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Like it Never Even Happened
Books & Such

Like it Never Even Happened 

Promotional still from the upcoming movie Killers of the Flower Moon, based on the historical book written by David Grann, directed by Martin Scorsese, produced by Apple Original Film, and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone.

I have a collection of textbooks, which I once used to supplement the education of my middle and high school American history students from the 1980s until the 2010s. Some of the books had been adopted by the school districts that employed me; individual copies were distributed to students to provide a foundation for our work together. Others, I brought in to support state education standards, which emphasized “comparing and contrasting” different perspectives and the manner in which stories can sometimes be told with bias and even malice.

In none of them is a single reference to the Osage Reign of Terror, not a sentence, not a buried footnote, nothing, nada, zilch… like it never even happened.

This historical shortcoming is dramatically addressed in Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (2017) by historian David Grann.

This from the Osage Foundation web site:

The vibrant history of the Osage is that of a proud, spiritual people who have weathered hardship to emerge as a leading force in Native America. Part of the Northern Plains tribes, the Osage were known for being bold warriors, skilled hunters and farmers, and preservers of family life.*

After being relocated several times and surviving the infamous Trail of Tears, the Osage people ended up in northern Oklahoma. When oil was discovered on this land in 1894, savvy Osage leaders secured their mineral rights under the Osage Allotment Act of 1906. Oil companies made their way to Osage land and paid millions of dollars to extract Osage oil. “In the 1920s,” the book jacket reads, “the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma.”

Other white men arrived, as well, especially after the US Congress determined that many of the Osage were not competent enough to manage their wealth. In many cases, white guardians were assigned to “protect” Osage interests.

In this environment of wealth and white privilege, as Grann offers, “The Osage found themselves surrounded by predators— ‘a flock of buzzards,’ as one member of the tribe complained at a council meeting. Venal local officials sought to devour the Osage’s fortunes. Stickup men were out to rob their bank accounts. Merchants demanded… inflated… prices.”

Others were more direct, as Grann reports. Marrying an Osage woman meant instant wealth. During one inquiry, a suspect named Ernest Burkhart was asked about his profession. His reply: “I don’t work. I married an Osage.”

And then the Osage began to die. Over the course of several years in the 1920s, dozens of Osage were, as Grann describes, “shot in lonely pastures, bored by steel as they sat in their automobiles, poisoned to die slowly, and dynamited as they slept in their homes.”

Local and state investigations into the murders inevitably came up short. Witnesses died inexplicably as did those who appeared to get close to the truth. It wasn’t until J. Edgar Hoover of the newly formed Bureau of Investigation (the forerunner of the FBI) got involved that the real story began to emerge.

Hoover’s modern federal law enforcement efforts focused on new technologies and the application of forensic science to solve crimes. He hired young educated men as agents whom he molded in his own image. He adopted sophisticated practices that he believed superior to the methods of the past, which usually involved brute force and skill with a gun to take down the bad guys.

This generational crime-fighting clash is brought to bear as Hoover assigns former Texas Ranger and federal agent Tom White to the case. Overseeing the investigation in Oklahoma, White uses both his skills as a Ranger and the new methods promoted by Hoover to peel back a multi-layered mystery.

And, while Agent White can be seen as the protagonist of this fascinating story, his boss, J. Edgar Hoover expresses the illicit motivations that define his near-five decade tenure at the helm of the FBI. “For Hoover,” Grann writes, “the Osage murder investigation became a showcase for the modern bureau.” He “created a pristine origin story, a founding mythology in which the bureau, under his direction, had emerged from lawlessness and overcome the last wild American frontier.” In classic Hoover style, he did little to acknowledge the agents on the ground, led by Tom White, who had done the real investigative work.

In the middle of the federal investigation in 1926, as we see time and again in Killers of the Flower Moon, an Osage chief observes what Native Americans have likely felt for a very long time: “There are amongst the whites, honest men, but they are mighty scarce.”

Perhaps this bitter observation explains why this story has not made its way into our history books. Indeed, I am reminded of another Oklahoma tale that only recently emerged from the shadows of our history; the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Hundreds of affluent African Americans were killed and the area of Tulsa known as Black Wall Street was burned to the ground.

As the Osage Reign of Terror and the Tulsa Race Massacre occurred in the 1920s, I decided to check that particular unit in the district-adopted American history text in use when I retired. The American Journey (Glencoe) was published in 2009. In a passage where these events might have been cited, the book says: “The second [Ku Klux] Klan members used scare tactics, whipped or lynched people, and burned property.”

The text does note that in 1919, “In the South more than 70 African Americans were lynched.” But this is mentioned in a paragraph that emphasizes that following the killing of a black youth in Chicago, “For two weeks African American and white gangs roamed city streets, attacking each other and burning buildings.” Two years later, hundreds of affluent Blacks in Tulsa, Oklahoma were slaughtered and the textbook says nothing of it. Likewise, the Osage Reign of Terror is also not mentioned.**

This is why the work of modern historians like David Grann is so important; especially at a moment in our history when politically charged forces are attempting to white-wash the nation’s history. Emphasizing this point is acclaimed film director Martin Scorsese, whose film adaptation of Killers of the Flower Moon is set to be released in theaters in October.

With Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio teaming up with Scorsese on this one, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. And, until then, you have plenty of time to read David Grann’s fine history book which is as enriching and entertaining as any movie.***



**As to the actual scope of lynching in America when nearly 4000 African Americans were tortured, mutilated, and burned to death, the text says, “More than 2600 African Americans were lynched between 1886 and 1916, mostly in the South.” Revealingly, this stark tally is prefaced by “Many people lost their jobs during the economic depressions of 1893 and 1907. Frustrated and desperate, they sometimes unleashed their anger against African Americans and other minorities.”

***Killers of the Flower Moon Official Trailer

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