Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann, a journalist for the New Yorker, is an amazing book. It is non-fiction and concerns the systematic murder of Osage Indians in the 1920’s in northeastern Oklahoma by white people for money. The money came from oil lands owned by the Osage Tribe. Revenue from the oil royalties and lease bonuses made the tribe very wealthy and the money was divvied up by “headrights” or shares in the revenue based on one’s ancestry. You couple that with a system whereby most Native Americans were deemed incompetent to manage their own affairs and had court appointed guardians to oversee their funds. This was a perfect storm for fraud, murder, and crime.
The Indians were killed by poisoning, gunshots, and in one notable incident a house was blown up with dynamite. Not one murder was solved by the white people in power and some of those who tried to expose what was going on were murdered themselves. Law enforcement, doctors, undertakers, the judicial system were all involved in the scheme.
Pawhuska, Oklahoma, county seat of Osage County where much of the events described in the book take place.
Enter J. Edgar Hoover and the brand new Federal Bureau of Investigation. Hoover sent a former Texas Ranger, Tom White to Osage County and told him to find the murderers and bring them to justice. White had a huge job at hand and brought in other agents in undercover roles and they were able to file charges, bring to trial, and convict in Federal Court the kingpin, William Hale, of the murders despite considerable local resistance. Grann calls Tom White one of the heroes of the situation but Hoover was jealous of the attention White was getting and made sure that he got all the credit for the conviction. Hale was implicated in about 27 of the murders.
Hoover then declared victory and left town. The tribe new that there were lots more murders than that and that there was more than one person responsible and for decades the stories and suspicions were handed down in the various families. Gann did a lot of research including days at the National Archives going through old custodial records and grand jury testimony from long ago. He thinks that there were hundreds of murders and many many killers who were never brought to justice. This is an amazing book. Grann calls the treatment of Native Americans, the country’s “Original Sin.” This was an important story to tell and Grann does a great job of it.
The oil still flows in Osage County
I was able to attend an event in Tulsa, sponsored by Booksmart Tulsa, where David Grann talked about the book. It was in a university auditorium and the the venue was packed. Osage County borders Tulsa County and there were many Osage tribal members in attendance including several direct descendants of the murdered people and there were several descendants of the murderers there. It was very emotional to see how this book by exposing the crimes and sins of the past had an effect on people today.
Osage County is one of the prettiest places in Oklahoma
It made the question and answer part of the event very interesting. People would get up and thank Grann for writing the book and then they would say who they descended from. Grann already knew many of these folks from his research in writing the book. One could sense the mutual respect. One young man, a descendant of a victim, got up and made a good point about whether the book really did anything for the tribe or was it another example of a white man taking something from the tribe. Grann acknowledged the point without any defensiveness.
This is one of the most amazing books I have ever read. I purchased my autographed copy at the event from Magic City Books.