Killers of the Flower Moon describes the Osage Reign of Terror—a period that stretched from the early 1920s to the 1930s, in which uncountable numbers of the oil-rich Osage Indian tribe were murdered in a mad grab for valuable shares of the tribe’s mineral trust. At the center of this tragedy was a deep, permeating racism that not only sought to diminish the Osage, but in many cases denied them their humanity entirely. Through a complicated but essentially state-sanctioned campaign of exploitation, American society at the time—from the federal government all the way down to the racist and greedy white Americans who lived alongside the tribe in supposed harmony—systematically and brutally dispatched the Osage. In relaying the Osages’ story, David Grann argues that longstanding, deeply-ingrained racism towards Native Americans and the resulting sense of indignity when the Osage tribe came into good fortune was responsible for the exploitation, cruelty, and murder that came to define a significant chapter of the tribe’s history.
Grann demonstrates throughout the text the ways in which deeply racist attitudes towards Native Americans—and the wealthy Osage in particular—informed societal treatment of the tribe. After being pushed off of their ancestral lands by the uncaring American government for centuries, the Osage were, in the early 1870s, forced onto a rocky, relatively infertile slab of hilly land in what would soon become the state of Oklahoma. The Osage, realizing that oil deposits existed beneath the land, secured a guarantee from the government that not only would their reservation encompass the land they’d been given, but whatever minerals lay beneath it as well. Thus, when white Americans discovered the oil and began drilling, they had to obtain permission from the tribe and pay for use of the land rightfully belonged to the Osage.
As the oil boom intensified, the Osage’s wealth expanded, and soon they were considered “the wealthiest people per capita in the world.” Grann paints a vivid portrait of the lifestyles that the Osage Indians were enjoying in the early days of the twentieth century: they possessed fancy cars and private chauffeurs, fine clothing and jewelry, and often lived in sprawling homes. The American public became “transfixed by the tribe’s prosperity”—and indeed threatened, “alarm[ed],” and “outrage[d]” by it. Because most white Americans were disdainful of the culture and customs of the various Native American tribes throughout the land, they did not understand that much of the Osage’s spending “reflected ancestral customs that linked grand displays of generosity with tribal culture.” Instead, many saw the Osage’s wealth as a “gaudy spree”—even as the multimillionaire oil barons who profited off their land built mansions, flouted their egregious profits, and drove themselves back into poverty due to opulence and overspending.
Racism towards the Osage was intimately tied with white Americans’ desire to subjugate and dominate Native Americans, keeping them confined to roles as second-class citizens whose lands and livelihoods were controlled by the government. This attitude is reflected in the racist and offensive policies installed by the federal government in an attempt to control the Osage’s wealth. By assigning guardians to the “incompetent” members of the tribe and refusing them access to their own bank accounts, white officials in power sought to exploit the Osage and deny them sovereignty over their own lives.
The racism towards and exploitation of the Osage and Native Americans more widely is reflected in Grann’s detailing of the fight for justice against William K. Hale—the mastermind behind several deaths during the reign of terror, including those of Osage woman Mollie Burkhart’s sisters, mother, and brother-in-law, with the help of Mollie’s own husband Ernest. As federal investigator Tom White brings the case to trial, he worries that Hale will escape justice due to his influence in Oklahoma—and his whiteness. Others shared White’s apprehension; one reporter at the time noted that the “attitude of a pioneer cattleman [Hale’s former profession] toward the full-blood Indian […] is fairly well recognized,” and a prominent member of the Osage tribe declared that the jury in Hale’s case would be charged with deciding “whether a white man killing an Osage is murder—or merely cruelty to animals.” One of the men charged with a role in the plot, the outlaw John Ramsey, went so far as to admit in his confession that “white people in Oklahoma [think] no more of killing an Indian than they did in 1724.” In presenting the blatantly racist attitudes that kept even the Osage—some of the wealthiest citizens in America at the time—subject to financial guardianships, theft, murder, and other cruel humiliations, Grann shows how dangerous but commonly-accepted denials of Native American humanity fueled the exploitation and murder of countless members of the Osage tribe.
