What the century-old murders of Osage people say about the U.S.

To this day, Oklahoma descendants of the victims live side-by-side with descendants of the killers

Mollie Burkhart (second from right). She lost all three of her sisters under suspicious circumstances. An explosion killed Rita Smith (left), Anna Brown (second from left) was shot in the head and Minnie Smith (right) died of what doctors referred to as a "peculiar wasting illness." (The Osage National Museum)

Mollie Burkhart (second from right). She lost all three of her sisters under suspicious circumstances. An explosion killed Rita Smith (left), Anna Brown (second from left) was shot in the head and Minnie Smith (right) died of what doctors referred to as a “peculiar wasting illness.” (The Osage National Museum)

If we’re living in a post-truth era, David Grann didn’t get the memo. The New Yorker journalist has garnered a cult following for his determined research into everything from unsolved murders to the hunt for a living giant squid, and so dedicated is he that for his book The Lost City of Z (recently adapted as a film with Charlie Hunnam and Robert Pattinson), he hacked his way through the Amazonian rainforest to uncover the fate of an explorer who disappeared there in 1925. Grann’s new book, Killers of the Flower Moon, looks to illuminate a dark spot in American history, and to shed some light on the present too.

Tipped off by an FBI historian, Grann spent five years delving into a set of long-forgotten murders of members of the Osage nation in Oklahoma in and around the 1920s. At the time, they were the wealthiest people per capita in the world because of the discovery of oil on their reserve—although the Department of the Interior appointed white “guardians” to take care of their money, including some who married Osage women. Grann tells the stories of Mollie Burkhart (an Osage from the settlement of Gray Horse whose family members are disappearing and dying, whether poisoned, shot, or blown up with explosives) and of Tom White, an FBI agent sent up from Texas to solve the case, after the private investigators hired by Gray Horse had come up empty-handed. Towards the end of the book, Grann attempts to crack open previously unsolved cases that suggest a wider conspiracy against the Osage than what the FBI uncovered.

True to Grann’s reputation, his book is gripping, although it’s also truly dark. On the phone from a book tour stop in Minneapolis, Grann explained how in addition to relentlessly scouring archives to write the book, he would meet with victims’ descendants in Oklahoma, some of whom gave him “trails of evidence” in hopes he could look into them. He told Maclean’s about the importance (and the limits) of detective work, the lineage of prejudice, and America’s need to face uncomfortable facts.

Q: In a recent article for Mother Jones, you wrote about an Osage U.S. army veteran with a Purple Heart who joined forces with the Sioux protesters at Standing Rock, and who was familiar with the murders in his people’s history. Does the narrative of the murders in Killers of the Flower Moon offer us a historical lens on what’s happening now?

A: I think it is a microcosm of all of these forces, and gets at, for lack of a better word, the original sin from which the United States was born, in this clash of cultures. The story of the Osage’s controlling most of the Midwest of the United States of America, Thomas Jefferson describing them as a great nation in 1804 and promising them that they would be treated as friends, and then, instead, within just a few decades, being forced off their ancestral lands and bunched into Kansas, and then under siege in Kansas, and a U.S. government official after a massacre there [in 1870, by settlers impatient to move onto their lands] saying, “Which of these people are the savages?” Certainly, so many American Indian nations had their own versions of the Trail of Tears [the forced migration, in 1838-39, of the Cherokee Nation]. The two things that made the Osage version unusual were the wealth that the Osage came upon, and also that so many of the crimes took place in the 20th century.

In Osage County, to this day, descendants of the murderers live side-by-side with descendants of the victims. In many ways, that is the story of this country. The army veteran described to me his walk [from the Osage reserve in northern Oklahoma] to participate in Standing Rock and how he thought about the killings of the Osage. Even though the particulars in some ways are very different and it’s nearly a century later, it was still the same fundamental issue, which was the protection of the rights of American Indians to control their resources and their land. When I spoke to a former Osage chief, he told me why so many American Indian nations were being galvanized by Standing Rock and showing up there: because it is the same fundamental issue. So many of these nations have their own version of what happened to the Osage.

