Most reviewers of the motion picture Killers of the Flower Moon distill just one lesson from the story: greed is deadly. The love of money leads to evil. But the real lesson should be of government failure.
The movie follows the book, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann. It tells the story of the Osage tribe during the 1920s oil boom in Oklahoma. Tribal members became very wealthy because of the discovery of oil on tribal land, and many white people committed fraud and murder to steal that wealth.
People should read the book and watch the movie, but they should also read Angie Debo’s book published in 1941, And Still the Waters Run: The Betrayal of the Five Civilized Tribes, because what happened to the Osage tribal members was just a small part of what took place among the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Seminole, Creek, and Cherokee in eastern Oklahoma at the same time.
Before statehood in 1907, tribal governments owned their land and leased it to members. But the federal government insisted that they divide the land among individual tribal citizens and establish private property rights in land. Despite tremendous opposition from most tribal citizens, the federal government forced tribes to allocate their lands individually. Then oil was discovered on the land. In the five civilized tribes, individuals owned the mineral rights while the Osage tribe retained them.
Criminals throughout eastern Oklahoma invented many ways to steal the wealth that oil brought to tribal members. Killers of the Flower Moon depicts a few of them. Some promised to pay tribal members an annuity of hundreds of dollars per month for life if the member would assign mineral rights to them. Of course, those members died mysteriously within weeks, but no law enforcement agency would investigate. Others worked with judges, sheriffs, and lawyers to assign guardianship of orphans to white men who then stole everything the orphans had and split the wealth with the judges, sheriffs, and lawyers.
The federal government began to discover the extent of the crimes, thanks in part to a report in 1924 by Gertrude Bonnin, a research agent for the Indian welfare committee of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, titled “Oklahoma’s Poor Rich Indians: An Orgy of Graft and Exploitation of the Five Civilized Tribes—Legalized Robbery.”
The federal government filed over thirty thousand indictments against white Oklahoma citizens for fraud and murder in the McAlester federal courthouse in the 1930s. Those indictments included almost all prominent businessmen and politicians in Tulsa and most of the state legislature. Only the governor escaped. He sent a delegation to DC to protest the indictments and complain of the economic damage they caused by questioning titles to property.
Statehood had turned the tribes into clubs with no governing authority. The federal government agreed to drop the indictments if the state allowed the tribes to restore their governments with sovereignty equal to that of the state. The state agreed, and tens of thousands of criminals went free.
The real lesson of the massive criminal activity against tribal citizens was, once again, the failure of the government to do its job. The federal government rarely kept a treaty it signed with any tribal government. It had forced all the tribes in Oklahoma to relocate from their ancestral homes to Indian Territory, beginning with the Cherokee Trail of Tears in Georgia in the 1830s. After the Civil War, the federal government again broke its treaties and stole from the tribes much of the land it had originally assigned them. The forced allotment of land to individuals from tribal ownership was another treaty violation, as was breaking up tribal government when Oklahoma became a state. Oklahoma is a Choctaw word meaning land of the red-skinned people.
During the 1920s oil boom, the government officials enabled whites to plunder the wealth of tribal members and murder many of them by refusing to do their jobs. Governments have one mandate according to natural law and the Bible—to punish criminals.
Yet, in Oklahoma, those authorities not only refused to punish wrongdoers, they became the criminals attacking good citizens. Tribal members and all minorities understand the lesson of Killers of the Flower Moon: don’t trust your safety to the government.