians to tribal members deemed “incompetent” to handle their finances. But the guardians were often no different than many of the swindlers.”Some 93 percent of tribal funds held in government trust went toward the costs of administering the guardianship system. A government study estimated that by 1924 nearly 600 guardians had swindled some $8 million in Osage oil funds.” Many of the Indians could not pay for food or medicine for their family without prior approval from or bought for them by the guardians. In many cases the guardians were local businessmen, attorneys and members of families that charged unimaginable prices for the goods and services that the Osage needed. Again note that many of the Osage were educated far beyond their guardians and were good Christians. Mollie Burkhart’s families were practicing Catholics.
One evil and amoral individual that that took notice and developed a diabolical plan to gain control of Mollie Burkhart’s family headrights was William K. Hale often referred to “King of Osage Hills.” Hale and his crime family developed a plan to inherit the Burkhart head rights that began the “Reign of Terror” and resulted in the serial murders of 23 members of Mollie Burkhart’s family. Sources suggest many more unsolved and equally heinous crimes were committed but never solved. Hale criminal organization and activities reached beyond Osage County to the state capital in Oklahoma City and to Washington DC.
Another story within this larger story was the inability of the Osage to get protection from the criminals. Oklahoma had just become a state in 1907 and was still a rough and tumble place where criminologist and forensic experts were in the far distant future. One of the 23 murders’ had taken place on federal land and that mistake by the murderers would eventually benefit the Osage and the Burkhart family. By the spring of 1923, the Osage community had lost faith that they would receive any help from the local and state authorities and as this story unfolds you see that almost every “white person” in the small towns in Osage County and surrounding area was in on the effort to cheat the Osage.
Most attempts by incompetent lawmen or private investigators to solve these murders were blocked because of friend or family ties to the criminal organization or by death threats and intimidation. Finally the Tribal Council in desperation wrote the FBI, an organization in its infancy, and asked for help. At this time the federal Justice Department was reeling from another big oil “Teapot Dome” scandal and that provided an opportunity for a young bureaucrat named J. Edgar Hoover to make his name.
These Osage murders were widely publicized, and considered to be the story of the century and the up and coming FBI Director wanted this case solved. He needed the notoriety from solved cases to help build a bigger budget for his department. After a several bungled starts he soon learned just how complicated and challenging this Osage case was and realized that he needed some regional old west talent to work this case. He finally put a former Texas Ranger named Tom White in charge of the Osage field team.
Tom White was an old style Texas Lawman that had ridden the western edges of civilization and witnessed how justice was usually delivered in a couple ways, six guns, or the hangman’s noose. He was from a family of law men with a father, and two brothers in the law business. White soon learned that no one could be trusted and secrecy was vital to solving this case. His undercover team, which including the only American Indian agents in the bureau, struggled to infiltrate the “White Community” in the region.
The young J Edgar was a challenge as well, demanding constant progress reports and insisting the FBI field team use the latest techniques of detection. Slowly White and his team along with the members of the Osage began to expose one of the most evil conspiracies in American history.
In doing so it is interesting to see how agent Tom White and FBI agency changed as they investigated what would become by the Bureau’s own account one of the agency’s most complicated cases. In the end Tom White would change his boots and hat for the traditional dark FBI suit and J. Edgar Hoover would become a force to be reckoned with.
As mentioned this story will never make the Hallmark Channel and as one of Molly Burkhart descendents stated “they killed our whole family for nothing but greed.” The few criminals that were convicted in this case only received prison time and were soon paroled. According to author Grann "There are still killers who remain unknown conspirators whose names have not been identified, and so some of the secrets, unfortunately, will probably remain lost to history."
History has forgotten the Osage and these cold cases but the Osage still live on that dark and bloody ground and will always remember.
And some things never change with the relationship between the government and the Native Americans.
“The Osage Nation would ultimately pay the FBI $21,509.19 for the bureau’s investigation.”
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