tv Tavis Smiley PBS August 4, 2017 6:00am-6:31am PDT
good evening from los angeles. i'm tavis smiley. so much talk these days about the fbi, a conversation tonight about the birth of the organization and one of first major homicide cases, the owe sage murders in the 1920s at least two dozen and perhaps as many as a few hundred members of the osage indian nation were murdered during a year long reign of terror. david graham is a staff writer for the "new yorker" magazine. he spent years researching what he calls one of the most sinister crimes in all of american history. the new book is called "killers of the flower moon." we're glad you joined us. a conversation with david graham in just a moment.
fbi". the film add aptation is already in the working with de niro, dicaprio, rumored tore considered. honored to have you on the program. do you care to confirm or deny those rumors? >> i will not deny -- nor confirm. >> you don't have to confirm or deny. we are read the trays. for those not following the story about this book, before this thing even came out, the bennie -- i'm going to embarrass you. the bidding war we were told went over $5 million just for the rights to do the film. and those names a missed a moment ago and give you an indication of how big this thing is expected to be here in hollywood where david grand sits with me today. that must feel good. must feel good when you put that much time writing something, you clearly put your heart into and people get it. >> you don't know. this project took five years.
there is part of it when you're 2 1/2 years in when you wonder if anyone would ever read it or what will become of it. and so that is the story actually resonates. the nice thing about a movie as many people can you reach with a book with a story like this, you can reach more with the movie. >> the story does resonate. i want you to get into the story in a second. how did you figure out that there was a story worth telling? >> i first heard about the story in 2011. and then at that time i had no idea that the osage inldians of oklahoma were the wealthiest people in the world in the 1920s. i had no idea that they were mysteriously murdered in one of the most sinister crimes in american history. i had no idea that case until then had become one of the fbi's first major homicide cases. this was all new to me. seemed like such an important
thing. i traveled out to the osage nation to see. i want sure about a book or anything. i vilted the osage museum in oklahoma. on the wall they had a large photograph with taken in 1924 and it showed members of the osage nation with white settlers. it looked very innocent. part of the photograph was missing. i asked what happened to that part of the photograph? they said it contained a figure that was so frightening that they removed it. the devil was standing right there. in the book that was really the seed that began. that figure was one of the killers of the osage. i just kept thinking here was something that osage removed this picture not to forget but because they can't forget. and how it is possible that such a sinister crime that explains so much of our history has been kind of excised from our consciousness. >> now we're off and running.
>> tell me about the tribe. >> the osage are vibrant to this day. they control much of the central part of the country. thomas jefferson referred to them as the great nation. and in 1804, he met with a delegation of osage chiefs. he promised and assured them that the u.s. government would treat them as friends and benefactors. and then within a few years he began to push them off the land. they were forced to see more than 100 million acres of their ancestoral land. they were confined to a reservation in kansas. and then in the 180660s, once me they were under siege. there was a massacre and they were forced to search for a new home land. it was then that an osage chief stood up and said we should move to what was then indian territory but then would later
become oklahoma. the land is rocky and infertile. the white man considers it worthless. they'll finally leave us alone. and so they actually bought the land and they resettled. there is only about a few thousand of them left. and they resettled in northeast oklahoma. and then, of course, lo and behold this seemingly forsaken land turned out to be sitting upon the largest deposits of oil not then in the united states. >> why did jefferson, what prompted him to go back on his word? >> the same reason for land that prompted so many administrations to force the native-americans off their land. it was essentially to take the land from the native-americans to provide them to white settlers. in oklahoma, many of the tribes were alotted in the late 1800s. you could see the land runs where they would rush out on their horses and on foot and if they could get to a par self
land first and put a stake in it, they would lay claim to the land. it was really about land. in many cases, the murders became a microcosm of the same earlier force that's had been playing out in the country for centuries. >> how long before they were in oklahoma and realized that they were sitting on, you know, sitting on oil? >> yeah. >> they had the beverly hillbilly experience. >> the thing about what was amazing is that the osage tribe was alotted. what that means is essentially the u.s. government forced a native-americ native-american tribes to end their communal ownership of land and turn them into private property owners. when they were negotiating, they managed to slip into the agreement a very curious provision which said that they will maintain all subsurface mineral rights to their land. so even if they lost the surface territory, they still control what was underneath. now they had a hint that there was some oil and this was around 1906 when the negotiations were going on.
