Death of a tribe

An investigation into the murders of Osage Native Americans in Oklahoma who had struck rich because of oil

July 08, 2017 07:30 pm | Updated 07:30 pm IST

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI
David Grann
Penguin Random House

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI David Grann Penguin Random House ₹1,201

In 1803, American President Thomas Jefferson acquired from the French the Territory of Louisiana, which was at the time dominated by the Osage Native American. The Osage were amongst present-day America’s earliest inhabitants. By some accounts, the tribe had migrated to the West as early as 1200 CE. When Jefferson purchased Louisiana, he made explicit promises to the Osage, to not only treat them with respect, but also to treat them as “friends and benefactors” of the United States. But barely four years after Jefferson had made these claims, the Osage were forced to relinquish their much cherished territory between the Arkansas and the Missouri rivers.

Over the next two decades, as David Grann recounts in his masterful book, Killers of the Flower Moon , a campaign of systematic social cleansing began. The Osage were compelled to surrender nearly a hundred million acres of their ancestral lands, and were forced to take up occupation in south-eastern Kansas. But their new home too would prove to be impermanent. They soon found themselves hassled and harangued by settlers. By 1870, many of these squatters began to claim the lands from the Osage by force. Despite agreeing, under coercion, to sell their Kansas lands for a measly sum of $1.25 per acre, many of the Osage were massacred by the squatters, who mutilated their bodies and had them scalped in plain sight.

Search for a new home

Ultimately, a search for a new home took the Osage to a rocky, sterile parcel of land in what is today Oklahoma. “My people will be happy in this land,” the Osage chief, Wah-To-An-Kah, had declared. “White man cannot put iron thing in ground here. White man will not come to this land. There are many hills here… white man does not like country where there are hills, and he will not come.”

But, as it turned out, the white man would, after all, come back to the Osage. At the time when they took up possession in Oklahoma, although no one else had any idea, the Osage had an inkling of what lay beneath their new lands, and they were shrewd enough to have written into their contracts a clause that gave them ownership over the land’s oil and mineral rights. When oil was eventually discovered—and these were amongst the largest oil deposits anywhere in the U.S.—the Osage were once again under siege. The riches that the group was able to generate through the lease of their lands did not go unnoticed. When one lease was sold for nearly $2 million, a reporter from Harper’s Monthly Magazine wrote, “Where will it end? Every time a new well is drilled the Indians are that much richer… The Osage Indians are becoming so rich that something will have to be done about it.”

At first, the Americans imposed a law that placed direct controls on the Osage’s wealth, by devising a legislation through which the Native owners were forced to have their moneys protected by American financial guardians. By 1921, this federal law had been further tightened to permit the Osage to withdraw only a few thousand dollars every year, to pay for their children’s education and to attend to other bare necessities. As one Osage chief noted, the whites had “bunched us down here in the backwoods, the roughest part of the United States, thinking ‘we will drive these Indians down to where there is a big pile of rocks and put them there in that corner’.” And when they found that the pile of rocks were worth millions of dollars, he added, “everybody wants to get in here and get some of this money.”

Hoover’s test case

The sordid story, however, does not end here. Things only got worse, and what followed constitutes the focus of the book. Grann, who is a long-time staff writer at The New Yorker magazine, is a maestro at telling true tales, and he tells this one with admirable élan. He brings to life a number of otherwise unobtrusive characters, while remaining, as good reporters must do, faithful to the facts.

Between 1921 and 1926, as Grann recounts, at least 24 people, all belonging to the Osage Tribe were brutally murdered. A few of them were poisoned, some others were shot, and one couple was burnt alive, after their house was bombed. Initially, before the body count began to really mount up, it seemed the incidents were disparate, if mysterious. When the first body was found, within weeks, the local lawman closed his enquiries and declared that the death of Anna Brown, a 34-year-old, who had had a perfectly-round bullet wound on the back of her head, had come at “the hands of parties unknown.”

Nearly a decade passed before a clear pattern explaining the Osage deaths began to unravel itself. Since local law enforcement was plagued by corruption, it was ultimately left to the Bureau of Investigation—which was an obscure branch of the federal justice department, and which would later be renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation [FBI]—and its new director, J. Edgar Hoover, to take up the investigation virtually as a test case.

Hoover despatched to Oklahoma a former Texas Ranger named Tom White, who, as Grann writes, had “the sinewy limbs and eerie composure of a gunslinger.” To reveal White’s efforts, in exposing the conspiracy, would give away the ending.

Eventually, though, based on White’s investigation, two men were convicted and sentenced for one of the murders—the others were left unprosecuted, despite a mountain of evidence linking the same men to the killings. For Hoover, and his nascent agency, this was a success, a showcase, as it was, for the bureau and its potential. But Grann takes the story even further, showing us that these killings were but a tip of the iceberg. Killers of the Flower Moon should be read both for Grann’s commitment to the facts and for his elegant narration of a thrilling and harrowing story of malevolent human deceit.

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI ; David Grann, Penguin Random House, ₹1,201.

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