I just finished reading a book, recommended to me by friends and my wife, called Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by journalist David Grann. I thought it might be a nice break from Cononahoax.
The book is set in the early 20th century in Oklahoma on allotted lands owned by the Osage Tribe (they purchased the lands, so technically it is not a “reservation”). It is apparently (I’ve never been to Oklahoma but imagine it like the West Texas backdrop in No Country for Old Men) some of the most godforsaken land in North America. It has one redeeming feature – oil was discovered underneath at that time. Lots of it. The Osage became some of the richest people in the country.
I cannot imagine, though Grann does a good job of highlighting this, what it is like to be people of no account, or what Chomsky (or someone) once referred to as “unworthy victims.” Victims deemed “worthy” are circulated through the propaganda model – these would be women or blacks in our modern era. I do not demean them in any way, but note that their cause is highlighted in all places, education, entertainment and news. Their complaints are not ignored.
The Osage people each had what was called a “headright” to a share of oil royalties, which as I understand could not be sold, but only passed on via last will and testament, or inheritance. Thus, you might gather, there was an incentive to murder them. Thus began what came to be known as the Reign of Terror. There was a string of more than twenty murders, and a systematic pattern could be discerned where the inherited headrights were being directed to a final person, Ernest Burkhart, married to an Osage and employed by [Freemason] cattleman William King Hale.
There were perfunctory investigations, but the Osage were unworthy victims, so no real force of law was behind them. The murders went uninvestigated and unpunished. Osage tribe members found that they had to hire private investigators to get anywhere, and those investigations were not done well. Those who got too close to the crimes were themselves murdered.
Finally, an appeal was heard and initiative undertaken by an ambitious young head of the Bureau of Investigation in Washington, J. Edgar Hoover. He appointed Tom White, a man of unimpeachable integrity, to investigate. This led to the confession of some and conviction of Burkhart, Hale and others. The Reign of Terror ended. More importantly, the FBI as we know it today was birthed. Hoover took full credit and knowing how to do politics, maximized the rewards for his agency.
I have just a few reflections – it is a good book and captivating. David Grann has done a yeoman’s job assembling evidence from many sources. He notes in the ending chapters that the FBI did not go far enough, and that the real death toll probably was more than one hundred people, most ignored by White and his people.
The Osage tribe members must reflect on something: While indeed they did not enjoy the benefits of whites in terms of protection by law enforcement, they were also easy prey. Many of the victims were merely given bootlegged liquor before being shot, or the booze itself used to poison them. To a large degree, they were children, easily ambushed. That justifies nothing, but is what life is like. People have to be smart, watch their own backs. They did not, or at least those who were murdered.
Indians traditionally have problems with alcohol, and I do not understand the dynamics well enough, nor do I wish to judge them. I am just laying out the facts here, that these people, while victimized, were also classic deer in the headlights.
Which leads to another observation – I spent much of my career in and around the oil business. I can speak to the fact that it is populated by both honest men and women, and crooks. Just as an example, in northern Montana in the early 1980s, companies were drilling natural gas wells and then capping them. This was necessary, as there was no pipeline to serve the area at that time. One practice among shady operators was to find the leasehold owner under a capped well who was entitled to royalty, usually 1/8, and without them knowing they had natural gas on their property, buy it from them. (Royalty owners, unless astute, usually don’t know what happens on their own land.)
Later, when they realized they had been scammed and given away a valuable asset for a pittance, they were threatened with lawsuit if they attempted to renege. If you think that there are not people in that business who would steal your grandma’s last food dollar, think again. For every deer and every set of headlights, there is a driver.
In Osage country in Oklahoma, it was too easy. It would be one thing to merely steal the headrights by whatever means, but because these people were considered unworthy victims, killing them was just as easy. That was the underlying problem – there was no force of law at play to protect them.
Is the same true now for other classes deemed unworthy? These might be illegal immigrants, senior citizens lacking mental acuity due to aging, or even today, American Indians.
Grann does not celebrate the FBI or Hoover, to his credit. Due credit is given Tom White and his men. This is not the TV/movie images that bend the knee before the FBI. He speaks of Hoover’s files used to keep him in power for fifty years, and of the nature of the tactics necessary to make and keep his agency powerful. He’s not a camp follower.
One thing that warms my heart is the presence of casinos on reservations, which the Osage people today control. Oh, I know about all of the moral hazards that this presents, including prostitution, drugs and money laundering. But the other side of that coin is that they are raking it in. My advice to white folks concerned about casinos and Indian morality … just shut up about it. We’ve no standing. They’ll have to deal with that on their own.
PS: I was told last evening that the book will be made into a movie, and that Leo DiCaprio will be in it. Whoopee. Was Matt Damon not available? It’s 45 minutes down to the theater, and 45 minutes back to see a movie. That’s a high barrier. But still, we might take this one in. I hope that Grann has significant input.