Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Osage Murders

The Osage are an Indian tribe that originally controlled much of the territory bought by Thomas Jefferson as the Louisiana Purchase: Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri and the lands west to the Rockies. But despite the usual white promises, the Osage were soon forced to give up most of these traditional hunting lands and settle for a much smaller area of southeast Kansas. This ‘homeland’ lasted for a time, but, as always, settler encroachment forced the Osage to sell their Kansas lands as well (for $1.25 an acre to white settlers), and purchase rocky land unsuitable for farming in “Indian Territory” that would eventually become Oklahoma. The towns of Grayhorse and Pawhuska grew up in this Osage territory, and especially after the 1893 race for free land (made famous in the musical Oklahoma), white settlers began to invade even this inhospitable terrain. Oklahoma settlement might have signaled an end to the Osage but for some clever dealing by tribal representatives James Bigheart and John Palmer, who managed to persuade the U.S. government not only to legally parcel out the Osage land to individual members of the tribe (657 acres each), but to include in Osage rights any “oil, gas, coal or other minerals covered by the land.” This 1906 allotment made the Osage rich—for not long after Oklahoma became the 46th state in 1907, rich oil deposits were discovered in those once-unpromising Osage lands. With major oil companies bidding for drilling rights, their ownership of “headrights” beneath their parcels made the Osage wealthy—by all accounts the wealthiest group of people in the world at the time.
            This wealth was a mixed blessing. Though initially the Osage could and did buy whatever they wanted, from mansions to fancy cars, their money attracted the worst hustlers America had to offer. This included a paternalistic U.S. Congress, which added its devilry by deciding to “care for” these unsophisticated Indians, assigning them “guardians” to (ostensibly) protect their wealth. In a 1921 law, Congress not only empowered guardians to oversee their Osage ward’s finances, but severely restricted the amount each Indian could withdraw from his or her funds to an annual pittance. This accorded with the government’s estimate that all Indians had an inborn “racial weakness” that made them incompetent to manage their money. As one guardian put it, an Osage adult was “like a child six or eight years old, and when he sees a new toy he wants to buy it” (78).
            It is this guardian system that David Grann puts at the heart of his shocking tale of Osage murders, Killers of the Flower Moon (2017). For in whatever way they could, white settlers in and around Osage territory flocked to the area to figure out how to fleece these wealthy Indians, legally or otherwise. Some, like Ernest Burkhart, married Osage women like Mollie (originally Wah-kon-tah-he-um-pah), and became her guardian. Mollie’s mother Lizzie and her sister Anna, also had white guardians, while her sister Minnie was married to Bill Smith, until Minnie suddenly “died” mysteriously, after which Smith married Mollie’s other sister Rita. As for Mollie’s husband, Ernest Burkhart, he was conveniently the nephew of the wealthiest white man around Pawhuska, William T. Hale. All of them would figure in the series of strange deaths and murders which make up the main tale.
            Essentially, William Hale was the inspiration behind the more than twenty-four deaths of Mollie Burkhart’s family and relations, in a diabolical and long-running scheme to get control of those valuable Osage “headrights.” So what we have is yet another example of the rape and theft of Native American possessions that began almost immediately with the English settlement of New England and moved west as the American continent expanded all the way to the Pacific Ocean, and beyond. Settlers would arrive in a newly opened territory, find Indians blocking their ability to grab the new land, and call for the United States military to clear the pesky Indians out. As noted above, the Oklahoma territory was supposed to be a more or less permanent home for Indians displaced from the East. But like every other safe haven, Oklahoma land was lusted after by always encroaching white settlers, and when abundant and accessible oil was discovered, the encroachment turned to outright murder. At first, of course, the murders were somehow left unsolved by what passed for local law enforcement. But around the mid-1920s, the FBI established an Oklahoma field office in Oklahoma City, and put an ex-Texas Ranger named Tom White in charge of it, specifically to solve the growing catalogue of Osage murders. White and his investigators met the usual resistance from locals, but eventually uncovered a web of collusion that included the countless guardians swindling (and/or murdering) Indians in every way they could, local law enforcement and judges covering it up, medical doctors falsifying death certificates, and the guiding hand of the area’s most prominent citizen, William T. Hale, directing it all. As Grann notes, “One government study estimated that before 1925 guardians had pilfered at least $8 million directly from the restricted accounts of their Osage wards” (154). That’s $8 million in 1920s dollars.
            Eventually, White and his agents were able to ferret out the schemes and those behind the murders in Mollie Burkhart’s family, though Mollie herself had a difficult time believing that the man she had married and loved, Ernest Burkhart, was colluding with his uncle to swindle her and murder her relatives. But she saw the light and went into seclusion while the FBI brought the perpetrators to trial in the summer of 1926. Even then, William Hale was confident he’d never be convicted; he controlled nearly all the law enforcement and political power in the area. And that became a central question: given the attitude of white settlers towards Indians, could or would a jury of twelve white men ever punish a white man for killing an American Indian? An Osage tribe member put it succinctly:
            “It is a question in my mind 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” (215).