they had some hint that there was oil on the land. but nobody felt they were sitting on a fortune. so they very shrewedly held on to this last realm of their land. and they became really the world's first underground reservation. >> in retrospect, it was beyond brilliant. >> yeah. >> as you put, they slipped that into the negotiations. how did the good white man, the smart white man allow that to happen? >> yeah. well, there was two things going on. one, the osage were led by one of the greatest chiefs at the time. they were led by a man that spoke seven languages including latin, french, and siouxy. they had more leverage than other native-american tribes because they oenld a deed to their land. so a little harder for the u.s. government to force upon them. they could purchase the land. they had a deed to it. and they very shrewedly and
relentlessly negotiated. they didn't want anything to hold up this process. and they allowed it to slip in and slip by them. and so the osage suddenly became the wealthiest people per capita in the world as more and more oil was discovered n 1923 in that year alone, there were 2,000 or so osage. they collected more than $400 million. >> i was about to ask. how rich were they? you answered that question. all right. i can see where this question is going. they pushed the indians around. they pushed the native people around once, two, three times. they get to oklahoma. they discover with a smooth move that they're sitting on oil. they're super rich now. let me just guess, the white man is not too happy with that. >> no. they're not too happy. to extract that oil this very to pay royalties and they have to pay for leases. and it was such demand for this oil that there were actually
auctions of osage territory. and so many oilmen we know of today, j.p. getty and his family, they first made the fortune drilling for oil in osage territory. ew more land, harry sinclair, they would attend the auctions, bidding for leases. and they would gather under this tree that was known as the million dollar elm tree because the prices were so high. and then as the osage prosperity increased, in americans began to express growing alarm. this is where you begin to see again the forces of prejudice playing out. it got to the point that the osage were scapegoated for wealth. here we are in the 1920s. the time of the great gatsby. but somehow the osage fortune became the topic of discussion. what are we going to do about all the american indians with money? and they would literally hold hearings and the u.s. congress. can you read the transcripts to this day. they're just shocking. and they would debate, what are we going to do?
what they did is they actually passed legislation retiring manufacture the osage to have white guardians. this is quite literally racist. it was based on the quantum osage blood. you were deemed incompetent, i put that in quotes, and granted a given a guardian, a white guardian. this guardian can dictate, here can you be this great osage chief that led his nation, have millions in your trust and you have a white overlord telling you can buy this car, you can't buy this car, you want to get this toothpaste, you can get this toothpaste. not only was the system racist, it created one of the state and federally sanctioned criminal enterprises. they ended up swind willing millions of dollars. >> it is one thing to get an overlord to tell them what they can or cannot do with their money. i know the story doesn't stop. there the white man really wants the money. not just control over you, they
want the money. so what happens next? >> so i write in particular about one family. i think it illuminates it. there is a woman named molly burkeheart and her family. she grew up in a lodge. she strat ld two centuries and two civilizations. in 1920s she was married to a white settler n may have 1921, her older sister disappears. molly looks everywhere for her. a week later her body is found in a ravine. she has been shot in the back of the head. and it's the first hint that molly's family and the whole osage tribe are being targeted for their money. and just to give you a sense within a few days molly's mother grows mysteriously sick. and within two months she stops breathing. evidence later suggests she was poisoned. not long after that molly had a younger sister, a woman named rita smith, rita was so taker fifd the killings, she moved from the countryside to be closer to molly and town.