Q: And after the pipeline’s construction was stayed, Donald Trump came in and said, “Go ahead, build it,” perpetuating a long history of entitlement when it comes to white people and Indigenous lands and resources.

A: It does seem to be a continuation. The same Osage chief said it’s disturbing and shocking that we’re still having this conversation, and this fight to defend their sovereignty and their rights to their resources, in 2017. Some advisers have spoken about wanting to break up and privatize the communal ownership of the land and reservations of many American Indian nations. That is just an extension of the long-simmering dream of the same settlers who moved into Osage territory after oil. The Osage know their history intimately; many Americans don’t. That’s maybe why attitudes have not fully changed: we haven’t always reckoned. The voices of many people in a story like this were recorded among the Osage, but not as deeply as they should have been by the rest of the country.

Q: Had white people come upon such wealth as the Osage did, they would have been treated as folk heroes, wouldn’t they?

A: I think one of the most outrageous things about this chapter of history is that here you have the 1920s, and it was a time of great wealth and often profligacy—the era of The Great Gatsby—and yet somehow the Osage were scapegoated. They were treated as if somehow their money wasn’t rightfully their own, or they couldn’t handle their money. There was a chief I quoted who said at the time, “Stop treating us like children. We are grown men.” And to me, one of the most outrageous things was that you had members of U.S. Congress literally holding hearings, as if the nation’s security was at stake, to say, “What are we going to do about this Osage money and wealth?” And then appointing white guardians to manage their wealth. This was a racist system. It was based on the quantum of Osage blood: if you were a full-blooded Osage, you were deemed incompetent and then given a white guardian who would tell you how to spend your own money, and then on top of that, this became essentially a criminal enterprise, where so many guardians used it as a way to swindle money.

Q: When you were looking into long-unsolved murders, was there a hope of giving some of the relatives closure?

A: I’m always very reluctant to speak for others, but my own suspicion is that if you are a family who has lost their loved ones, I don’t know if closure ever fully occurs. I do think that in many cases, where crimes have been covered up and perpetrators can escape justice, history can provide some accounting. It can identify the killers, ensure that their names are remembered, and it can give voice to and record the victims, and make sure, even more importantly, that their voices and their stories are remembered and heard. And I don’t think there’s justice, but I do think history can play an important role in that accounting.

Of course, one of the great tragedies of the story or this incident is that because it’s so many years later, so much evidence was covered up; suspects are dead, victims are gone, witnesses can no longer be questioned. You can fill in blanks—in one case even identify a likely new killer—but in many cases, you can’t fill in all the blanks anymore. Before I did this book, I had always thought that when you’re writing about some kind of injustice, it was the horror of what you know. And I began to realize that the real horror is often what you don’t know. There are these figures who will even escape the judgment of history.

Q: At the end of the book, you describe the way sometimes the truth can be “lost in the mist.” The passage recalls one of the essays in your book The Devil and Sherlock Holmes, when someone tells you about a death you’ve been investigating, “I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure what really happened. Unlike in detective stories, we have to live without answers.” Is this a philosophical idea that we should take on board? And how difficult is that kind of idea to live with, for someone who’s always questing for the truth?

A: I’m a big believer in the truth; I’m a kind of a fundamentalist. My goal is at least to the best of my ability to try to ferret it out. Especially when I believe there is a crime, I’m not a post-modernist: if somebody shot someone or poisoned them, they are responsible for somebody’s death. The challenge becomes that unless there are 18 cameras in a room and everybody’s wired, often knowing exactly what happened is difficult. It’s not that the truth doesn’t exist, but it can be elusive. We’re not Sherlock Holmes. We don’t have superhuman powers of perception. Our perceptions are very much a reflection of our own frailty as human beings, and our memories sometimes aren’t always right, or we don’t have all the witnesses; we can’t just identify the killer based on the mud on somebody’s shoe.

You want to get as close to the truth as you can, and sometimes I think you can get almost all the way there. But there are cases, especially of conspiracy, when there was an entire power structure determined to cover up what happened, in which there was a complicity, a culture of killing; it becomes very difficult to remove all the shadows. Hopefully the book illuminates what happened, and brings a good deal to light, but part of the anguish is knowing that the light can’t shine everywhere.

