The Conversation: For the Osage Nation, the betrayal yet lingers

William J Boag/Oklahoma Historical Society via Getty Images##Members of Osage Nation pictured in Oklahoma in the early 20th century.
William J Boag/Oklahoma Historical Society via Getty Images##Members of Osage Nation pictured in Oklahoma in the early 20th century.

“The sheriff disguised her death as whiskey poisoning.

Because, when he carved her body up,

he saw the bullet hole in her skull.

Because, when she was murdered,

the leg clutchers bloomed.

But then froze under the weight of frost.

During Xtha-cka Zhi-ga Tze-the,

the Killer of the Flowers Moon.”

This excerpt is from the poem “Wi’-gi-e,” or “Prayer.” Osage author Elise Paschen wrote it in 2009 to honor Anna Kyle Brown, thought to be the first victim of the Osage Reign of Terror, detailed in the book and movie “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

Brown’s body was found at the bottom of a ravine near Fairfax, Oklahoma, in 1921. The cause of death was ruled to be “whiskey poisoning,” but she had actually been murdered for hereditary mineral rights that had made her wealthy.

Years later, a widespread investigation would reveal that Brown died by gun violence. Whiskey poisoning was a cover-up.

“Killers of the Flower Moon” refers to the Osage lunar cycle during which late frosts will often kill young flowers. It’s also the title of a new Martin Scorsese film, adapted from a bestselling book written by David Grann.

The film and book trace a story of greed, brutality and government complicity in the assassination of wealthy Osage citizens.

Brown was one of many Osage people murdered for their money in 1920s Oklahoma. An accurate number for the victims is hard to come by, but Geoffrey Standing Bear, the Osage Nation’s current principal chief, estimates at least 5% of the tribe’s members were murdered — roughly 150 people.

In 1923, the Osage Nation asked the Bureau of Investigation — predecessor to the FBI — to look into a string of mysterious deaths.

After a long investigation, the bureau uncovered a massive conspiracy masterminded by white men like William King Hale, Ernest Burkhart and other non-Osage residents of Fairfax, Oklahoma, particularly those in positions of authority. By 1929, Hale, Burkhart and some of their co-conspirators had been tried and sentenced to prison.

But for the Osage, the story didn’t end there. Existing federal policies and persistent anti-Indigenous sentiment still left Osage people vulnerable to further violence and exploitation.

As a scholar of Indigenous literary and cultural studies, I often teach the political and social landscape of early Oklahoma. When I tell my students at the University of Dayton about this spate of unchecked violence, someone inevitably asks how this was allowed to happen.

There is no one answer. But there is a central cause — laws that enabled settlers’ access to and control over Osage capital, and, by extension, Osage lives.

In 1872, the Osage were forced from their homelands in Kansas and sent to Indian Territory, a region that eventually became the state of Oklahoma.

Once resettled, the Osage were compelled to negotiate with the federal government. Through the resulting Osage Allotment Act of 1906, the Osage retained all rights to oil, gas and minerals found on the land.

There was also a legal policy known as “guardianship” that purported to protect Native American lands and investments. But it actually functioned as a way to give local courts in Oklahoma jurisdiction over land, persons and property of Indian minors and incompetents.

When oil drilling began in earnest on Osage lands in 1896, the Osage became one of the richest communities on the planet, with many citizens receiving substantial annual payments. This money fueled resentment among the non-Indigenous public, and guardianship became a means for them to get their hands on it.

Affluent Osage citizens — who no longer fit the stereotype of the impoverished Indian — were criticized for their spending habits. So in 1921, Congress passed a law that required Osage people to prove themselves competent enough to manage their vast wealth, with competence often based on their percentage of Osage blood: The more one had, the more likely one would be declared incompetent.

Enter guardianship.

Once deemed “incompetent,” an Osage citizen would have a guardian appointed to help manage his or her assets. It was also common for young Osage people to have a guardian appointed to them until they turned 21.

This law ultimately, as Grann explained in a 2023 interview with the Oklahoma Historical Society, “ushered in one of the largest state-and-federally-sanctioned criminal enterprises.” Many guardians recklessly spent or embezzled their wards’ assets, while facing little or no consequences.

Increasingly, Osage people under guardianship began to die under mysterious circumstances, with their guardian set to inherit their share of oil royalties. Tax documents from that era reveal a web of white guardians with multiple Osage wards, the majority of whom died within a few years.

As Osage actor Yancy Red Corn pointed out, once the Bureau of Investigation closed the case, “the killings just kept going on.”

While the bureau’s focus was on the murders that took place in the Gray Horse community, many more cases went unsolved in other Osage communities, including Pawhuska and Hominy. Standing Bear describes walking through those local cemeteries and noting how many “young people whose grave markers show ‘deceased: 1920 … 1921 … 1919 … 1923 … 1925.’”

Red Corn notes that his grandparents kept a close eye on their children, never knowing whom they could trust, even after the murders had been exposed and prosecuted. Many Osage left Oklahoma altogether, moving to states like California and Texas to escape the violence.

Despite the truth of these murders being brought to light, anti-Indigenous sentiment still roiled in the area. The families of conspirators, survivors and those who continued to exploit guardianship laws had to coexist, at times with great tension.

While Hale and Burkhart were both convicted and spent time in prison, they were eventually freed. After Hale was paroled in 1947, some Fairfax inhabitants welcomed him back with open arms.

“The word went around town, ‘Bill Hale is here,’” recalled Dr. Joe Conner, an Osage citizen who had lost relatives during the Reign of Terror. “And people gathered as if there was a parade.”

Burkhart received a pardon from Oklahoma Gov. Henry Bellmon in 1965, despite protests from the Osage. To the Osage still living in the area, many of whom had endured the Reign of Terror, excusing the actions of men who masterminded so many deaths spoke volumes.

Years later, in the 1970s, an Osage teacher named Mary Jo Webb conducted painstaking research into the murders and created a small booklet detailing her findings. She donated it to the Fairfax Library, but it vanished within a week.

Most recently, Grann mentioned that while he was conducting research for his book, some of the descendants of guardians resisted being interviewed. Dr. Carole Conner explains that it seems as though white community members would “rather just ignore the whole topic than have the feeling that they might be blamed.”

Whether the film might create openings for new conversations, or new opportunities for reckoning in these communities, remains to be seen.

Paschen’s poem concludes with the lines, “I will wade across the river of the blackfish, the otter, the beaver. / I will climb the bank where the willow never dies.”

I see this poem as both an act of remembrance and a call to action. It is up to the speaker – and perhaps the reader – to explore, rather than ignore, spaces of loss and injustice.

It is also a testament to the fact that the stories of the Osage people neither begin nor end with the events portrayed in Scorsese’s film.

One Osage citizen acknowledged, “We were victims of these crimes.” But he said, “We don’t live as victims.”

From The Conversation, an online repository of lay versions of academic research findings found at https://theconversation.com/us. Used with permission.


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