The Osage reign of terror
Discussions of race in America largely focus on the African American community, especially in light of what seems to be a steady stream of law enforcement shootings.
We do well to struggle with and through the ways in which the African American community has been disempowered over the years.
We must not, however, lose sight of the fact that Native Americans were, in a sense, the first victims of European colonization of the Americas.
In Killers of the Flower Moon David Grann opens this largely forgotten chapter of the American story and digs at the scab of white supremacy in the specific context of Oklahoma history.
It’s one thing to talk about the Trail of Tears, it’s another to talk names, places, people, and faces in photographs–a litany of lives broken and ended with results that linger to today.
Grann’s three hundred-some page book takes us back to the 1920s, to oil rich Oklahoma, and to the reservation on which the Osage Tribe of American Indians has been forced to make its home.
Once free to travel the plains and follow the Buffalo, the tribe has been sequestered in a rocky corner of the state by order of the United States government.
It turns out that beneath the rocky soil of the reservation lay a rich oilfield. Thanks in part to wise tribal leaders the Tribe believed that oil lay beneath their land and negotiated possession to include rights to both mineral or oil deposits beneath the surface.
Additionally they negotiated a head-right system, splitting ownership of the land into parcels each owned by a member of the Tribe. These moves caused the Osage Indians to be, per capita, the wealthiest people on the globe.
Osage married whites.. Osage often had white servants in their homes. Many drove cars. Others owned more than one home.
White society, the society of hard-scrabble pioneers who came to find wealth by working the land, became embittered to the success of the Osage even as the country moved toward the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.
The book recounts the many and numerous ways in which whites exploited the Indians’ wealth not least in that the US government declared Indians to be mentally deficient and required each landowner to have a white guardian who essentially managed their wealth, often stealing much of it for themselves.
Over a period of years, Osage Indians repeatedly died young.
Often these deaths were, at least outwardly and rather conveniently, tied to the consumption of the illicit alcohol produced during Prohibition.
On the frontier, autopsies were carried out by funeral directors and often at the scene of the death with only the most rudimentary tools at their disposal. They lacked both the skill and the will to seek and find the actual cause in these many suspicious deaths.
It turns out that a prominent businessman by the name of Bill Hale had orchestrated a campaign of terror designed to murder Osage with the effect of guiding their headrights to a single individual, a white man, who was under his control. Hale styled himself as “the Osage’s greatest friend.” Turns out that he was stabbing them in the back and doing so in a way that bore witness to his fundamental conviction that Native Americans were somehow sub-human.
So enmeshed was white society, so allied in their shared antipathy to the Osage, that justice was virtually impossible. Autopsies were fixed to find nothing suspicious. Law enforcement conducted shoddy investigations, if they investigated at all. Juries were bribed. Judges, too, were on the payroll. In the end, it took the newly formed Bureau of Investigation to crack the case.
Bill Hale and his co-conspirtators were tried, eventually convicted, and imprisoned.
Yet, records indicate that hundreds of Osage women were married and likely murdered by their husbands in order to secure the promise of their wealth.
It is a sin that has visited pain upon generations.