The Great Indian Oil Days

In the American western surge, native Indians were in the way. They were killed in battle, moved from place to place, confined in reservations on less desirable land. But one tribe – the Osage – lucked out. The barren soil it was forced to inhabit in Oklahoma had a hidden treasure beneath – oil. For a few exhilarating years in the 1920’s, the Indians lived like white men and then some, arguably the richest people in the country until as luck would have it – or fate – the whites took it all away.

This story is told by journalist David Grann in “Killers of the Flower Moon,” which not only documents the travail of the Osage but also the effort by the fledgling FBI to bring justice to the Indians. Once President Thomas Jefferson purchased the Louisiana territory, he promised the Osage a bright future. It didn’t work out as they, along with other tribes, were forcibly moved from one place to another until they finally felt safe in a rocky, infertile area about the size of today’s Delaware.

With considerable foresight, Osage chiefs managed to slip into their treaty subsurface mineral rights, and then it happened. Oil was struck, more and more of it until the tribe became in today’s dollars multi-millionaires. They reacted accordingly, buying fleets of cars with chauffeurs, hiring servants, many of whom were whites. With less foresight, they also started marrying whites, who were less interested in love than money and had no hesitation to betray and kill their spouses.

At a time of lawlessness in the untamed west, all kinds of predators poured into the area, grabbed as much money as they could and systematically shot, poisoned and, on one occasion, bombed the vulnerable Osage. Initially, the national press didn’t take much interest in the story since Indians were not held in high regard, much as today’s slaughter of Mexicans by the drug cartels is largely unreported. But one new U.S agency did take an interest – the FBI under its ambitious director J. Edgar Hoover.

He had his work cut out for him. It was hard to distinguish the law abiding from the lawless, and that was true of the FBI as well. You took your chances with recruits. He did hit on a Texas Ranger of rock-solid integrity, Tom White, who with courage and persistence managed to put some of the miscreants in prison, though he paid for it with a near fatal attack.

Returning in recent years to the Osage, author Grann found no sign of its short-lived prosperity. The oil is mostly depleted, and seven casinos now provide a livelihood. The U.S. Government did settle a lawsuit for $380 million to compensate for mismanaged oil funds. Grann, meanwhile, is still trying to unravel the murders of close to a century ago. For all they know, descendants of victims and assailants alike may be living side by side with no hard feelings.

Pauline J. Allred, who at 87 has lived all her life with the Osage, tells me occasional murders today are a reminder of the tempestuous 1920s. A historian at the Osage Nation Museum, she notes these memories are kept alive. But nothing pitiful about us, she insists, noting with pride all her thriving relatives in the tribe. We are fortunate to live as we do, she says. There is a garden today, and it is the Osage.

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