David Grann’s “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI” is a painful but essential book in understanding American history. It’s of the same rank and nature as Dee Brown’s 1970 classic, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.”
The United States moved the Osage Indian tribe out of eastern United States westward, starting in 1808. When settlers wanted their land in Kansas, they were moved into a miserable corner of northeastern Oklahoma. The supreme irony was that the rocky and infertile farmland turned out to have oil under it, making the Osage rich.
The Osage had a proud identity and a culture that included a language, dances, ceremonies and gods. May was the month of the flower-killing moon, when taller plants grow taller than smaller flowering plants, in the light of a bright moon, bringing about the death of the smaller plants. The symbolism of the whites killing the Indians for their money is clear.
First, white Americans began to marry Osage women. Then, Osage began to turn up dead.
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Some were shot. Others were poisoned. Oklahoma authorities at that time were careless and corrupt, sometimes careless because they were corrupt.
Most of them considered the Osage to be less than human, many resented that the Indians had been the beneficiaries of the oil found under their land, and some considered it acceptable that other whites carried out sharp deeds, including murder, to get their hands on as much of the Osages’ wealth as they could manage.
The inhuman, lawless behavior in the 1902s is mitigated by the actions of a few white men, in part motivated by the inception of a new Bureau of Investigation, which became the FBI, headed by America’s new hero, J. Edgar Hoover. The FBI brought some of the Osage killers to justice of a sort. Some were convicted and imprisoned; some let out after serving symbolic sentences.
Grann weaves a riveting story and adds poignant details that extend the story into our times. He makes it partly comprehensible how humans could have harmed the Osage and remain identifiable as humans. For example, how could a man plan the murder by explosion of a household that included his own son?
“Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI” by David Grann, Doubleday, 352 pages, $28.95.