Nonfiction – audiobook. Read by Will Patton, Ann Marie Lee, and Danny Campbell. Random House Audio, 2017. 9 hours, 4 minutes. Library copy.
Prior to the Great Depression of the 1930s, a tribe of Native Americans known as the Osage were among the richest people in the United States. Their wealth was derived from the oil under their tribal lands in Oklahoma; lands they were pushed onto from Kansas and other Plains states by white settlers and the American government.
The descendants of those white settlers became envious of the wealth of the Osage, and many of them began insisting to both the federal and the state government that the Osage were unequipped to manage to their own wealth due to their race. At the behest of these white Americans, Congress passes a law instructing the Bureau of Indian Affairs to put the Osage people into a system of trusts and wards where whites serve as their guardians and, therefore, control their finances.
The system was rife with abuse, and Grann documents several examples of white Oklahomans selling goods and homes to the Osage at inflated prices in order to pocket the difference. One court-appointed guardian refused to pay for a doctor to examine a sick Osage child, insisting to the child’s mother that all the money in her account was gone due to her careless spending. (He had spent the money on himself and his family.)
But the problem didn’t capture national attention until the newly formed Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) began investigating a series of suspicious deaths amid the Osage. Among the dead were two individuals who were shot, three who were killed in a bombed home, and one elderly woman who may have been poisoned. The common threads between these crimes are their tribal membership and their relationship to one Osage woman named Mollie Burkhart, whom the FBI – lead by former Texas Ranger Tom White – immediately began to focus their attention on.
The American Thanksgiving holiday is wrapped up in a lot of myths about and whitewashing of the relationship between Native Americans and white settlers. Most Americans are taught that Native Americans shared a bountiful harvest with the Pilgrims in modern-day Massachusetts and, thus, Americans celebrate Thanksgiving every Thanksgiving. (Never mind that Lincoln set the date for November, and F.D.R. moved it its current date in the 1930s.)
Without the Native Americans, the settlers would have likely died that first winter and the settlement/colonization of the Americans would have been delayed. (Not stopped, but certainly delayed.) Yet this gesture on the part of the Native Americans didn’t stop the settlers – and their decedents – from viewing Native Americans as savages and moving to capture their land. And the enduring image of two peoples breaking bread together doesn’t stop the stereotyping of Native Americans or the exploitation of their lands from occurring today.
I mentioned all this because it seems almost poetic that my dad and I listened to the audiobook version of Grann’s book about the murder of the Osage on our drive from Utah to southern California for Thanksgiving. I didn’t plan for the timing to work out the way it did. I had seen the audiobook at the library, knew people who had raved about, and decided it would be perfect solely because it would cover nearly the entire drive.
Turns out it was perfect because it offered an informative history lesson for my father and me. Not an easy feat given how my father and I are both huge history buffs! My dad had heard about the Osage murders thanks to a fictional movie from the 1950s, but he didn’t know about the political and governmental apparatuses working to control their wealth. And those apparatuses became rather poignant as we thought about our family, which is another focus of the Thanksgiving holiday.
At one point, when Grann was detailing how the poorer, white Oklahomans resented the Osage because of their material wealth, my dad mentioned that he wished he could ask his deceased mother about the Osage. She grew up in Oklahoma hating Indians and carried that racism with her for her entire life, yet it’s never been clear to me as to why. Perhaps she was – or her parents were – jealous of the Osage wealth?
I’ll admit that as interesting as I found Grann’s book, I did nod off at two points while listening to the audiobook. And I wasn’t a huge fan of the first male narrator who often rushed out long sentences without taking a breath. But, overall, I can understand why this book has received so much praise and add my own voice to the chorus.
Grann’s book was a finalist for the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2017.