With mouths agape, readers devoured a story of murder, deceit and greed with surprise twists fitting of a thriller novelist. But author David Grann’s New York Times best-selling book, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, is not fiction. Taking a page from the history books and TU Professor of Anthropology Garrick Bailey’s research, Grann highlights one of the most insidious crimes and racial injustices in American history.
The rolling hills of Osage County, Oklahoma, used to belong to the Osage Nation, but today, 90% of the land is owned by non-Osage people. In the 1960s, this raised the red flag of research for Bailey, who as a college student needed a topic for a class assignment. Nearly 60 years and several published books and articles later, Bailey received a call from Grann, who needed his expertise.
“In my first meeting with David, I gave him some advice. It’s an old saying about crime – ‘follow the money,’” Bailey said. “David followed the money, but it wasn’t only about money. It was about mineral rights, and that’s far more complex.”
The Osage reservation sat atop a large oil deposit making it the richest nation anywhere in the world from the 1890s to the 1920s. When upwards of 20 Osage Indians mysteriously went missing or were found dead from 1921 to 1926, this enabled white men to gain access to the native person’s share of mineral trust and oil money. Eyebrows remained unraised in the white community and law enforcement.
“The white people showed up in Osage county and thought this was against human nature. Indians were supposed to be poor. They were not supposed to be rich,” Bailey explained. “They were trying to correct it by working to make them as poor as possible, as quickly as possible.”
Grann’s book focuses on the Burkhart family. Full-blooded Osage citizen Mollie Burkhart and her sisters married white men, and one by one, members of their family start to die from a “wasting illness.” When the newly formed Federal Bureau of Investigations took this on as its first big case, agents discovered there was no illness taking out the Burkhart family and the rest of the Osage tribe. White men were purposefully planting themselves in Osage families to eventually murder them for their money and land rights.
Carnival of crime
Even with years of research, Bailey still has questions that can be distilled into one: How did this happen? The extreme prejudice against the Osage was well-known, but the coverup of corruption involved a massive number of people. “There was a carnival of crime in Osage County. It was the lawyers, law enforcement and the merchants who overcharged the Osage at their stores. It was the doctors who got them hooked on drugs,” he described. “When the Osage walked into town, it was like every white person was looking at them thinking, ‘How can I get their money?’”
Another troubling inquiry involves the silence of well-known oil tycoons. “They all say were friends of the Osage, but they don’t open their mouths while all of this is going on around them,” Bailey added. Finally, oil man Barney McBride arranged a meeting with the Secretary of the Interior in Washington D.C. to debrief him on the string of Osage murders, but before he loosened his lips, he was found dead in a ditch near the nation’s capital.
But there is one lingering issue that haunts Bailey: Is it a coincidence that the Osage murders began the same year as the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921? Bailey is not a big believer in happenstance. He summed up his conclusion, “If you don’t like rich Native Americans, you certainly don’t like rich African Americans.”
Hollywood comes to Osage County
The duplicitous story of Mary Burkhart’s murderous husband and the fate of the Osage people has captured the attention of a nation — and Hollywood. After a highly publicized bidding war for the film rights following more than 49 weeks on The New York Times nonfiction bestseller list, the book is now in production with director Martin Scorsese at the helm and featuring lead actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro.
Bailey is assisting with the production team as they strive to appropriately reflect Osage culture, and he hopes there is one clear message. “I want people to take away how bad the exploitation really was,” he said. “Indian history is not just warfare such as the well-known Battle of the Little Bighorn. The Osage tribe was in a battle; a silent one.”