There is a lot of discussion and angry opposition to oil consumption and the effects it has environmentally and socially, and justifiably so. I don’t think I need to go into detail about BP and Keystone XL. Pipelines are vocally opposed by Natives and non-Natives alike and some people have being doing something about it, I guess. Not sure how chaining oneself to a bulldozer stops the hydra beast of the oil industry, but it can make us feel good while we sit in jail for a day reciting excerpts from Martin Luther King Jr. speeches. Considering this, I wanted to share a little history on my own tribe’s particular relationship with oil and the social ramifications that occurred because of it. I’ll do my best to appease our short attention spans, and skim over a history that could easily fit inside a 700 page book.
During the roaring 1920’s, the Osage Nation of Oklahoma, came under attack by terrorists. Not the ones stereotyped with scary Islamic beards singing passages out of the Koran; but white-American assassins who more resembled the cast on the movie “O’ Brother Where Art Thou?” Dead presidents and dollar signs were the gods they praised and they were willing to shoot, poison and bomb any Osages who got in the way of their greed. Estimates vary, from 24, 60 to 100 plus Osage men and women whom intermittently lost their lives to this wave of violence that mainly occurred between 1921 and 1925. The majority of the chaos took place around the small town of Fairfax, Oklahoma which is situated near the village of Gray Horse. Eventually some of the perpetrators were caught for their part in some of the killings, while other deaths remain unsolved to this day and written off as “mysterious.”
It was oil money, and lots of it, that made the Osage “Indians” such a prime target for these people. But how did the Osages acquire vast sums of this petroleum laced currency? At a time when other tribes suffered economically, as many still do; how was it that some Osages were able to afford wrecking their Pierce-Arrow cars in ravines and walk away to buy another? I’ll get to that in a little later. But first, some further background on how Osages ended up in Oklahoma where this all took place.
From Kansans to Okies
What we commonly refer to as “Indian Territory” at one time was actually Osage territory which included parts of present-day Kansas, Missouri, Arkansas and Oklahoma. When the U.S. government began their ethnic cleansing campaign of Indian Removal against the various eastern tribes, it was Osage lands they were forced onto. However, the Osage willingness to vehemently defend their lands from European squatters, as well as other Natives, thwarted government plans for an easy removal. Thus, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson gave the go ahead to wage a proxy war against the Osages, by supplying the warriors of the eastern tribes with the provisions, weapons and encouragement to “drive them from their country.” Ironically, tribes such as the Cherokee took to evoking the rhetoric of Manifest Destiny, referring to the Osages as “savages” or “blanket Indians” standing in the way of “civilized” Indians. Eventually, after years of being hemmed in by enemies from all sides and a few outbreaks of diseases such as cholera, the military prowess of the Osage was eroded down. Then through a series of underhanded, “misinterpreted” treaties throughout the 1800’s, they ended up settling on a reservation in southeastern Kansas. Eventually too, this land was becoming overtaken by white immigrants during the 1860’s who began illegally squatting the land despite Osage opposition.
Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems
Due to this illegal immigration, the Osages negotiated a deal to move a little further south into Indian Territory (Oklahoma) in 1870, on their new reservation which they purchased from the Cherokee with funds they acquired after selling their Kansas rez to the U.S. government at $1.25 an acre. This land was reportedly chosen for its rough terrain that was hard to cultivate, which they hoped would keep European-Americans from invading as they did in Kansas. Things could never be so simple however, especially when rivers of crude oil are coursing through the “veins” of their new reservation.
When the time for the allotment came, the Osages sidestepped a lot of its intention and they ultimately had their own allotment act, the “1906 Osage Allotment Act” where the tribe maintained collective ownership of the mineral estate. So when oil was “discovered” all 2,229 tribal members of the time would receive a “head right” which is basically a share in the profits of the oil production. Given the amount of oil being extracted from the ground, many Osages were instantly wealthy being compared to the Saudi Arabians of today. An Osage family of five people could easily rake in $65,000 a year, which is equivalent to the millions in 1920’s dollars. There are stories where Osages would live in big houses but still campout in the front yard, cooking on a fire, or being chauffeured around in cars dressed in the finest fashions of the time. This could be seen as a mixed blessing, as on the one hand, some Osages lived in relative material comfort. On the other, it drew many criminals to the reservation who were looking to take advantage of the Osages and steal their money by a plethora of schemes.
