We will never escape the shadow of our nation’s willfully ignored founding sin: the decimation of North America’s indigenous peoples. This historical obscenity — and its contemporary heritage of suffering — are worth keeping in mind when reading “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI,’’ David Grann’s investigation into the serial killings of tribal members in the early 20th century. Why keep this history in mind? Unless one remains mindful of this ongoing brutality, Grann’s book, a masterful work of literary journalism crafted with the urgency of a mystery, could seduce readers into believing that violence against Native Americans was as unique as the tale told in “Flower Moon’’ rather than a continuing national habit.
“Killers of the Flower Moon’’ explores a dolorous period when the “world’s richest people per capita were becoming the world’s most murdered.” Between 1921 and 1926, at least two dozen Osage were slain. Some were shot, some poisoned. In one instance, a house was dynamited. People were thrown off trains. Witnesses were intimidated. At one point, Grann writes, “All efforts to solve the mystery had faltered. Because of anonymous threats, the justice of the peace was forced to stop convening inquests into the latest murders.” Even without these threats, the investigations were undertaken with a certain indifference anyway because, as Grann shows, white authorities had little interest in crimes whose victims were not white.
But why a rash of murders? The Osage’s wealth.
In the early 20th century, the United States broke up much of the remaining Indian land in order to create the state of Oklahoma. During negotiations, the Osage managed to keep much of their land and secure a provision stating that “ . . . the oil, gas, coal, or other minerals covered by the lands . . . are hereby reserved to the Osage Tribe.” Soon thereafter, vast oil deposits were discovered. Each Osage received a “head right,” or share, of the tribe’s mineral trust. Although members of the tribe could sell their land, head rights could only be passed along through inheritance. Non-Osage could be designated beneficiaries.
That may feel like excessive detail, but the mechanisms of inheritance catalyzed the murders. In short, white men would win the trust of Native Americans — particularly women — and then kill them. Grann forensically recreates many of the circumstances around many of these deaths. Often tribe members would be tricked into signing wills or guardianship papers by whites whom they viewed as trustworthy just before being driven into the hills and shot, their bodies left to be discovered weeks later.
Alongside the murders, Grann tells an FBI origin story. J. Edgar Hoover personally dispatched Tom White, one of the book’s few honorable whites, to investigate. It was no easy task as White’s “. . . work [was] more akin to espionage than to criminal investigation. There were moles and double agents and possible triple agents.” Yet working with his select crew, White chips away at the mystery, ultimately unmasking the agents of death. Alongside the difficulties of investigating the sprawling criminal conspiracy (murder was only the most heinous of the crimes committed against the Osage), White had to contend with Hoover’s ego. The FBI chief staked much of his reputation on his promise to solve the Osage murders, this despite his tendency to care more about his bureaucratic network than justice. Any conviction was fine with him as long as the world viewed the FBI as the personification of professionalism.
Grann, New Yorker mainstay and author of the delicious “Lost City of Z,’’ is the rare magazine writer with name recognition. His bylines are events. It’s not the stories Grann finds — though he always finds the best stories — as much as his artful composition. He usually offers a beguiling reversal. “Killers of the Flower Moon’’ contains several, and in fairness we won’t divulge any of those details here. Suffice it to say that it’s a tangled tale. Grann also discovers new evidence and advances our knowledge of the Osage murders while arguing that justice will forever elude the tribe.
Contained within Grann’s mesmerizing storytelling lies something more than a brisk, satisfying read. “Killers of the Flower Moon’’ offers up the Osage killings as emblematic of America’s relationship with its indigenous peoples and the “culture of killing” that has forever marred that tie.
KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON:
The Osage Murders and
the Birth of the FBI
By David Grann
Doubleday, 352 pp., illustrated, $28.95Michael Washburn is director of programs at Humanities New York and the author of the forthcoming “Southern Accents.’’ He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org