Ter­ror un­der a flower-killing moon

A grue­some, long-for­got­ten pe­riod in Amer­i­can his­tory is chron­i­cled in a riv­et­ing read.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Reads - Re­view by ALAN WONG star2@thestar.com.my

THE Osage In­di­ans of Ok­la­homa in the United States speak of a “flower-killing moon” that hap­pens in May, when the blos­soms that car­pet the land­scape in April would be over­run by taller plants.

But in the early 1920s, flow­ers weren’t the only things be­ing snuffed out over there.

When white set­tlers moved into the Amer­i­can heart­land, many dis­placed Na­tive Amer­i­cans were shunted onto reser­va­tions. The Osage were no ex­cep­tion, but the large oil de­posits be­neath their re­served lands made them rich. Soon, many schemed to ob­tain that wealth, re­sort­ing to un­eth­i­cal and even deadly means.

Dur­ing a pe­riod of sev­eral years dubbed the “Reign of Ter­ror”, af­flu­ent Osage be­gan dy­ing in du­bi­ous cir­cum­stances. Many of the de­ceased were re­lated to an Osage woman called Mol­lie Burkhart. With lo­cal law­men and pri­vate de­tec­tives be­ing too in­ept, cor­rupt, or afraid to in­ves­ti­gate (those who did were threat­ened or killed), the Bu­reau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion (BOI) un­der J. Edgar Hoover stepped in. The bu­reau, known to­day as the Fed­eral Bu­reau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion, would ex­pose a web of death, de­ceit, and be­trayal in the heart of Osage ter­ri­tory.

Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist and author David Grann’s grip­ping ac­count of this killing spree and its af­ter­math, Killers Of The Flower Moon, traces the be­gin­nings of the Osage oil boom and the mur­ders and cov­ers the BOI, its agents, the in­ves­ti­ga­tion and the sub­se­quent tri­als; it also re­counts Grann’s trav­els to parts of Osage coun­try in the present day, an epi­logue of sorts to this bloody chap­ter in Amer­i­can his­tory.

By now, de­tails about the Osage in­ci­dent can be found on­line, though I’m not sure how much of it has al­ways been there or was un­earthed by the pub­lic­ity sur­round­ing the book. Re­gard­less, I highly rec­om­mend Grann’s work as a start­ing point for those who are in­ter­ested.

It has the kind of writ­ing that I’ve come to ap­pre­ci­ate and ex­pect from him, af­ter read­ing his piece on ex­plorer Percy Fawcett and the fa­bled “Lost City of Z” in The New Yorker mag­a­zine, pub­lished in 2005 (he is also a staff writer with the pub­li­ca­tion). He mas­ter­fully weaves facts and drama into a com­pelling yarn, putting the au­di­ence right where the ac­tion is. Tak­ing a break from read­ing was hard.

Grann told news web­site Uproxx that he’d only heard about the Osage story in 2011.

“I did not know that the Osage had been the wealth­i­est peo­ple per capita in the world in the be­gin­ning of the 20th cen­tury. I had not known that they had been mur­dered. And I had not known that it had be­come one of the FBI’s first ma­jor homi­cide cases.”

With this in­for­ma­tion, Grann dug deeper. Among many other things, he dis­cov­ered the cor­rup­tion, law­less­ness and prej­u­dices of the day that en­abled droves of op­por­tunists to fleece the Osage, tak­ing ad­van­tage of laws that restricted the tribes­peo­ple’s con­trol over their own money. De­spite the shin­ing ex­am­ples of hu­man­ity in in­di­vid­u­als such as BOI agent Tom White, this tale is blighted by the enor­mity of the crimes and what fu­elled them.

Vile, per­haps, but not shock­ing. The Guarani fight­ing land grabs in Brazil, the anti-log­ging block­ades by the Temiar and the Pe­nan, and the Stand­ing Rock Sioux’s re­sis­tance against the Dakota Ac­cess Pipe­line – the Osage chap­ter is but one ex­am­ple of how in­dige­nous peo­ples and their lands’ nat­u­ral re­sources were (and still are) sys­tem­at­i­cally ex­ploited.

Sadly, the or­deal isn’t over for the Osage. The book sug­gests the Reign of Ter­ror might have been longer and reaped a far larger toll than of­fi­cially stated – more un­solved deaths, more next of kin seek­ing an­swers, and more cul­prits left un­pun­ished. On top of that, a re­new­able en­ergy com­pany built a wind farm on Osage soil with­out the tribe’s per­mis­sion.

Loyal and hard-work­ing Tom White, ar­guably the hero in Grann’s story, died in ob­scu­rity. In con­trast, his boss Hoover, who achieved great sta­tus and al­legedly abused his power as head of the FBI, re­mains in the lime­light years af­ter his pass­ing.

A na­tion can’t truly move for­ward when it still can’t get over its past – which is what one feels about the United States from what’s been go­ing on there of late. So the re­lease of this ac­count is per­haps timely, es­pe­cially now when the coun­try ap­pears to be go­ing through another phase of soul-search­ing.

“... the Osage know their his­tory very well, but so many peo­ple – whites, pri­mar­ily, but other Amer­i­cans – don’t re­ally reckon with this his­tory, don’t record the voices of th­ese vic­tims, are not fa­mil­iar with the sto­ries and the lies that th­ese peo­ple lived and went through,” said Grann in the Uproxx in­ter­view. “It’s re­ally im­por­tant as a coun­try that we reckon with this his­tory.”

But I think it’s not just the United States that needs to reckon with its past and re-eval­u­ate its cur­rent con­duct to­wards its in­dige­nous mi­nori­ties.

Author: David Grann Pub­lisher: Dou­ble­day, nonfiction crime

Killers Of The Flower Moon: The Osage Mur­ders And The Birth Of The FBI

Photo: MATTHEW RICH­MAN

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