Q: Your book is also about the birth of the modern FBI as an investigative force. It depicts two very different people working on solving the case. There’s Tom White, who’s almost like an old-school Wild West sheriff from the movies—a really upstanding citizen—and then his boss, J. Edgar Hoover, who’s a bureaucrat and very much a political animal. In a weird way, was it was necessary to have those two kinds of forces for the FBI to be actually born as a modern enterprise, to work effectively?

A: One of the things I learned during the story was just how lawless the country was back then, how rotten to the core the criminal justice system was, how easy it was to pay off somebody, to tilt justice in your favour if you were powerful, to ignore victims because of prejudice—it was a shock. And you realize how you need people like Tom White who are focused on dogged investigation and have a certain quiet goodness to them. Again, they’re not Sherlock Holmes. Tom White has flaws. He’s not a superhuman detective, but he cares about the case. He doesn’t let politics enter, which can corrode the criminal justice system.

Hoover is such a complicated character. Certainly you needed somebody with the organizational brilliance and the political skills to build up this national police force. When it was focused on purely criminal investigations and stayed out of politics, the bureau could be extremely effective and a very positive force. You could see some of the positive in this case. The problem is, Hoover often used and corrupted that very force by once more tilting it towards politics in various cases over the years.

Checks and balances on institutions are so important. That’s why Congress has always had such a role to play, and one of the dangers today is that when we don’t like what the facts tell us, we just attack the facts, and we undermine the credibility of institutions. That is true not just for reporting; it’s true of when people are attacking the congressional budget office, or when they’re attacking certain science—that’s where we can get into a dangerous realm. It’s one thing to disagree over policy, but there shouldn’t be alternative facts [laughs]. It gets back to this history, too: we need to reckon with things, and you don’t just turn away or cover it up if you don’t like the results.

Q: Given your relentless quest for the truth and your need to get things right, how difficult was it to hand over The Lost City of Z to be adapted by people who are more concerned with making a good film that people will watch?

A: I don’t expect a movie to have long historical digressions and backstories and footnotes and endnotes. Certainly your fear is that they’ll somehow devalue the material. In the case of Lost City of Z, I had a level of comfort because I knew [director] James Gray was a serious filmmaker. The truth is, you don’t have control, and you have to accept that as part of the process. Whenever you spend a lot of time on something, you hope it will reach an audience; a movie can do that. And I also hope the movie brings people back to the book. I think they can complement each other. I wrote a history book; it’s a different kind of thing.

Q: Although it does include a fair bit of autobiography…

 A: Yes. It was funny though: I didn’t like putting myself too much in my stories. When I first wrote that book, I showed it to a friend; he’s like, “It’s really good, but you’ve got to tell the reader something about yourself.” I said, “I don’t want to tell the reader about myself.” [laughs]

In Killers of the Flower Moon, even when I come in at the end, I really am only there to relay information. I’m just a vehicle to fill in the gaps in the historical narrative. The Lost City of Z was about something larger—this question of, “Could there be an ancient civilization in the jungle? And if such a place existed, how that would transform our perceptions of what the Americas looked like before the arrival of Christopher Columbus.” It dealt to a degree with prejudice as well, in terms of Edwardians, and even through the 20th century, toward Indigenous communities in general. But [Killers] is a very different story. It also has a mystery; it has elements of intrigue, but it is very profoundly about a grave racial injustice that has been largely neglected by history—not by the Osage. And in telling that kind of story, you’re conscious of the element of injustice and that you are dealing with a very sensitive issue. I tried to write a book that had more restraint in many ways.

This is a story that has been neglected. Hopefully more people will wrestle with this history. During a Q&A at the New York public library, an Osage man who I didn’t know stood up and spoke about the story and how it affected his family, and you just got a sense of how this is really living history, and how it’s important history. The Osage who I interviewed were incredibly generous to me, shared their stories with me, often welcomed me into their homes. I don’t want to speak for other people, but I think there was a sense that while the Osage are intimately aware of all of these events, a lot of Americans aren’t and should be. My hope is that I did the story justice as best I could.

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