Tuesday 15 October 2019

Killers of the Flower Moon review - No country for Osage tribe in history of deadly greed


Killers of the Flower Moon

David Grann Simon & Schuster

Hdbk, 291 pages, €28

Search for justice: David Grann chronicles how the FBI earned its stripes with the Osage case
Search for justice: David Grann chronicles how the FBI earned its stripes with the Osage case
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

In the blood-drenched annals of human history, has any people been more grievously wronged than American Indians? Jews, possibly, but Native Americans would run them a close second: their mistreatment, since Columbus landed, has been atrocious.

This isn't some inane "white people are evil" rant, and I don't necessarily buy that whole Dances with Wolves notion of the noble, pure-of-heart aboriginal. I'm sure if they'd had transatlantic ships and gunpowder first, Native Americans wouldn't have hesitated to colonise Europe.

Yet the fact remains that they didn't, and were themselves brutally subjugated by invaders, their cultures virtually annihilated throughout the American continents. And as David Grann reveals in this really fine book, that has continued right up to modern times. Author of The Lost City of Z - recently adapted as a movie - the New Yorker takes an absolutely fascinating story and tells it very well, with clarity and economy.

It's a story as old as civilisation itself: greed, power, murder, exploitation, hatred. But the better angels of our nature are also to be found here: courage, idealism, compassion, love, and loyalty.

In the early 1920s, the Osage Indians of Oklahoma were per capita the richest people on earth. They'd been forced to leave their homeland - the US government breaking yet another treaty - in the late 19th century, and migrated to land bought from the Cherokee nation.

Dusty, dry, seemingly useless for agriculture, the area which became Osage County was affordable. More importantly, settlers didn't want it.

Then, in a delicious twist of historical irony around the turn of the century, oil was found: vast, endless underground oceans of it. Because the Osage had purchased the land outright, and not been "gifted" it by Washington, they couldn't be moved on again.

They allowed oilmen to drill on their property, for a fee, distributed communally by the tribe. These "headrights" delivered a handsome annual stipend, allowing the Osage to live like kings.

Meanwhile, some whites looked on with envy and avarice. Beginning here with the shooting of hard-living Osage Anna Burkhart - though as we subsequently discover, she was not the first victim - dozens of Indians were killed, in a variety of ways.

The authorities investigated in a predictably, depressingly half-assed manner. Either they were racist to the natives, or had been paid off, or simply didn't care.

Enter the FBI. The Feds were then known simply as the Bureau of Investigation, and had a thrusting new boss: one J Edgar Hoover. The classic bureaucrat, and a very weird guy, Hoover wanted the Osage case solved to improve the Bureau's image - though in fairness, there was some element of wanting to see justice done, too.

Now enter Tom White: a classic, old-style Wild West lawman, and a decent, honourable man, who set about discovering who was killing the Osage and why. Of course - no spoiler alerts needed here - it came down to "follow the money".

Some of the guilty were apprehended, some not. In a chilling coda to the book, Grann tells us that, not only did some murders go unavenged, but the violence had gone on for much longer than anyone realised at the time.

Killers of the Flower Moon is in part a history of how the FBI earned its stripes and became America's first nationwide law-enforcement agency. But it's mostly a paean to the brave few who stood up for what was right, and a lament for the victims: both individuals killed over oil, and an entire race (actually, of course, it's many different races) who suffered terrible iniquities for centuries.

Insisting on "white guilt" over historical crimes is pointless, unmerited and ideological to the point of idiocy. But there's no harm feeling a deep empathy for these people - their sorrows and losses should really be the world's sorrows and losses, too.

Darragh McManus's novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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