Mollie was ten years old when the oil was first discovered, but the “tangled history” of how the Osage came to live on their oil-rich land goes back hundreds of years. In the seventeenth century, the Osage had laid claim to a large part of the central United States—a territory stretching from what is now Missouri and Kansas to Oklahoma, and beyond, out as far west as the Rockies. In 1803, Thomas Jefferson, in the Louisiana Purchase, obtained lands dominated by the Osage, and in 1804, Jefferson met with the Osage chiefs and compelled them to relinquish much of their territories—threatening them with being seen as “enemies of the United States” if they did not comply.
As Grann reaches back into history, he shows how the Osage people—and Native Americans more largely—have always been beholden to the wills and whims of the U.S. government, and have been unfairly exploited, threatened, and dehumanized for centuries.
The Osage were forced to cede nearly a hundred million acres of ancestral land, and then made their way to a 50-by-125-mile area in southeastern Kansas. Mollie’s mother and father came of age in this place, in the mid-1840s; they grew up steeped in tribal traditions, and most of the tribe refused to adopt “the white man’s ways.” The Osage were promised that the Kansas territory would be theirs forever—but soon they were again under siege by settlers, and in 1870, the Osage were again forced to sell off their land for $1.25 an acre. Impatient settlers mutilated and massacred the Osage, and the ensuing violence led an Indian Affairs agent to ask, “Which of these people are the savages?”
Even when complying forthright with the government’s demands, the Osage—and, once again, all Native Americans—have been subjected to cruelty, brutality, and indeed the very thing they themselves have been unfairly and inaccurately accused of since white settlers arrived in the new world: savagery.
The Osage purchased 1.5 million acres in a region south of Kansas, and because the territory was so hilly, many Osage believed that the government would not force them to move again. They set up camp, establishing their largest base in Pawhuska. Lizzie and her husband, who went by his Osage name of Ne-kah-e-se-y, settled there in 1874. Their tribe’s numbers had dwindled to a third of what they were at the turn of the century, and the American buffalo population—which the Osage hunted and used for food, clothing, bowstrings, and more—had been virtually eradicated in a systemic plot by settlers who knew that “every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.”
Once again, Grann shows how even when the Osage complied with the government’s demands, subjected themselves to emotional and financial extortion, and took from the bottom of the barrel, they were still subjected to inhumane campaigns of systemic decimation
As settlers strove to assimilate and indoctrinate the Osage tribe, Mollie’s parents struggled to hold onto their customs. When Mollie and her sisters were born in the 1880s, they were all given traditional Osage names. Settlers in Pawhuska, Gray Horse, and the surrounding areas refused to recognize these names, however, and soon everyone in Mollie’s family had an English name. In 1894, Mollie and her sisters enrolled in a Catholic school which was a two days’ journey by wagon from their home, their parents worried that if they didn’t comply with edicts compelling Osage to send their children to such schools, the government would withhold the annuity payments on the Kansas land.
The government and general populace continue to make dehumanizing, cruel demands of the Osage, and, having stripped them of their lands, traditions, and food sources, now begin to strip them of their attachment to their culture in a calculated campaign to obscure from the Osage tribe their very own history.
At school, Mollie was forced to remove her traditional tribal clothing—including her Indian blanket—and dress in a plain frock. She was forbidden from speaking Osage and forced to learn English as her education began—an education meant to “transform her into what the authorities conceived of as the ideal woman.” Mollie submitted to her training in the “domestic arts,” and as the years went on, Mollie—and her fellow students—exchanged their traditional clothing and customs for assimilated “white” clothing and behaviors.
Mollie and her siblings were part of the first generation forced to assimilate in an organized, structured way—Mollie was taught, as a young girl, that she would be seen more favorably in white society if she strove to make herself a member of it, unable to see the ways in which her white neighbors would never truly accept her and her people.
By the late 1890s, the government’s assimilation campaign was still not over—the Osage reservation was about to be divided up into 160-acre parcels, with each tribal member receiving one allotment, while the rest of the territory was opened to settlers. The Osage knew—from the division and allotment of a Cherokee territory not far away—that things could get dangerous. When the Cherokee land was parceled up in September of 1893, a land rush began, and tens and thousands of white settlers arrived to claim their parcels of land in a violent, chaotic maelstrom.
The division of Cherokee land served as an example of how greedy white Americans would stop at nothing to secure Native resources for themselves. Knowing what happened to the Cherokee’s land, the Osage are frightened by what the allotment of their own land will do to their already-diminished tribe.
The Osage chief, James Bigheart, worked tirelessly to forestall the process of allotment, but by 1904, the government was planning on breaking up Indian Territory and making it a part of a new state, Oklahoma. The Osage were able to convince the government to allot each tribal member a larger parcel of land, thus reducing the chance of a “mad dash” on their territory, and also slipped “what seemed, at the time, like a curious provision” into the agreement: that the oil, gas, coal, and other minerals beneath the land itself would be “reserved” for the Osage themselves.
This time, the Osage fought back against the government’s racist, exploitative policies—and actually were able to make some headway in protecting their tribe’s rights. The “curious provision” is a smart move that will prevent the government from denying the tribe’s later wealth, as the oil is discovered under their government-allotted land.
The tribe was aware of oil deposits on their reservation and wanted to ensure that their interests were protected. Under the terms of their Allotment Act, each member of the Osage tribe was given a headright—a share in the tribe’s mineral trust. When members of the tribe sold their land once Oklahoma entered the Union, they could make money off of the surface land—but retain the mineral trust. No headrights could be bought or sold—they had to be inherited.
The government—either unaware entirely of the oil deposits beneath the Osage’s new, barren-seeming land, or unaware of how much oil existed—agreed to allow the Osage exclusive ownership of the subterranean minerals there.
The tribe soon began leasing areas to white prospectors for exploration. The young Jean Paul Getty—who would one day found the Getty Oil Company—went there as a boy, with his father, on a quest for oil. One spring day in 1917, a rig hit a large deposit, and oil blasted up from the earth in a huge dark column. By 1920, Burbank, one of the highest-producing oil fields in the country was tapped—its well generated 680 barrels in its first twenty-four hours of operation.
The Osage allowed white people to take control of their land—knowing that it would result in a way for them to make money, leverage their own rights against those who would seek to oppress them, and secure a better future for the entire tribe.