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Killers of the Flower Moon

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Growing up in Kansas, I visited our relatives in northern Oklahoma. They lived in and around the Osage Indian territories. The Osage Indians formed a piece of our family’s lore. I think it was common knowledge among our family members that the Osage had been kicked out of Kansas and had landed twenty-five miles south of the border on a piece of God-forsaken, rocky outcroppings of no interest to white Oklahoma settlers. Lo, and behold, “those lazy, alcoholic redskins” found themselves sitting on a major oil field and ended up rich. That several dozen tribal members had been killed by a few greedy white men trying to steal their oil rights was not part of the family lore.

As so often happened in American history, the Indian murders at first went unnoticed, except by the Indians themselves. David Grann meticulously and elegantly traces how and why the killings came to be important to a few white men in Washington, D.C. associated with the nascent FBI, particularly one J. Edgar Hoover, recently named as director of the Bureau. It had no police powers and was struggling to find a niche to fill in the early 1920s. The Osage Murders was an opportunity preceding the more famous cases associated with bootlegging, the Lindbergh kidnapping, Depression-era bank robbers, and other gangster crimes.

Grann knows how to set a scene. This one is framed by the end of the first rush of small, delicate wildflowers in Osage country in late May, the month in which the flowers are smothered by larger, more aggressive wildflowers, explaining why the Osage Indians call this time the “flower-killing moon.” On about May 24, 1921, Osage Mollie Burkhart began to fear that something bad had happened to her sister. A few days later, Anna, her sister was found in a gulley, murdered by a gunshot to the head. Several years later, her other sister was blown up by explosives packed under her house. And then her mother died, perhaps of poisoning. Diagnosed with tuberculosis, Mollie Burkhart feared for her own life; the injections given her by local white doctors seemed only to make her worse. Her white husband appeared to be solicitous and protective. Nevertheless, Mollie’s fears intensified as two-dozen members of the Osage tribe died under mysterious circumstances.

Killers of the Flower Moon is first an intriguing historical murder mystery. Grann, however, carefully builds the context around the killings so that we can peer into some hidden and not-so-hidden corners of American history. The murders occur in the midst of an oil boom that makes a few people rich and a lot of people greedy. Hoover, the new FBI director, wanted a headline-grabbing case so that he might squeeze political, reputational, and PR juice out of it. The Osage murders might be it. He chose FBI agent and former Texas Ranger, Tom White, to head the investigation. White was a Hoover loyalist but of a dying breed of Federal lawmen—non-college educated, not an attorney, and not a bureaucratic in-fighter. He didn’t fit the mold that Hoover was imposing on his new hires at the Bureau. Grann also provides glimpses into the convoluted and sometimes inconsistent laws that regulated Osage tribal lands and Osage mineral rights.

Finally, there was the matter of Indian-White relations, ones that encompassed business, marital, social, and legal. After reading this book, you may ask incredulously: “Was this kind of racist stuff still going on in the 1920s?” The short answer is yes. The longer answer would encompass, among many other examples, references to what is going on today with the Dakota pipeline protests. – Neal Ferguson

Also available by David Grann: The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Amazon; The Devil and Sherlock Holmes.

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