The Osage Indians are becoming so rich that something will have to be done about it

Mollie (à droite), avec ses sœurs Anna (au centre) et Minnie (courtesy Raymond Red Corn)

On May 24, 1921, Mollie Burkhart, a resident of the Osage settlement town of Gray Horse, Oklahoma, began to fear that something had happened to one of her three sisters, Anna Brown. Thirty-four, and less than a year older than Mollie, Anna had disappeared three days earlier. She had often gone on “sprees,” as her family disparagingly called them: dancing and drinking with friends until dawn. But this time one night had passed, and then another, and Anna had not shown up on Mollie’s front stoop as she usually did, with her long black hair slightly frayed and her dark eyes shining like glass. When Anna came inside, she liked to slip off her shoes, and Mollie missed the comforting sound of her moving, unhurried, through the house. Instead, there was a silence as still as the plains. (p. 11*)

[...] for the Osage every death, every apparent act of God, was now in doubt.
Mollie attended the funeral. She had relinquished her daughter to another family so that she would be safe; now she watched as Little Anna, in her small plain box, disappeared into the grave. There were fewer and fewer Osage who knew the old prayers for the dead. Who would chant every morning at dawn for her? (p. 184*)

During that initial interview, the farmer had seemed to be suffering from dementia: he had stared at the agent blankly. After a while, though, he had perked up. His memory was just fine, he explained; he’d simply wanted to make sure that the investigators were who they said they were. Talking to the wrong person about these murders was liable to get one planted in the ground. (p. 116*)

[...] There was one question that the judge and the prosecutors and the defense never asked the jurors but that was central to the proceedings: Would a jury of twelve white men ever punish another white man for killing an American Indian? (pp. 187-188*)

For Hoover, the Osage murder investigation became a showcase for the modern bureau. As he had hoped, the case demonstrated to many around the country the need for a national, more professional, scientifically skilled force. [...] Hoover created a pristine origin story, a founding mythology in which the bureau, under his direction, had emerged from lawlessness and overcome the last wild American frontier. (pp. 194-195*)

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Summing up the public’s attitude toward the Osage, the Washington Star said, “That lament, ‘Lo the poor Indian,’ might appropriately be revised to, ‘Ho, the rich redskin.’ ” (p. 13*)

Each new auction seemed to surpass the previous one for the record of the highest single bid and the total of millions collected. One lease sold for nearly $2 million, while the highest total collected at an auction climbed to nearly $14 million. A reporter from Harper’s Monthly Magazine wrote, “Where will it end? Every time a new well is drilled the Indians are that much richer.” The reporter added, “The Osage Indians are becoming so rich that something will have to be done about it.” (p. 70*)

Many Osage, unlike other wealthy Americans, could not spend their money as they pleased because of the federally imposed system of financial guardians. (One guardian claimed that an Osage adult was “like a child six or eight years old, and when he sees a new toy he wants to buy it.”) The law mandated that guardians be assigned to any American Indians whom the Department of the Interior deemed “incompetent.” In practice, the decision to appoint a guardian—to render an American Indian, in effect, a half citizen—was nearly always based on the quantum of Indian blood in the property holder, or what a state supreme court justice referred to as “racial weakness.” A full-blooded American Indian was invariably appointed a guardian, whereas a mixed-blood person rarely was. (pp. 71-72*)

He implored Congress to take greater action. “Every white man in Osage County will tell you that the Indians are now running wild,” he said, adding, “The day has come when we must begin our restriction of these moneys or dismiss from our hearts and conscience any hope we have of building the Osage Indian into a true citizen.”
A few congressmen and witnesses tried to mitigate the scapegoating of the Osage. At a subsequent hearing, even a judge who served as a guardian acknowledged that rich Indians spent their wealth no differently than white people with money did. “There is a great deal of humanity about these Osages,” he said. Hale also argued that the government should not be dictating the Osage’s financial decisions.
But in 1921, just as the government had once adopted a ration system to pay the Osage for seized land—just as it always seemed to turn its gospel of enlightenment into a hammer of coercion—Congress implemented even more draconian legislation controlling how the Osage could spend their money. Guardians would not only continue to oversee their wards’ finances; under the new law, these Osage Indians with guardians were also “restricted,” which meant that each of them could withdraw no more than a few thousand dollars annually from his or her trust fund. It didn’t matter if these Osage needed their money to pay for education or a sick child’s hospital bills. (pp. 73-74*)

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“So many Osage lost a mother or a father or a sister or a brother or a cousin. That pain never goes away.”
[...] The historian Burns once wrote, “To believe that the Osages survived intact from their ordeal is a delusion of the mind. What has been possible to salvage has been saved and is dearer to our hearts because it survived. What is gone is treasured because it was what we once were. We gather our past and present into the depths of our being and face tomorrow. We are still Osage. We live and we reach old age for our forefathers.” (pp. 211-212*)

To get a better sense of the decimation, McAuliffe looked at the Authentic Osage Indian Roll Book, which cites the deaths of many of the original allotted members of the tribe. He writes, “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 1,000 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—and those numbers do not include Osages born after 1907 and not listed on the roll.” (pp. 245-246*)

An Osage scholar once observed, “Walking through an Osage cemetery and seeing the gravestones that show the inordinate numbers of young people who died in the period is chilling.” (p. 247*)

“I did not prove who killed my grandmother,” McAuliffe wrote. “My failure was not just because of me, though. It was because they ripped out too many pages of our history….There were just too many lies, too many documents destroyed, too little done at the time to document how my grandmother died.” He added, “A murdered Indian’s survivors don’t have the right to the satisfaction of justice for past crimes, or of even knowing who killed their children, their mothers or fathers, brothers or sisters, their grandparents. They can only guess—like I was forced to.” (p. 248*)

* sur ma liseuse 
David Grann - Killers of the Flower Moon: 
The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (Doubleday, 2017)


  1. Bonjour, je compte bien lire en français cet ouvrage qui vient de paraître en poche. C'est une histoire incroyable et pourtant vraie. Bonne journée.

    1. C'est une vraie bonne idée, cette traduction en français, car c'est une page de l'histoire américaine qu'on ignore trop souvent. Bonne lecture !


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