Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Terror Under A Flower-Killing Moon

first published in Star2 in The Star, 13 June 2017


The Osage Indians of Oklahoma in the United States speak of a "flower-killing moon" that happens in May, when the blossoms that carpet the landscape in April would be overrun by taller plants.

But in the early 1920s, flowers weren't the only things being snuffed out over there.

When white settlers moved into the American heartland, many displaced Native Americans were shunted onto reservations. The Osage were no exception, but the large oil deposits beneath their reserved lands made them rich. Soon, many schemed to obtain that wealth, resorting to unethical and even deadly means.

During a period of several years dubbed the "Reign of Terror", affluent Osage began dying in dubious circumstances. Many of the deceased were related to an Osage woman called Mollie Burkhart. With local lawmen and private detectives being too inept, corrupt, or afraid to investigate (those who did were threatened or killed), the Bureau of Investigation (BOI) under J. Edgar Hoover stepped in. The bureau, known today as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, would expose a web of death, deceit, and betrayal in the heart of Osage territory.

American journalist and author David Grann's gripping account of this killing spree and its aftermath, Killers Of The Flower Moon, traces the beginnings of the Osage oil boom and the murders and covers the BOI, its agents, the investigation and the subsequent trials; it also recounts Grann's travels to parts of Osage country in the present day, an epilogue of sorts to this bloody chapter in American history.

By now, details about the Osage incident can be found online, though I'm not sure how much of it has always been there or was unearthed by the publicity surrounding the book. Regardless, I highly recommend Grann's work as a starting point for those who are interested.

It has the kind of writing that I've come to appreciate and expect from him, after reading his piece on explorer Percy Fawcett and the fabled "Lost City of Z" in The New Yorker magazine, published in 2005 (he is also a staff writer with the publication). He masterfully weaves facts and drama into a compelling yarn, putting the audience right where the action is. Taking a break from reading was hard.

Grann told news website Uproxx that he'd only heard about the Osage story in 2011.

"I did not know that the Osage had been the wealthiest people per capita in the world in the beginning of the 20th century. I had not known that they had been murdered. And I had not known that it had become one of the FBI's first major homicide cases."

With this information, Grann dug deeper. Among many other things, he discovered the corruption, lawlessness and prejudices of the day that enabled droves of opportunists to fleece the Osage, taking advantage of laws that restricted the tribespeople's control over their own money. Despite the shining examples of humanity in individuals such as BOI agent Tom White, this tale is blighted by the enormity of the crimes and what fuelled them.

Vile, perhaps, but not shocking. The Guarani fighting land grabs in Brazil, the anti-logging blockades by the Temiar and the Penan, and the Standing Rock Sioux's resistance against the Dakota Access Pipeline – the Osage chapter is but one example of how indigenous peoples and their lands' natural resources were (and still are) systematically exploited.

Sadly, the ordeal isn't over for the Osage. The book suggests the Reign of Terror might have been longer and reaped a far larger toll than officially stated – more unsolved deaths, more next of kin seeking answers, and more culprits left unpunished. On top of that, a renewable energy company built a wind farm on Osage soil without the tribe's permission.

Loyal and hard-working Tom White, arguably the hero in Grann's story, died in obscurity. In contrast, his boss Hoover, who achieved great status and allegedly abused his power as head of the FBI, remains in the limelight years after his passing.

A nation can't truly move forward when it still can't get over its past – which is what one feels about the United States from what's been going on there of late. So the release of this account is perhaps timely, especially now when the country appears to be going through another phase of soul-searching.

"...the Osage know their history very well, but so many people – whites, primarily, but other Americans – don't really reckon with this history, don't record the voices of these victims, are not familiar with the stories and the lies that these people lived and went through," said Grann in the Uproxx interview. "It's really important as a country that we reckon with this history."

But I think it's not just the United States that needs to reckon with its past and re-evaluate its current conduct towards its indigenous minorities.



Reviewing this book was daunting, and the deadline was ASAP - never a good thing for me. And because this was my first submission to The Star in three years, I was eager to make an impression in record time.

Ambitious and dumb.

So I knew, even as I hit "Send", I'd be writing a postscript to the review, but never did I think it would be this long. Nor did I realise how much I had missed out in the piece, or that others have written about the Osage murders before - another omission I regret. David Grann's book might not be the most authoritative text on the incident, but I can say it's one of the good ones.

The review could have turned into a white-bashing fest. It's too easy now, considering what the United States is becoming, and also because the principal bad guys in the book are white. On top of the policies of the day to dilute or altogether erase Native American identity and culture, the crimes committed against the Osage elicit disgust.

As I had said, none of this shocked me because we still see this sort of behaviour, and not just in the US. Cops shooting blacks, Standing Rock, the deportations ... the dehumanisation of certain groups or their reduction into crude caricatures to advance certain agendas persists to this day.

Yet I don't think Grann wrote this book as another indictment of white America's attitudes towards minorities or as an expression of shame in being a white guy. Rather, I see this as an effort to hold a mirror to the nation and its conduct in the past with some hope that, if more of such efforts are kept up, the majority will finally have the courage to look itself in the face, recognise the enormity of their deeds, and change.

And how to bash all white people when, in the actions of those fighting against the wrongheaded (and, arguably, boneheaded) moves by the current US administration, I see shades of BOI agent Tom White? The former Texas Ranger and hero of this book glows with integrity, loyalty and a steadfast sense of duty.

Though White wrote his own account of the Osage investigation, it didn't attract much interest. In a way, I feel Grann is picking up White's torch, to shine a light on and add a little warmth to this otherwise mournful account.

I stand by my endorsement of Grann's Killers of the Flower Moon, inadequate (and a little biased) as it may be. His storytelling is something you have to experience for yourselves.



Killers of the Flower Moon
The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI


David Grann
Doubleday
338 pages
Non-fiction
ISBN: 978-0-385-54248-7

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