David Grann, author of Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, talks about the culture of killing and dirty dealing that swindled tribe members out of millions in oil money a century ago.
In the 1870s, as Native Americans were pushed onto reservations in what is now Oklahoma, the Osage had the foresight to buy land in an area that seemed barren and rocky, reasoning they would be left alone on their seemingly worthless territory. The strategy worked until the discovery of oil.
In the 1920s, oil royalties made them the wealthiest people per capita in the world. But a paternalistic federal approach wrested control from the owners of mineral rights and gave it to white “guardians,” many of whom swindled money from their wards through various schemes such as outrageous price markups and kickbacks. Worse, some whites would marry into the tribe, as ownership of the mineral rights could only be passed on to tribe members, and then their Osage spouses would die under suspicious circumstances. In response, the newly formed FBI investigated the murders, with former Texas Ranger Tom White leading the team using a combination of straight-shooting frontier lawman tactics and newfangled forensics and undercover work.
David Grann, whose award-winning bestseller The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon (Doubleday, 2009) was adapted into a 2016 film, spent five years researching the crime for his latest book, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, and uncovered disturbing evidence that the murders were far more widespread than most of the nation knew at the time. White is one of the impressively fleshed-out historic figures characterized in the gripping tale, along with Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman whose sister Anna Brown is found dead — shot execution-style in the head — and whose diagnosis of diabetes turns out to be a cover-up of her being poisoned. Also figuring into the tale are William King Hale, the aristocratic self-declared white “King of the Osage Hills” who arranged Brown’s murder — and orchestrated much more during the era’s “reign of terror” — and Ernest Burkhart, Hale’s nephew and Mollie’s husband who seems to have conflicting loyalties and motivations in what was euphemistically called “the Indian business.”
Killers of the Flower Moon is an astonishing, suspenseful story that practically begs to be adapted to film, which is what Imperative Entertainment plans to do, with a screenplay by Eric Roth. Speaking to C&I by phone, Grann says he isn’t very involved in the movie’s development but is glad for the increased exposure. “Part of the reason I told the story was that, outside of the Osage, it was kind of lost and neglected, forgotten by so many Americans,” he says. “It would be so wonderful, if it does become a movie, that it would become part of our national conscience, which is where I think it belongs.”
Cowboys & Indians: With the victims and perpetrators long gone, is there anything that could compensate descendants of the victims or bring about justice?
David Grann: Well, I always thought of history, when there is an injustice: social injustice, racial injustice, criminal injustice — and often some of the perpetrators escape justice — the hope is with history, at least you can provide a proper accounting. And that you can identify the perpetrators and you can record for posterity, most importantly, the voice of the victims.
I tried to do that the best I could in the book, but one of the tragedies of the case is that because it was such a broad conspiracy, many people were able to escape justice. And because much of the evidence was purposely covered up and obscured, at least in many of the cases, the perpetrators denied their victims even a proper history, a proper accounting. It’s a secondary crime, but it’s a very nefarious one as well. ... Part of the haunting quality of this case is that we are probably left without the possibility of a full, complete, comprehensive accounting of what transpired.
C&I: What happened to all the stolen money? Did it stay with Hale’s descendants?
Grann: Much of the oil money was swindled through the guardianship system. Millions were embezzled: stolen, graft, kickbacks. It was one of the largest federally and state-sanctioned criminal enterprises. Then a number of headrights [oil money royalties] were stolen through these nefarious crimes. Many of them are still outside the tribe now. ... Millions and millions of dollars were stolen and never recovered, and what made these crimes so nefarious is not only that the descendants of the perpetrators and victims live in the same neighborhoods, the perpetrators and the victims lived in the same household, often.
C&I: Mollie remarried after divorcing Ernest and eventually died after an illness. Do you have any suspicions about her death?
Grann: Obviously, one of the things is that because of the nature of the crimes, doubts hover over every single death from that period. Again, this gets to this sense of terror, and the lack of a proper accounting. Because of the nature of these crimes, many families lived with these doubts. That said, speaking to family members and looking at records, there were never any evidence or allegations that the death was anything but natural.
C&I: A 2013 This Land story called “Terror’s Legacy,” by Jason Christian, claimed that Mary Jo Webb [a retired teacher who was investigating her Osage grandfather’s suspicious death] got an anonymous death threat about 20 years earlier, which would have been in the 1990s. Who would have still been trying to cover up the story even then?
Grann: I’m trying to remember if Mary Webb mentioned that to me — I always want to be precise. I read that story, and I don’t recall if she told me, but I do remember her telling me at one point she placed some of her research in the local library and someone took [it] and absconded with those documents, obviously not wanting them to be widely available. I do know she talked about how the descendants of the murderers still live in the same neighborhoods as the descendants of the victims, and their fates are in many ways intertwined. She said, in what I think showed a remarkable degree of compassion and understanding, “The descendants of the murderers don’t always fully know what their ancestors said, or they don’t want to talk about it, but we try not to hold them accountable for the blood of their forebears.” But the fact that they still live in the same neighborhoods and their fates are intertwined is sort of the story of America, which is part of why we need to reckon with this history.
C&I: Do you see any parallels between the swindling, or even the murders, of the Osage and any contemporary issues with indigenous people?
Grann: Undoubtedly, there are definitely echoes and resonances to this day. For example, during the demonstrations in Standing Rock [against Energy Transfer Partners’ Dakota Access Pipeline], I spoke to an Osage army veteran, a scout who received a Purple Heart in Afghanistan. During the demonstrations, he walked almost the entire way from Oklahoma to North Dakota to participate, and he told me during that pilgrimage, that quest, he thought a lot about the Osage murders. And while the events are separated by nearly a century and in many ways the particulars are very different — the Sioux were not making money from oil, they’re really trying to protect their natural environment and their sacred burial rites — he said they’re really about the same fundamental issue, which is the rights of Native Americans to control their natural resources and protect their sovereign rites. I spoke to a former Osage chief who said he can’t believe in 2017 they’re still having the same fight. I do think there are parallels and echoes to this day. I don’t think you can understand something like Standing Rock unless you understand parts of our history like the Osage murder cases [are] why Standing Rock galvanized so many American Indian nations. It certainly galvanized many Osage to travel there.
For more information about David Grann or Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, visit the author’s website at davidgrann.com.
Photography: Matt Richman
From the October 2017 issue.