What I’m Reading – ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ by David Grann

During Xtha-cka Zhi-ga Tze-the, the Killer of the Flowers Moon.

I will wade across the river of the blackfish, the otter, the beaver.

I will climb the bank where the willow never dies.

– An excerpt from “Wi’-gi-e” by Elise Paschen


Taking a slight detour from comics, I recently finished David Grann’s thoroughly excellent Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI – an historical account of the Osage ‘Reign of Terror’. This was one of the darkest and most malicious moments in America’s (already pretty bloody) short history. It’s a story that most people probably don’t know, and even if they do, most probably don’t know the true scope of the crimes. It’s a fantastic book.

The Osage Nation (Ni-u-kon-ska) were a prominent Native American tribe, one of the most powerful in their region. Like the vast majority of Native American tribes, they were forced from their land and forced to live on a reservation. In the 19th century, they ended up in what is now Oklahoma. Thanks to some clever legal wrangling, and perhaps an idea of exactly what the white man was like, the tribe had managed to convince the government to agree that everything under the land was theirs. In the 20th century, oil was discovered underneath their land. The Osage quickly became some of the richest people in the country.

031_gran_9780385534246_art_r1
Mollie Burkhart (second from right) with her sisters; Rita Smith (left), Anna Brown (second from left), and Minnie Smith (right). In the following years, all her sisters were murdered.

At its core, the book is about greed. Grann documents how, as soon as the oil was found, the government devised barbaric ways to exploit the tribe out of money that was rightfully theirs. There was a system of ‘guardianship’ whereby full-blooded Indians were deemed unworthy to look after their own money, thus having to leave it in the hands of white ‘guardians’. This led to what was know as the ‘Indian Business’ – as the guardians fleeced their wards for their oil headrights and every dime they could. It was these guardians too who committed the bulk of the atrocities, getting friendly with an Indian (often marrying them and having children) and then killing them and inheriting the money. Grann’s research suggests that the number of murdered Indians during the Osage ‘Reign of Terror’ could potentially be in the hundreds.

But it’s not all a generalised account of the time. The book focuses on one family and one matriarch in familiar, which gives it an unusually human edge. Mollie Burkhart was typical of the Osage at the time. She had vast wealth and toed the line between her people and the society that was encroaching ever closer. Over a short period of time she saw her family ruthlessly decimated around her. One sister was shot, another blown up with her husband, and her mother was poisoned. This is the case we follow from beginning to end through the pages, and it was the one that received the most publicity at the time. Mollie’s story really sums up the whole affair and what it really all came down to. She was terrorised by the people she thought she could trust, as they killed everyone around her and eventually tried to kill her.

As the subtitle suggests, the J. Edgar Hoover’s burgeoning Federal Bureau of Investigation was just finding its feet around this time. It had existed for a little while, but it was beginning to take the form we all now recognise. In the wake of any real help from law enforcement and private detectives (who were not interested, paid off, or even killed) it was up to the FBI to investigate. It proved a win for Hoover too, he saw it as good publicity for his new take on the Bureau. This introduces us to our second focus in the book, Tom White – law enforcement of the old-school cowboy variety. Using his astuteness and the latest forensic methods, he cracks the case and reveals, in a twist, who was behind it all.

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Tom White (left) with Hoover

But in the third section of the book, which acts somewhat as an epilogue, the voice switches to Grann himself as he talks about some of the leads he followed when researching and writing the book. He met with relatives and trawled through records, often finding nothing but sometimes finding some very interesting details that were missed at the time. It’s a vital section, as it ties up everything we’ve learnt and reveals how this atrocity has affected (and is still affecting) the vast number of relatives that are still living with it. Many have tried to piece the details together themselves, desperate to find some closure. But, as Grann also finds, time has moved on. Most people have already forgotten, and most clues and any potential witnesses are long gone.

In that respect, the book doesn’t wrap up completely satisfyingly. But it’s not supposed to, that wasn’t the point. The book is a parable for the treatment of indigenous people and the environment, that somehow is still an issue in 2019. It’s not something we can afford to forget.

Reviewed by Jack

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