Brutality and Betrayal: a Review of Killers of the Flower Moon

After it’s won so many awards, another Killers of the Flower Moon review might not be necessary, but if it convinces you to read it I’ve done my job. The book blipped onto my radar after winning the Indies Choice Book Awards for nonfiction, and minutes after I used my Audible credit to get the audiobook I was riveted. I’d recommend the audiobook, but the physical book is also great because it includes a lot of photos of real people involved in the case.

Mollie Burkhart and the “Reign of Terror”

In the 1920s, the Osage Indians lost tribe members to several execution-style murders. The murders expanded from three to over 24 in less than five years. Finally, the fledgling Federal Bureau of Investigation sent in Special Agent Tom White at the urging of the Osage. White must swim upstream against conspirators and corrupt officials to hunt the killers–all the while trying to appease J. Edgar Hoover’s ego.

That is, of course, a gross oversimplification of what the Osage still call the “reign of terror.” This era probably claimed far, far more than 24 people. And while the FBI bragged about its results, they also overlooked years…and years…and years…of related unsolved murders.

Mollie Burkhart, an Osage woman married to a white man named Ernest Burkhart, anchors the story. Mollie’s family members all suffered during the string of shootings, poisonings, and bombings. Even after horrible losses, Mollie persists and insists on justice as her world falls apart.

Connecting true crime and historic injustice

If you’ve read books that really confront the United States’ inhumanity toward Native Americans, it probably wasn’t in school. At best, schoolchildren learn a sanitized version of the “bygone” customs and clothing of whoever lived in the land they occupy.

We also rarely hear about how tribes struggled to survive in a changing American landscape. And we definitely don’t hear about anything in school that happened to Native Americans within the last hundred years or so. That’s way too embarrassing.

Killers of the Flower Moon is the first major book written about this “reign of terror,” and author David Grann has worked for years to uncover what even the FBI didn’t bother to investigate.

To check out the Indian Country Media Network’s interview of David Grann about the book, click here.

Full grown adults with “guardians”

The Osage tribe once ranged across the midwest in what is now Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, and Arkansas. Over time, the tribe conceded more and more land to the United States (instead of getting slaughtered for it). During one of the final concessions to the US, however, the Osage were smart enough to secure a clause claiming the oil deposits on their land even after it was sold off to white settlers.

When the oil boom hit in the late 1910s, the Osage’s land became the richest in the world. But editorials from the time proved that there were sinister sour grapes about the Osage’s newfound wealth. Local and national officials quickly made laws that the Osage were not allowed to spend their own money without authorization from a white “guardian.” Spouses and best friends of the Osage people often acted as their guardians. You might think that these “friends” would let their Osage “wards” have as much independence as possible.

But racism runs deep. And when money is involved, no relationship is too sacred for appalling betrayal.

When you’re watching Discovery ID, what do you think when someone takes out a million dollar life insurance policy on someone? Now imagine if in the 20s, a few white adults control the fortunes of several Native people each. What does that incentivize? Definitely finding the fastest way to a mind-boggling payout.

Step away from the wiki

Sure. You could look up the crimes on Wikipedia right now, but it’s really worth waiting to read Grann’s book. He’s respectful to the victims and their families and able to set up suspense that makes you audibly gasp in public. Be warned: he never, ever cuts away from the physical and emotional brutality.

While Killers of the Flower Moon is entertaining, it’s not titillating. For anyone with even the littlest bit of compassion, the story is infuriating, vivid, and emotionally devastating. And it’s important for more people to learn of the horrors that went down not even 100 years ago.