Ok­la­homa Osage killed over oil money in the ‘20s

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Monte Wha­ley

NON-FICTION

Amer­ica’s his­tory of mis­treat­ment of Na­tive Amer­i­can tribes is a mo­saic of ne­glect, mass star­va­tion and dis­ease. And don’t for­get oc­ca­sional full-on, large-scale killing.

That in­cludes the 1864 Sand Creek mas­sacre in Colorado, when the U.S. Cav­alry at­tacked a vil­lage of mostly Cheyenne and Ara­paho, killing as many as 163 mostly women and chil­dren.

But noth­ing quite matches what hap­pened to the Osage in Ok­la­homa in the 1920s. Slowly but surely, cer­tain mem­bers of the Osage tribe were killed. Not out of overt racism, but of sim­ple greed over the vast oil rights that the Osage held.

Of­fi­cially, the toll of the dead Osage reaches at least 20. But jour­nal­ist David Grann sus­pects that hun­dreds of the Osage may have been killed be­cause of their ties to oil. Those deaths still haunt the tribe to this day.

Grann ex­pertly tells the tale in “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Mur­ders and the Birth of the FBI.” It’s a stun­ning story in many ways.

As the 1920s be­gan, the Osage had the up­per hand over the lo­cal whites, at least eco­nom­i­cally. Af­ter be­ing moved twice from vast stretches of the Mid­west to make way for white set­tlers, the Osage bought 1.5 mil­lion acres of mostly rocky and ster­ile land from their Cheyenne neigh­bors on what is now Ok­la­homa.

The Osage not only pur­chased the land rights but also the min­eral rights be­low — and soon struck black gold. The Osage col­lected fat roy­al­ties off the spew­ing oil, but only reg­is­tered mem­bers of the tribe — those in­scribed on the Osage Roll — could col­lect from the min­eral trust.

The shares, or head rights, could not be sold.

This ran­kled lo­cal whites who couldn’t get their hands on the roy­al­ties, at least with­out mar­ry­ing an el­i­gi­ble Osage woman.

Mean­while, the whole na­tion was en­tranced by the no­tion that rich Amer­i­can In­di­ans were liv­ing in man­sions and be­ing doted on by white but­lers and nurse­maids.

Soon enough, the gov­ern­ment be­gan med­dling. The Depart­ment of the In­te­rior be­gan as­sign­ing white guardians to over­see tribal mem­bers with head rights be­cause a typ­i­cal Osage adult, the gov­ern­ment be­lieved, is “like a child of six or eight years old, and when he sees a new toy he wants to buy it.”

Grann’s straight­for­ward style reads as well as any good fic­tional mur­der mystery. He quickly leads the reader through the next tragic chap­ter of the Osage.

That in­volves a se­ries of deaths among mem­bers of the tribe that in­cludes slow poi­son­ings, a house bomb­ing and bul­lets to the head.

Some of the vic­tims were a few lo­cal whites who tried to help their Osage neigh­bors. One was a lo­cal lawyer who ap­par­ently had dead-to-rights ev­i­dence of the cul­prits but was tossed from a train and died.

Grann points out that at the time lo­cal law en­force­ment was ei­ther in­com­pe­tent or, cer­tainly in this case, com­pletely cor­rupt. Ba­sic foren­sics were also crude, mak­ing it so much eas­ier for the killers to es­cape jus­tice.

Mol­lie Burkhart, whose sis­ter was among those killed, of­fered a $2,000 re­ward for the iden­tity of the killers. She and oth­ers also hired pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tors to look into the killings.

Fi­nally, a then-ob­scure agency known as the Bureau of In­ves­ti­ga­tion was called into the case. It was run by a gung-ho paper-pusher by the name if J.edgar Hoover who wanted to make a name for him­self and the agency.

Hoover put a for­mer Texas Ranger on the job. His team of in­ves­ti­ga­tors, some work­ing un­der­cover for months, helped bring some jus­tice to the Osage.

But Grann in­sists many more mem­bers of the tribe were vic­tim­ized and never brought to jus­tice. There is no rea­son to be­lieve he’s wrong.

Monte Wha­ley: 720-929-0907, mwha­ley@den­ver­post.com or @mon­te­wha­ley

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