Where to start?
I just finished reading Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. I thought first about people I know—people of Osage blood—who are indeed “lucky to be here” in light of what happened in Osage County, Oklahoma in the first decades of the twentieth century.
And then “Osage Outrage” came to mind, as what started out as a novel-paced mystery became a litany of lies, deceit, greed, and cold-blooded murder. A novelist would not have left as many dangling unanswered questions, or so many people dead.
Finally, thoughts that could not be as easily captured in a few words came to mind: “It is a question in my mind,” said an Osage Tribal member prior to trial, “whether this jury is considering a murder case or not. The question for them to decide is whether a white man killing an Osage is murder—or merely cruelty to animals.”
“America’s original sin” came to mind. I remembered the first Europeans, Columbus’s crew, having to go to the Pope to decide whether new world people were indeed humans, possessed of souls, or some lower form of life. But three hundred years had passed from the time of the Papal Bull, which said that Indians did indeed have souls (and were thus capable of conversion), and the murders of scores—maybe hundreds—of Osage Indians in the pursuit of wealth. Were the killings mere evil deeds in pursuit of gold—or were they a continuing statement by White America that American Indians are lesser humans, or not humans at all?
I first heard bits of the story from the poet Elise Paschen, the daughter of prima ballerina Maria Tallchief. Tallchief was born in Oklahoma, the daughter of an Osage Indian father, and went from there to the world stage. Elise was at Fishtrap because she is a fine poet, and we were celebrating Indian writers that year. We called the celebration “Circling Back.” Elise read her poems, a couple of which hinted at the dark Osage past, and in conversation said that there was much more to learn and tell.
Sandy Osawa, the fine documentary filmmaker, who is Makah and was raised on that reservation in Washington, was at that Summer Fishtrap. Sandy produced an early morning NBC show on Indians in the mid-70s, and is now a highly regarded documentary filmmaker. Her credits include: In the Heart of Big Mountain, focusing on Navajo matriarch Kathrine Smith; Pepper’s Powwow, the story of Kaw-Muscogee jazz saxophonist Jim Pepper; and Lighting the Seventh Fire, a film about Chippewa spearfishing rights in Wisconsin.
Sandy and Elise became friends, and in 2007 Sandy released Maria Tallchief, which has been shown on PBS stations across the country.
The film mentions, but does not explore in depth, the Osage murders. In Killers of the Flower Moon, author David Grann does. It is a wicked story, beginning with government displacement of Indians, moving to oil discovery on the scrubby lands given the Osage, chronicling the extraordinary wealth of the Osage (the “wealthiest county in America,” for a time); exploring racial attitudes in Oklahoma and the country in the early 20th century, and then following the greed of a few white men—a trickle of evildoers that became a river of corruption and destruction. Reading it was a journey from interest through disbelief to disgust. I set it down sick to my stomach.
But the Osage survive. Maria Tallchief survived to give pleasure to millions as a dancer; her daughter Elise Paschen—we might call her a second generation Osage survivor—survives to give voice to Indian stories; and my friend Nancy Crenshaw, whose father was born on the Osage Reservation in the time of the murders, teaches the children of Wallowa County and, with her teacher son and a growing group of local community members, works with the Nez Perce towards reconciliation of white and Indian in their traditional Wallowa homeland.
Elise and Nancy are really “lucky to be here.” The woman or man murdered could have been grandfather or father rather than aunt, grandmother or mother rather than uncle. And we of course, are lucky too, richer—and not in oil or gold—for their survival.
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