One scam would be for non-Natives to marry Osages, get them drunk and use them up for their money. Some businesses in the town of Pawhuska would charge outrageous prices when Osage customers purchased things. Appointed “guardians” and “lawyers” would skim layers of cash off the top of their Osage client’s cash flow, deeming them too incompetent to handle their own money. Other methods were simply cold blooded and went further. For example, a white woman would marry an Osage man, then he would suddenly die “mysteriously,” then the money acquired from the inherited head right would be shared with her American pimp. Out of all the Osages killed, only a few led to actual arrests.
The main offender of these crimes scholars tend to focus on was a wealthy rancher named William K. Hale, who deemed himself “King of the Osage Hills.” Far from being the only one responsible, his story receives a lot of attention because he was one of a few who were actually charged with these kinds of attacks on Osages.This Texan, who drifted in one day, decided he could acquire wealth by contriving murder plots against Osage head right holders, involving his nephews and a few other local outlaws.
According to the investigation of the feds, Hale had ordered the killing of Rita Smith, an Osage woman, and her white husband, Bill, both of whom were killed when a bomb blew up their house in Fairfax. Rita was instantly killed, and Bill died a few days later from his injuries. Their “maid” Nettie Brookshire was also instantly killed in this terrorist attack. Implicated in this attack were Ernest Burkhart, John Ramsey, Asa Kirby and Henry Grammar. Ernest Burkhart, was convicted in this attack for the murder of Bill Smith (not Rita or Nettie) and sentenced to life in McAlester Penitentiary in Oklahoma. In 1929, William K. Hale and John Ramsey were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas for the murder of another Osage at a different time; that of Henry Roan who was found shot to death. His accomplices, Kirby and Grammar, were found dead under “suspicious” circumstances shortly after they bombed the Smith residence. Out of all the killings, these were the instances where anyone actually did time for their crimes.
These Boys Are Hereby Pardoned!
For that moment, it would seem justice was “served” but in typical American fashion, this would be short lived. William K. Hale was inexplicably pardoned from a life sentence by President Harry S. Truman in 1947. Ernest Burkhart, was ultimately pardoned by Oklahoma Governor Henry Bellmon in 1965. These instances speak volumes to the “good ol’ boy” network’s effectiveness in overlooking the most heinous crimes, especially when Natives are the victims. Given this history, it isn’t any wonder that Oklahoma today, is a state that is antagonistic toward Native self-determination and begrudgingly recognizes the fragmented “sovereignty” Natives do have, so long as we are treated more like subdivisions of Oklahoma than actual separate nations. Although these particular murders were somewhat “answered” for, if you can call it that, there are still many Osages whose deaths remain unsolved from this time. Ultimately, the passage of a federal law in 1925, prevented non-Osages from inheriting the head right money of their Osage spouses.
This writing is not meant to condemn all European-Americans for the actions of a few, but to discuss two things that become apparent when understanding this history. 1.) There is a continual occurrence in this society where acts of terrorism committed by whites are not entirely subject to the same labeling and analysis of the same acts committed by non-whites. Sure Timothy McVeigh was called an “American Terrorist” after he blew up the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City. But the difference in the social fallout between his heinous act and those committed by so-called “Islamic Terrorists” is clean cut white boys in crew cuts didn’t have to worry about getting beaten in the streets on their way home, or having their businesses get a brick thrown through the window and get told to “Go back to England!” 2.) There are detrimental impacts a system based on greed and the exploitation of finite resources can have on communities, particularly those Indigenous people with more ties to their land base. What happened in Osage territory during the 1920’s is the epitome of the measures people can, and will go to, in order to acquire vast amounts of currency. As seen with the recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, it is nothing new to terrorize a group of people in order to gain access to their resources.
Today, Osage people continue to move forward and celebrate their culture in the face of many obstacles, as can be seen with the language revitalization program and other initiatives. But the events of the “Reign of Terror” should be a reminder of what should not occur ever again. If anything, they are, in my opinion, a testament to the resilience of a people subjected to the worse greed Americans had to offer, as well as a reason to question the overall system we live under where a death warrant can be issued for a community when they happen to live in close proximity to much desired resources.
“Terror’s Legacy”. Christian, Jason. 14th Aug. 2013. http://thislandpress.com/08/14/2013/terrors-legacy/?page_num=1
The Osage Nation of Indians vs. United States. Indian Claims Commission. Lewis, Meriwether, Personal Communication, July 1st, 1808, Letter to Secretary of War Gen. Dearborne.
“Little Squatter on the Osage Diminished Reserve: Reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Kansas Indians”, Kaye, Frances W., Great Plains Quarterly. Paper 23.