That very question hangs over the entire history of the treatment of indigenous peoples by white settlers in the New World, and it is quite clear from the record that for most of that history, Native Americans were not considered human at all. Indeed, it could be argued that they were considered less than animals. And that is the thinking behind the ability of a whole culture in Oklahoma, even into the twentieth century, to collude in the twenty-four murders of Mollie Burkhart’s family, and the hundreds and hundreds more that subsequent research has turned up. In the trial in question, however, the question was soon answered: on August 20, 1926, the trial of William Hale and his accomplice James Ramsey ended in a hung jury. Twelve white men in Oklahoma could not convict a white man of the murder of an Osage Indian. Fortunately, in this case, the prosecutors filed for another trial, and this one—benefiting from the direct testimony of Ernest Burkhart himself, who had earlier been found guilty of blowing up his sister-in-law’s house while she was inside—ended differently. On October 29, the jury found William Hale and John Ramsey guilty of first-degree murder, and the judge sentenced them to life in prison. Then, five years later, without the corrupting influence of William Hale, Mollie Burkhart (now divorced from Ernest Burkhart and married to John Cobb) won her case to be freed of guardianship: she was “restored to competency, and the order heretofore made adjudging her to be an incompetent person is hereby vacated” (229).
            Grann goes on to explore the case further, and finds that the murders solved by the FBI (J. Edgar Hoover publicized the case relentlessly as an example of his bureau’s efficiency) were only the tip of a very large iceberg. A relation of one murdered Osage Indian, a reporter at the Washington Post, investigated the murder of his grandmother in a book called The Deaths of Sybil Bolton (1994). Dennis McAuliffe therein wrote of the real scale of the Osage murders:

            “Over the sixteen-year period from 1907 to 1923, 605 Osages died, averaging about 38 per year, an annual death rate of about 19 per 1,000. The national death rate now is about 8.5 per 1,000; in the 1920s, when counting methods were not so precise and the statistics were segregated into white and black racial categories, it averaged almost 12 per 1000 for whites. By all rights, their higher standard of living should have brought the Osages a lower death rate than America’s whites. Yet Osages were dying at more than one-and-a-half times the national rate…” (283)

Louis F. Burns, an Osage historian, wrote that “I don’t know of a single Osage family which didn’t lose at least one family member because of the head rights” (283), while Garrick Bailey, an anthropologist specializing in Osage culture said that “…virtually every element of society was complicit in the murderous system.”
            In sum, the Osage murders provide a stunning example of a racially-charged history that Americans have never fully come to terms with. Not only could white Americans not bear the presence of Native Americans on lands they coveted for their own (and which they obtained for nothing), they could bear even less the spectacle of their inferiors possessing the goods and wealth that they venerated as inerrant signs of mental and moral and spiritual worth. The only solution was to set upon these wealthy Indians in every way possible so as to rape them of that which threatened to allow them to “pass” as human. Not even murder was off limits for such a project; for murder and genocide had been the core of the project, the preferred solution of the “civilized” invaders, from the very beginning.

Lawrence DiStasi

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