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Blood Soaked Plain

Review by Richard Wirick

Killers of the Flower Moon
David Grann

David Grann has a way with creating razor-keen suspense out of already tension-filled historical narratives. Killers of the Flower Moon brings salient illustration to a centuries-old story that resonates even now. Just as he took us through struggles to find a lost city on the Amazon—the abject misery and hopelessness of the journey—he channels his outrage into an insistence that the oppressed Native Americans here have a voice, albeit, for some of them, from beyond the grave. In this new powerhouse, he brings us back to our own country, the southern Great Plains, where a series of calculated, shocking murders were disguised behind an altruistic movement of assistance, truly a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

The “benevolent plan” of the Interior Department and the cavalry was to relocate the Osage Indian tribes from their ancillary lands in Kansas, which they in turn had been pushed to only a few decades earlier. The new location in Oklahoma was arid and rocky, and had little planting soil and zero ground cover. Bison had populated the crossings, but other Plains Indian tribes had depleted the herds, and the new transplants—robbed of their all-purpose sustenance—began suffering from malnutrition and diet depletion illnesses.

But there were riches under the land. Prospectors hand dropped wells and found supplies of oil that were rivalling those that had caused the Texas boom. At first the prospectors treated the tribe honorably, cutting them into leases and royalties. It enabled the tribal leaders to build spacious cabins in an otherwise hostile dust bowl. They lived well, hiring other rival tribes as house servants and rig and deerick workers. These new-found Oklahoma Osage suddenly became one of the wealthiest group of fin-de-siècle Americans.

But when the oil money truly became an investment worthy staple, the government’s paternalism devolved into vicious ripostes to anyone who resisted them. They decided the Indians simply could not manage their own wealth or oversee the lease areas and equipment. What the ground had given them, quite by happenstance, the white man was determined to fleece them of. White guardians were assigned, “authorizing and overseeing all of their spending, down to the toothpaste they purchased at the corner store, Grann writes. “The guardians were usually drawn from the ranks of the most prominent citizens in [Osage] County.”

The guardians skimmed millions of dollars from the tribe. The Gray Horse, a company town with merchants of the same name, increased prices for the Indians, but not their overseers. As the new century progressed, in a series of slow-moving, terribly efficient massacres, the tribe began dying in just such a manner that observers called it a Siege of Terror. Everything began happening all at once, and every episode was got more and more horrific.

Grann’s laboratory specimen of white oppression is Mollie Burkhart, an Osage squaw who had become the wife of a white man. Several of Mollie’s siblings suddenly died of a mysterious “wasting illness.” Another sister, Anna, was dispatched, execution style by a white merchant with a pearl handled revolver. Then the mother came down with the same wasting illness. Finally, Mollie herself became deathly ill. Grann writes: “She barricaded herself in dread, knowing that she was the likely next target in the apparent plot to eliminate the entire family.”

Though no one was able to solve the murders—evidence was spoliated and witnesses vanished—the case was assigned to the young J. Edgar Hoover, looking to build the profile of his young Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington. It was one of Hoover’s best early pieces of work, rivalling that of the Dillinger assassination and the infiltration of the Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland mafias.

But the Texas Ranger that that Hoover deputized as an FBI regular, Tom White, had to work through a labyrinth of double and triple agents, and sheer decoy witnesses set up in a puzzle palace managed by a single, craft mastermind. This Great Oz of Duplicity was discovered only after near-genius detective work, and only after White had become an arranger—indeed a connoisseur—of plots and false trails and investigatory legerdemain himself.

Grann has built a book (it is truly a narrative edifice) that will stand beside classics of Indian oppression like Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, Peter Mathiessen’s In The Spirit of Crazy Horse, and Peter Cozzens’s The Earth Is Weeping.

Killers of the Flower Moon belongs on the shelf of anyone interested in America’s long war against the people who first inhabited its land, gave it a fabric of glorious and mystical traditions, and eventually were killed off or at best disenfranchised in slow deracination. It reads like a thriller, its pages flying away like Osage ponies running over the doomed hills.

Richard Wirick practices law in Los Angeles.

This review first appeared in Pacific Rim Review of Books #22