The Osage Nation and the Killers of the Flower Moon


Native American girl at sunset photo main

The Osage are Great Plains Native Americans whose history as a people is a thousand years old. They suffered many of the trials and tribulations of other Native Americans after their lands became part of the United States. The Osage’s story had an additional wrinkle. They were part of an oil boom. Nonetheless, that led to more opportunities for white corruption and greed, which included a reign of terror. The FBI, a young agency then, helped them obtain some justice. The oil boom ended. The Osage lived on. 

Osage Nation  

The Osage are Native Americans who originated in the Great Plains area. 

Their life as a separate people goes back about a thousand years. The French gave them their name, which means “calm water.” In their language, their name is Wazhazhe, which translates to “people of the middle waters.” The Louisiana Purchase put them on American territory.

President Jefferson was impressed when a delegation came to the White House. Osage warriors typically stood over six feet tall. He said they were the “finest men we have ever seen.” 

Reservations and Allotment  

The history of European interactions was a series of tragedies for Native Americans. 

From the time of the Spanish conquistadors, disease, military conquest, and civilian settlements decimated their people. The Osage soon only retained a fraction of their ancestral land. 

Americans established a policy of pushing Native Americans to live in western reservations, which provided a limited degree of self-rule and retention of tribal life. 

The Dawes Act (1887) intended to break down tribes. The federal government divided tribal lands into small personal “allotments.” Tribes did not hold the land together as one society. White settlers flocked to former tribal lands. Tribal members sold lands to whites. 

Oil Wealth  

The Osage moved to territory in Oklahoma. They had better terms than many Native Americans because they bought the land. They also retained the mineral rights.  

Principal Chief James Bigheart carefully included mineral rights because oil was already known to be on the land. The Osage also negotiated better allotment terms. 

In the early 20th Century, there was an oil boom. Tribal members obtained a “headright,” a personal annuity from the oil wealth. Success, however, became tinged with tragedy. 

Gilded Age 

The economic boom after the Civil War brought corruption and greed. It was the “Gilded Age.” 

The oil boom brought these twin demons mixed with the old standby of white-Native American relations, which was racism. The government did not trust Native Americans with oil wealth. 

White guardians oversaw Native Americans. The Osage repeatedly could not spend their own money.  The white guardians turned out to be the ones who repeatedly showed an inability to be trusted. They repeatedly cheated and stole from their wards. 

The guardians often were the white spouses of the Native Americans. These people also repeatedly abused their trust. A conspiracy arose involving guardians (often bankers), family members, sketchy doctors who helped to poison people, and a range of outlaws. 

Charles Curtis

The Osage tried to use their wealth and influence to obtain justice. One person they lobbied was Sen. Charles Curtis, who was the Senate Majority leader in the mid-1920s. 

His mother was Kaw, Osage, Potawatomi, as well as French. Sen. Curtis was not an ally of traditional Native American interests. He sponsored the Curtis Act, which applied the allotment policy in Oklahoma. It is questionable he helped the Osage much.

Charles Curtis later became President Herbert Hoover’s vice president. Curtis was the first biracial vice president, years before the election of Kamala Harris. 

Killers of the Flower Moon 

The Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann discusses the breadth of the conspiracy. May is the time of the flower-killing moon. Flowers break open. Their petals flutter away.  

The book (and film) focuses on a wealthy cattleman who said he was a friend of the Native Americans. His nephew married a wealthy Osage. Her three sisters and mother all died under suspicious circumstances. Two deaths were definitely murder, including a shooting and a bombed house. Many other deaths occurred. Multiple people who investigated also died.  

The FBI, a young agency in the 1920s, investigated and succeeded after previous local efforts failed. The businessman (William Hale) and nephew (Ernest Burkhart) were convicted. 

Mollie Burkhart, the one surviving sister, survived a poisoning attempt. Some whites helped the Osage to obtain some justice. Nonetheless, hundreds of unsolved murders remain.  

Aftermath 

David Gramm discusses the evidence that the “reign of terror” started before and continued after the prosecutions of Hale and Burkhardt. 

The oil boom ended with the Great Depression. Oil drilling continued into the 21st Century but at a much lesser rate. The Osage Nation’s wealth now is tied to casino gambling.

In 2011, the federal government and Osage Nation settled a long-lasting lawsuit regarding the mismanagement of trust funds. The parties agreed to a three hundred and eighty million settlement. The Osage continue to fight for justice and to uphold their culture. 

The Osage Nation today has over twenty thousand people. They continue to try to live in harmony with the supreme life force known as Wah’Kon-Tah. 

May continues to be the month of the flower moon.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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