Thursday, June 22, 2017
Book Review: Killers of the Flower Moon
Even if you're just passing through, you'll likely stumble on places in northern Oklahoma and southern Kansas where history is writ large in abandoned downtowns, some of them featuring four-story buildings in outright disrepair and remarkable therefore for ghostly impression of what once was. Oil made those place big and muscular, and oil, when it died, shut 'em down. Today, they're big cemeteries, people still make a life there, but not as many as once did.
The difference between dying small towns in the upper Midwest and their counterparts in oil country is that up here people never were particularly wealthy. In Kansas and Oklahoma, where gushers bullied their way up from the earth, people were. Some at least. But no more.
In Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann tells a story that out-perplexes most murder mysteries, a story so not-to-be-believed that most readers might think the book came off the fiction shelf. But it's not a novel; it's narrative non-fiction, and the tale it documents is not only spell-binding, it's devastating.
I don't know about others, but once upon a time I thought all the Native people who ended up in Oklahoma were banished there. Many were. Most were, in fact. American history has more Trails-of-Tears than a Rand McNally. But some tribes went voluntarily to Indian Territory, took it upon themselves to take up residence there. Beaten by disease and loss of tribal lands and heritage, they took up residence in the Oklahoma Territory in order to survive. The Osage, for instance, once the dominant people on the central Plains, bought land from the Cherokee, land they chose because they assumed no white folks would ever want it enough to take it away.
They were wrong. Then there was oil. Which is to say, money. Gobs and gobs of it, more money than anyone needs, more money than the Osage people knew what to do with, so much, in fact, that white people helped them--by law. White folks decreed that in order for the Osage to get the money they earned simply by owning the land where oil was discovered, they had to employ white people to handle it. You read that right.
Even though the story David Grann tells in Killers of the Flower Moon isn't something he uncovered, I dare say it is, to the vast majority of Americans, totally unknown. At least it was to me. I knew some things about the Osage, had been on their reservation. I knew of their 18th and early 19th century strength, about the diseases that devastated them, knew how they got kicked around the region by the Feds and the Rebels during the Civil War. I even knew they got rich when oil gurgled up one morning in the 1890s.
What I didn't know is the ways white people designed to get that wealth; and then, more greedy, systematically murdered the Osage to get every last bit of what bubbled to the top of the ground no one else ever wanted. Murder, in a dozen different ways. Murder by husbands who killed their spouses, the mothers of their children. Murder, for nothing less than the love of money.
Local authorities were powerless to stanch the blood because local authorities were part of the conspiracy of death. There's another story in Killers of the Flower Moon, and that's the story of the development of the fledgling FBI, a story in which justice could be served only by way of federal intervention. That's right--only the feds could bring people to justice.
It's a devastating story, full of grief and pathos. Read it, and you may not pull on those red Trump caps quite as proudly. What you will hear is the awful truth about the roots of the love of money.
Posted by J. C. Schaap at 6:57 AM