It's not every year that a nonfiction book tops our year-end list, but David Grann's true-if-largely-unknown tale of big oil and serial murder on the Osage Indian Reservation in the 1920s is so enthralling (and disturbing) that it was an easy and a unanimous choice—two words that rarely describe our process. Here's our interview with Grann from his visit to our offices shortly following the book's release in April, 2017.
In the 1920s, the Osage found themselves in a unique position among Native Americans tribes. As other tribal lands were parceled out in an effort by the government to encourage dissolution and assimilation of both lands and culture, the Osage negotiated to maintain the mineral rights for their corner of Oklahoma, creating a kind of “underground reservation.” It proved a savvy move; soon countless oil rigs punctured the dusty landscape, making the Osage very rich. And that’s when they started dying.
You’d think the Osage Indian Reservation murders would have been a bigger story, one as familiar as the Lindbergh kidnapping or Bonnie and Clyde. It has everything, but at scale: Execution-style shootings, poisonings, and exploding houses drove the body count to over two dozen, while private eyes and undercover operatives scoured the territory for clues. Even as legendary and infamous oil barons vied for the most lucrative leases, J. Edgar Hoover’s investigation – which he would leverage to enhance both the prestige and power of his fledgling FBI - began to overtake even the town’s most respected leaders.
Exhuming the massive amount of detail is no mean feat, and it’s even harder to make it entertaining. But journalist David Grann knows what he’s doing. With its obsessive attention to fact in service to storytelling, Killers of the Flower Moon reads like narrative-nonfiction as written by James M. Cain (there are, after all, insurance policies involved): smart, taut, and gripping. Most sobering, though, is how the tale is at once unsurprising yet unbelievable, full of the arrogance, audacity, and inhumanity that continues to echo through today’s headlines.
It's been a busy April for Grann: The Amazon Studios film adaptation of The Lost City of Z - his account of one man's obsessive quest to find a legendary civilization buried in the South American jungle, starring Charlie Hunnam, Robert Pattinson, and Sienna Miller - opened to rave reviews in Los Angeles. Following the red carpet-premiere, Grann stopped by our offices for a quick chat about both projects. The following is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation. Killers of the Flower Moon is top 10 pick for Amazon's Best Books of the Month.
Amazon Book Review: How did you come to story behind Killers of the Flower Moon?
David Grann: I first came across the story in 2011 - an historian mentioned it to me. I was very shocked that I had never heard about the murders, never heard that the Osage had been the richest people in the world and that they'd been serially murdered, and that it became one of the FBI's first major homicide cases. And so I traveled out to Oklahoma to the Osage Nation, and I visited the Osage Nation Museum. There was this big panoramic photograph on the wall. It looked very innocent: It was taken in 1924, it showed white settlers, and it showed members of the Osage Nation. They were all together, but there was a piece that had been cut out. I asked the museum director what had happened to that missing panel. She pointed to and said, "The devil was standing right there." She then went downstairs and brought out an image of the missing panel, and it showed one of the leaders of the conspiracy that killed the Osage. And that's what really set me off on this project.
You'd think that with all its elements - a couple dozen murders, oilmen like Phillips and Morgan, J. Edgar Hoover - this story would be widely known. Why isn't it?
I think that it is one of the most sinister crimes and conspiracies in American history, and one of the most serious racial injustices in our country. And while the Osage deeply remember it to this day - it's still living history for them - most of the country, including myself when I began this project, knew nothing about it. I think a big part of that is because of prejudice. The same reason why these crimes were covered up for so many years, that investigators neglected them.... And I was shocked that this was something that I had never read about in school, I had never learned about.
With its oil money, the Osage experience was radically different from other Native Americans. How did that come about?
The Osage were once a dominant nation in the United States. They controlled much of the Midwest. [In] the early 1800s, President Jefferson referred to them as "that great nation." But like so many Native American nations, they were gradually driven off their land. They were eventually bunched up on land in Kansas. They were starving. They had faced massacres. Their numbers had dwindled to just a few thousand. They were being driven off their land again in Kansas, and they didn't know where to go. An Osage chief stood up and he said, "We should go to this land" - which would later become northeast Oklahoma - "because the land is rocky and infertile, and the white man will finally leave us alone." So they went thinking they would be left alone, and lo and behold, it was sitting upon some of the largest deposits of oil in the United States, even in the world.