Grann’s explosive book is about many things—family, greed, history, legacy, and the eternal battle between the truth and deception—but at its very core is an infuriating and, unfortunately, all-too-relevant tale of how dangerous racism truly is. Everyday racism motivated the killings of countless Osage, and institutional racism all but sanctioned it, making it possible for a Reign of Terror to take hold of an entire community and leave in its wake an atmosphere of dread, paranoia, and mistrust that pervades to this day.
Racism and Exploitation ThemeTracker
Racism and Exploitation Quotes in Killers of the Flower Moon
The public had become transfixed by the tribe's prosperity, which belied the images of American Indians that could be traced back to the brutal first contact with whites—the original sin from which the country was born. Reporters tantalized their readers with stories about the “plutocratic Osage” and the “red millionaires,” with their brick-and-terra-cotta mansions and chandeliers, with their diamond rings and fur coats and chauffeured cars. One writer marveled at Osage girls who attended the best boarding schools and wore sumptuous French clothing, as if “une tres jolie demoiselle of the Paris boulevards had inadvertently strayed into this little reservation town.”
At the same time, reporters seized upon any signs of the traditional Osage way of life, which seemed to stir in the public's mind visions of “wild” Indians. One article noted a “circle of expensive automobiles surrounding an open campfire, where the bronzed and brightly blanketed owners are cooking meat in the primitive style.” Another documented a party of Osage arriving at a ceremony for their dances in a private airplane—a scene that “outrivals the ability of the fictionist to portray.” Summing up the public's attitude toward the Osage, the Washington Star said, “That lament, 'Lo the poor Indian,' might appropriately be revised to, 'Ho, the rich redskin.”'
The Osage had been assured by the U.S. government that their Kansas territory would remain their home forever but before long they were under siege from settlers. Among them was the family of Laura Ingalls Wilder, who later wrote Little House on the Prairie based on her experiences. “Why don't you like Indians, Ma?” Laura asks her mother in one scene.
“I just don't like them; and don't lick your fingers, Laura.”
“This is Indian country, isn't it?” Laura said. “What did we come to their country for, if you don't like them?”
One evening, Laura's father explains to her that the government will soon make the Osage move away: “That's why we're here, Laura. White people are going to settle all this country, and we get the best land because we get here first and take our pick.”
Though, in the book, the Ingallses leave the reservation under threat of being removed by soldiers, many squatters began to take the land by force. In 1870, the Osage-expelled from their lodges, their graves plundered-agreed to sell their Kansas lands to settlers for $1.25 an acre. Nevertheless, impatient settlers massacred several of the Osage, mutilating their bodies and scalping them. An Indian Affairs agent said, “The question will suggest itself, which of these people are the savages?”
The accounts rarely, if ever, mentioned that numerous Osage had skillfully invested their money or that some of the spending by the Osage might have reflected ancestral customs that linked grand displays of generosity with tribal stature. Certainly during the Roaring Twenties, a time marked by what F. Scott Fitzgerald called “the greatest, gaudiest spree in history,” the Osage were not alone in their profligacy. [An] oil baron [named Marlan] who found the Burbank field had built a twenty-two-room mansion in Ponca City, then abandoned it for an even bigger one. With an interior modeled after the fourteenth-century Palazzo Davanzati in Florence, the house had fifty-five rooms (including a ballroom with a gold-leaf ceiling and Waterford crystal chandeliers), twelve bathrooms, seven fireplaces, three kitchens, and an elevator lined with buffalo skin. The grounds contained a swimming pool and polo fields and a golf course and five lakes with islands. When questioned about this excess, Marland was unapologetic.
This so-called Indian business, as White discovered, was an elaborate criminal operation, in which various sectors of society were complicit. The crooked guardians and administrators of Osage estates were typically among the most prominent white citizens: businessmen and ranchers and lawyers and politicians. So were the lawmen and prosecutors and judges who facilitated and concealed the swindling (and, sometimes, acted as guardians and administrators themselves). In 1924, the Indian Rights Association, which defended the interests of indigenous communities, conducted an investigation into what it described as “an orgy of graft and exploitation.” The group documented how rich Indians in Oklahoma were being “shamelessly and openly robbed in a scientific and ruthless manner” and how guardianships were “the plums to be distributed to the faithful friends of the judges as a reward for their support at the polls.” […] An Osage, speaking to a reporter about the guardians, stated, “Your money draws 'em and you're absolutely helpless. They have all the law and all the machinery on their side. Tell everybody, when you write your story, that they're scalping our souls out here.”
