David Grann’s new book is a meticulously researched account of an appalling widespread conspiracy against the Osage Indian nation in Oklahoma. He centres the story on an Osage family that died, in ones and twos, of causes ranging from the odd and ambiguous to the obviously violent. First, Minnie Smith, 27 years old, died in 1918 of what doctors termed a “peculiar wasting illness”; then, in 1921, her sister Anna Brown was shot, her body left in a ravine. Their mother, Lizzie Kyle, died weeks later, also felled by an unidentified wasting illness. By this point, her family suspected she’d been poisoned. A bomb killed a third sister, Rita Smith, along with her husband, Bill, in 1923. The last living sister, Mollie Burkhart, made it to 1925 before she sent secret word to a priest that her life was in peril.
Such was one family’s plight; meanwhile, other Osage were dying under similarly disturbing circumstances. There was Charles Whitehorn (shot), William Stepson (poisoned), a prominent rancher (drugged then thrown down a flight of stairs), Joe Bates (poisoned) and Henry Roan (shot). When a white oilman, Barney McBride, was recruited by Osage to ask federal officials to investigate these deaths, he was also killed: stabbed and beaten, then stripped naked “except for his socks and shoes, in one of which had been left a card with his name”. By 1925, none of the murders had been solved, and the death toll was climbing high enough that the rest of America started taking notice. National papers reported on what was termed the “Reign of Terror”, the Osage “Black Curse”.
But this wasn’t the first time the tribe had featured in the national news. The Osage, in recent years, had also become the wealthiest people per capita in the world. In the 1870s, they had been driven from ancestral lands to a reservation in Oklahoma judged to be “broken, rocky, sterile, and utterly unfit for cultivation”. Decades later, the Osage learned the reservation sat on top of some of the biggest oil deposits in the US, a fluke that, by the 1920s, was said to have yielded more oil money than the combined value of all the Old West gold rushes. To excavate this oil, prospectors had to rent leases from the Osage; in tones of fascination and racist outrage, journalists reported on what they called “plutocratic Osage” and “red millionaires”. Newspapers peddled prurient stories, “often wildly embroidered”, Grann says, of “Osage arriving at a ceremony for their dances in a private airplane”, grand pianos tossed out on lawns, and “even whites” performing “all the menial tasks about the house to which no Osage will stoop”.
While this newfound wealth attracted a host of known outlaws – gang members, fugitives, bank robbers and the like – the more insidious thefts were facilitated by the US government, which claimed that many Osage were incapable of handling their own money. These tribe members were then forced to have “guardians”, “usually drawn from the ranks of the most prominent white citizens in Osage County”, to supervise and authorise their spending. Guardians often grossly swindled their wards by purchasing items from their own stores at inflated prices, directing business to associates for kickbacks, and outright stealing. It was, as the Indian Rights Association protested, “an orgy of graft and exploitation”. Still, the headrights, or mineral rights to the oil-rich land, were less easily stolen. They couldn’t be bought, only inherited. Thus, headrights remained in the tribe – unless, that is, someone who wasn’t Osage happened to be next in line to inherit.
This is where the terrible story of the US’s original sin, the systematic oppression and killing of its first people, becomes, if possible, even more grim. For if white people hoped to inherit the headrights, they had to marry into the tribe, then to wish their rich spouse would die. Or cause them to die, often after having lived for years with the Osage husband or wife. Headright inheritance, as a fledgling FBIeventually proved, helped explain the deaths of Minnie, Anna, Lizzie, Rita and Bill. In time, three of the white men behind the Kyle family murders were apprehended, found guilty, and put in prison. The FBI counted this a great success, “a showcase for the modern bureau” that let the agency’s director, J Edgar Hoover, demonstrate to the rest of the country the need for a national police force.
But, as Grann carefully shows, the FBI’s victory declaration obscured the scope of headright-related killings. The US’s official death count for the Reign of Terror topped out at 24, but scholars who delved into the historical evidence believed the real death toll to be in the hundreds. Most of the murders weren’t solved. Instead, Grann says, the victims’ “descendants carry out their own private investigations, which have no end. They live with doubts, suspecting dead relatives or old family friends or guardians.”
“You just have it in the back of your head that you don’t trust anybody,” a great-grandson of an Osage victim explained, and why should he? While I was reading Killers of the Flower Moon, the news provided updates on the ongoing debacle at Standing Rock, where Native American protests against an oil pipeline haven’t stopped it from being built; there was another mistrial of a policeman who’d killed an unarmed black man; white supremacists held a public rally in Virginiaand so on. Grann’s accomplished and necessary account of injustice, avarice and racist violence, tells a story both old and new.
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