It was said that whereas one our of eleven Americans owned a car, virtually every Osage owned eleven of them.
When they negotiated the rights for the land, what did they do differently?
They were very shrewd. The Osage, like so many Native American nations and tribes, had their reservations broken up and allotted. When the Osage were being forced to be allotted in the 1900s, they added a very curious provision into their treaty which said We will maintain all the mineral rights to the subsurface territory. At the time, the Osage knew there was a little bit of oil under their land, but just a trickle. Whites didn't believe they were sitting upon a fortune, so they let this get into their treaty. They began to lose control of the surface land [and] it fell into the hands of white settlers - but the tribe controlled all the territory underneath the land, and they really became the world's first underground reservation. They controlled all those mineral rights underneath them, about the size of Delaware. They could lease that land, they could drill on that land, and that led to them being so wealthy.
Phillips Petroleum workers strike oil in Osage territory
What did this investigation do for the FBI and J. Edgar Hoover?
This case became one of the first major homicide cases of the FBI - it wasn't yet even called the FBI. It became one of J. Edgar Hoover's first big cases. The Bureau initially badly bungled the case. They were unable to solve it.... At one point they even released an outlaw - a guy named Blackie - hoping he could work as an informant to help solve the case. They were supposed to keep him under surveillance, but instead they lost track of him, and he proceeded to murder a policeman.
J. Edgar Hoover, at that point, feared a scandal. Hard to believe today, but he was still insecure in his power, although he had these great dreams of building a bureaucratic empire. So he turned the case over to a frontier lawman, a man named Tom White, a former Texas Ranger, who took over the case [and] put together an undercover team. [One] went in as an insurance salesman - in fact, the "insurance salesman" used to be an insurance salesman before he pretended to be one.... He actually opened up a shop in Osage County he was selling actual policies. An agent went undercover who was an American Indian - probably then the only American Indian in the Bureau. They were able to capture some of the leaders of the conspiracy.
Hoover used the case to mythologize the Bureau, to establish more professional standards. He exploited the case in many ways, too - to self-mythologize, to build up his own power. The case was seminal in representing that transformation of law enforcement in the United States, from a period when justice was often meted out by the barrel of a gun to a time using more scientific forms of detection. Fingerprinting, handwriting analysis became very important in this case. It was also the beginning of the first national kind of law enforcement. One of the things that I was surprised when I was doing the research for the book was just how lawless the country was back then, how permissive corruption was, how poorly trained lawmen were. One of the reasons these murders persisted for so long was because of corruption, because of poor training, and because it was very easy to tilt the scales of justice. If you were powerful - if you had the money - you could tilt the scales of justice.
Former Texas Ranger and Osage murders investigator Tom White with J. Edgar Hoover
Along those lines, do you see any parallels or direct links between this story and more current events like Standing Rock?
I do think there are parallels. Interesting enough, I spoke to an Osage not too long ago who served in Afghanistan in the army, [who] has a Purple Heart. During Standing Rock, he walked almost all the way from the Osage Nation to North Dakota to participate in the protest. He told me that, during that time, he thought a lot about the Osage murders. And even though the issues are separated by nearly a century, and in some ways on their face seem different - one's about protection of the land from oil - they deal with the same fundamental issue, which is the rights of American Indian nations to control the resources, to control their land. And so it is, at its heart, the same issue. And a former Osage chief, who I spoke to about this said, he was shocked that today we are still debating these issues of recognizing tribal sovereignty over their land and the resources.
A scene from The Lost City of Z (image courtesy Amazon Studios)
On another front, the film adaptation of your book, The Lost City of Z has just been released. How involved were you in translating the book to film?
My main contribution to the movie was the book. I really am an author. I focus all my energies on the book and trying to get that right. James Gray is a wonderful director and filmmaker. He would occasionally call me for questions about research, about looking for materials and I would send them to him. But my work was making my trip into the Amazon, researching the story, and writing the book.
Did you have trouble letting go of it?
I think it's always hard to let go of something that you spend so much time with. In this case, I felt like the project was in good hands, so it was easier.
Have you seen it?
I did! It's a terrific movie!