White and his men felt a growing sense of progress. A Justice Department prosecutor sent Hoover a note, saying that in the few months since White had assumed command of the investigation, "many new angles of these cases were successfully developed" and a "new and enthusiastic spirit seemed to pervade the hearts of all of us."
Still, White faced the same problem with the investigation of Mollie Burkhart's murdered family that he did with his inquiry into Roan's death. There was no physical evidence or witnesses to prove that Hale had carried out or ordered any of the killings. And without an airtight case White knew that he'd never be able to bring down this man [Hale] who hid behind layers of respectability—who called himself the Reverend—and who used a network of patronage to influence the sheriff's office, prosecutors, judges, and some of the highest state officials.
White was feeling pressure not just from Hoover. In the short time that White had been on the case, he had seen the lights burning each night around the homes of the Osage, and seen that members of the community wouldn't let their children go into town alone, and seen more and more residents selling their homes and moving to distant states or even other countries like Mexico and Canada. (Later one Osage called it a “diaspora.”) The desperation of the Osage was unmistakable, as was their skepticism toward the investigation. What had the U.S. government done for them? Why did they, unlike other Americans, have to use their own money to fund a Justice Department investigation? Why had nobody been arrested? An Osage chief said, “I made peace with the white man and lay down my arms never to take them up again and now I and my fellow tribesmen must suffer.”
According to his sworn statement and other testimony, sometime in early 1923 Grammer told Ramsey that Hale had “a little job he wanted done.” When Ramsey asked what it was, Grammer said that Hale needed an Indian knocked off. Ramsey, who referred to the plot as “the state of the game,” eventually agreed, and he lured Roan down into the canyon, promising him whiskey. “We sat on the running board of his car and drank,” Ramsey recounted. “The Indian then got in his car to leave, and I then shot him in the back of the head. I suppose I was within a foot or two of him when I shot him. I then went back to my car and drove to Fairfax.”
White observed the way Ramsey kept saying “the Indian,” rather than Roan's name. As if to justify his crime, Ramsey said that even now “white people in Oklahoma thought no more of killing an Indian than they did in 1724.”
Despite the brutality of the crimes, many whites did not mask their enthusiasm for the lurid story. OSAGE INDIAN KILLING CONSPIRACY THRILLS, declared the Reno Evening Gazette. Under the headline OLD WILD WEST STILL LIVES IN LAND OF OSAGE MURDERS, a wire service sent out a nationwide bulletin that the story, “however depressing, is nevertheless blown through with a breath of the romantic, devil-may-care frontier west that we thought was gone. And it is an amazing story, too. So amazing that at first you wonder if it can possibly have happened in modern, twentieth-century America.” A newsreel about the murders, titled “The Tragedy of the Osage Hills,” was shown at cinemas. “The true history of the most baffling series of murders in the annals of crime,” a handbill for the show said.
Many people in the gallery gossiped about an Osage woman who was sitting on one of the benches, quiet and alone. It was Mollie Burkhart, cast out from the two worlds that she'd always straddled: whites, loyal to Hale, shunned her, while many Osage ostracized her for bringing the killers among them and for remaining loyal to Ernest. Reporters portrayed her as an “ignorant squaw.” The press hounded her for a statement, but she refused to give one. Later, a reporter snapped her picture, her face defiantly composed, and a “new and exclusive picture of Mollie Burkhart” was transmitted around the world.
There was one question that the judge and the prosecutors and the defense never asked the jurors but that was central to the proceedings: Would a jury of twelve white men ever punish another white man for killing an American Indian? One skeptical reporter noted, “The attitude of a pioneer cattleman toward the full-blood Indian... is fairly well recognized.” A prominent member of the Osage tribe put the matter more bluntly: “It is a question in my mind whether this jury is considering a murder case or not. The question for them to decide is whether a white man killing an Osage is murder—or merely cruelty to animals.”
