Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Blossoms of Evil

Everyone has memories they don't like but can't shake.  This is one of mine.

I was small and my parents were driving back through a desert in the southwestern states.  We hadn't seen a town for hours, and I'd gotten used to seeing the endless miles of saguaro, yucca, and empty skies. So, when we started to pass a row of shacks that lined the empty road, I was surprised.  These structures didn't seem to be part of any town or village, and it would be generous to describe them as houses.  With concave walls, covered with tarpaper and tin, they were the worst excuses for houses I'd ever seen but, judging from the faint light coming from the windows, someone seemed to be living in them.  Even odder, each shack's sway-backed porch seemed to hold at least one shiny, white, refrigerator or washer and dryer. My mom made a noise of disgust.

"It's terrible the way they are treated," she said and I asked what she was talking about.


Then, with a soft, gentle voice, that couldn't disguise her anger, Mom related this country's history concerning Native Americans as if she was telling me an unhappy bedtime story.  Attacked, betrayed, segregated and undermined for years by the white colonists and their government, the indigenous Native-Americans had been systematically corralled onto ever-smaller and poorer tracts of land and relegated to a marginalized existence.  Mom said the row of shacks we were passing was part of one reservation.  She added, "And see how the government treats them? Some official probably thought these folks would be fine if they just had modern appliances. Did you notice they don't have electricity?"


That memory came back to me as I read Killers of the Flower Moon. In a way, it was the another chapter in Mom's sad tale about how white men treat American Indians.  But, instead of a misunderstanding and callous government making mistakes, this story's a lot more personal.

Imagine a tribe actually choosing the land where they will build a reservation.  In the 1870's, as they were being relocated, the Osage Indians did exactly that. They sought and purchased a tract of Oklahoma they believed was too rocky and poor for any white man to ever desire it. Unfortunately, neither the Osage or the U. S. Government realized the land in question covered a deep, rich, oil reserve.

Killers of the Flower Moon details what happened to the Osage tribe once the drillers struck oil. A host of schemes and deals to separate the Osage from their dividends were put into play, including price-gouging, theft, and outright murder.  This fast-paced history reads like a suspense thriller, detailing not only the conspiracy that exterminated almost an entire family, until the FBI intervened but an even wider number of Osage victims whose murders were never addressed.

It's a fascinating story, but one that can make you rethink old ideas.  Where I grew up, everyone thought striking oil and becoming rich would be a wonderful thing.  The Osage could argue that striking it rich is the surest way to shorten your life.