For Hoover, the Osage murder investigation became a showcase for the modern bureau. As he had hoped, the case demonstrated to many around the country the need for a national, more professional, scientifically skilled force. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch wrote of the murders, “Sheriffs investigated and did nothing. State's Attorneys investigated and did nothing. The Attorney General investigated and did nothing. It was only when the Government sent Department of Justice agents into the Osage country that law became a thing of majesty.”
Hoover was careful not to disclose the bureau's earlier bungling. He did not reveal that Blackie Thompson had escaped under the bureau's watch and killed a policeman, or that because of so many false starts in the probe other murders had occurred. Instead, Hoover created a pristine origin story, a founding mythology in which the bureau, under his direction, had emerged from lawlessness and overcome the last wild American frontier.
There was another dramatic change in Mollie's life. She and the Osage had fought to end the corrupt system of guardianships, and on April 21, 1931, a court ruled that Mollie was no longer a ward of the state: “IT IS FURTHER ORDERED, ADJUDGED AND DECREED BY THE COURT, that the said Mollie Burkhart, Osage Allottee No. 285, ... is hereby restored to competency, and the order heretofore made adjudging her to be an incompetent person is hereby vacated.” At forty-four, Mollie could finally spend her money as she pleased, and was recognized as a full-fledged American citizen.
Hoover ensured that the identity of the bureau was indistinguishable from his own. And while presidents came and went, this bureaucrat, now thick around the waist and with jowls like a bulldog, remained. “I looked up and there was J. Edgar Hoover on his balcony, high and distant and quiet, watching with his misty kingdom behind him, going on from President to President and decade to decade,” a reporter for Life magazine wrote. The many details of Hoover's abuses of power would not be made public until after his death, in 1972, and despite White's perceptiveness, he was blind to the boss man's megalomania, his politicization of the bureau, and his paranoid plots against an ever-growing list of perceived enemies, among them American Indian activists.
By the time Margie drove on, the prairie was shrouded in the dark of night. Only the beams from the headlights illuminated the dusty road. Margie said that her parents first told her what Ernest and Hale had done when she was a child. “l used to worry whenever I did something naughty, ‘What if I'm the bad seed?’” Margie recalled. She said that occasionally The FBI Story would air on local television, and she and her family would watch it and cry.
As she spoke, I realized that the Reign of Terror had ravaged—still ravaged—
generations. A great-grandson of Henry Roan's once spoke of the legacy of the murders: “I think somewhere it is in the back of our minds. We may not realize it, but it is there, especially if it was a family member that was killed. You just have it in the back of your head that you don't trust anybody.”
Though the bureau estimated that there were twenty-four Osage murders, the real number was undoubtedly higher. The bureau closed its investigation after catching Hale and his henchmen. But at least some at the bureau knew that there were many more homicides that had been systematically covered up, evading their efforts of detection. An agent described, in a report, just one of the ways the killers did this: “ln connection with the mysterious deaths of a large number of Indians, the perpetrators of the crime would get an Indian intoxicated, have a doctor examine him and pronounce him intoxicated, following which a morphine hypodermic would be injected into the Indian, and after the doctor's departure the [killers] would inject an enormous amount of morphine under the armpit of the drunken Indian, which would result in his death. The doctor's certificate would subsequently read ‘death from alcoholic poison.’” Other observers in Osage County noted that suspicious deaths were routinely, and falsely, attributed to “consumption,” “wasting illness,” or “causes unknown.” Scholars and investigators who have since looked into the murders believe that the Osage death toll was in the scores, if not the hundreds.
In cases where perpetrators of crimes against humanity elude justice in their time, history can often provide at least some final accounting, forensically documenting the murders and exposing the transgressors. Yet so many of the murders of the Osage were so well concealed that such an outcome is no longer possible. In most cases, the families of the victims have no sense of resolution. Many descendants carry out their own private investigations, which have no end. They live with doubts, suspecting dead relatives or old family friends or guardians—some of whom might be guilty and some of whom might be innocent.