one night at 3:00 in the morning molly hears a loud explosion. she gets up. she goes to the window. she looks out and in the direction of her sister's house, all she can see is a large orange ball rising into the sky. it looked like the sun had burst violently into the night. and where her sister's had been, there is nothing left. somebody planted a bomb under it killing molly's sister, her sister's husband and a white maid that was 18 at the time and left behind two children. that is molly's family. other osage were being targeted. there were poisonings, shootings and this horrific bombing. >> all the while as you're subtitle suggests, as these osage murders are taking place, we're witnessing the birth of the fbi. so overlay hoover and the fbi. >> yeah. >> so one thing that really shocked me is how lawless the country was back then. how fragile the legal
institutions were. and the osage and like molly, they pleaded for justice. but because the victims were native-americans, they were often ignored because of prejudice. there was also a great deal of local corruption. and in 1923, after more than 24 osage had been killed, they issued a tribal resolution pleading for what was then known as the bureau investigation and named the fbi to come in and investigate. and so this case falls to the bureau. now the bureau was kind of a ragtag operation back then. and they initially badly bundled the case. they got an outlaw out of jail, blacky thompson thinking they'll use him as an informant. instead he slips away and robs a bank and kills a police officer. and j. edgar hoover who was 29 is worried about his power. he is worried about his security. and he eventually turns,
recruits and brings in an old field agent, tom white, to take over the case. and they launch an undercover operation. what is most interesting is among the undercover operatives is an american indian agent, probably the only american indian agent i think it's fair to say in hoover's bureau at the time. they begin to follow the money to try to hunt down the killers. and what is interesting is they need to adopt manufacture ty ofn techniques, finlt printing, hand writing analysis. >> how successful was hoover? >> well, these agents, tom white, they really deserve more of the credit than hoover. and they're able to by following the money to capture at least one of the master minds and the henchmen. and what is so sinister about the crimes is it turns out that the not only a prominent white settler turns out to be somebody who molly knew well and trusted. and one of the things that makes these crimes so sinister is that they involve an unbelievable level of deception and betrayal.
it involved white men pretending to love you while all along plotting to kill you. and these plots would play out over years. but one of the things i discovered is that while the bureau captures a few of the killers, there is a much deeper and darker conspiracy that they never exposed and there were really scores to have hundreds of murders that went unsolved. hoover was in such a rush to dloes the case that other crimes went unsolved. >> to this day, the crimes were never -- >> they were never solved. the money was never recovered. and when you -- one of the most powerful things is i spent a lot of time in the osage nation and track down descendents of the murders. i track down molly's granddaughter. they tell you what it was like to grow up without family members. you get a sense of how the crimes linger to day. but a lot of the osage because the crimes remained unsolved have spent years and decades trying to figure out who the perpetrators were. they will give you folders of
evidence. they will ask you to look into it. and one of the real nefarious elements of these crimes is that because this was a real cover-up, this really was a story not about a single perpetrator. waits about the evil lurking in the hearts of many ordinary, seemingly ordinary white men and women who perpetrated the crimes. there were more tigss who covered up the murders. there were doctors who administered the poison. there were lawmen who were on the tape. there were politicians who were on the tape or directly complicit. and because they covered up the crimes, the many of the cases they denied the victims even their history to be able to tell and account for exactly what happened because they covered up the evidence, the trails of evidence. >> go back to that first visit you made to the osage museum in oklahoma. to your eye, did you see an exhibit, a museum that was about
celebrating the fact that nation is still here or was it more of in memorial? >> what was interesting about this photograph is there was very little on the murders when i was there. and this photograph was there and cut out. i think that's important to understand about the osage is they are a vibrant nation to this day. they have 20,000 voting members. they have taken precautions to try to stop these kind of conspiracies. they have their own court system. one osage lawyer told me we were victims of the crimes. but we don't live as victims. i think that's a point that gets to your question. >> i'm trying to figure out how they process it all these years later. >> i mean they are still haunted by it. the they are haunted by the crimes because, you know, when we, so many of us have neglected these crimes, they lived with the intermatly. i mean i was there in the osage
ballet. they had a section about the killings. so this is still parts that reverberate to this day. but they're also an incredibly vibrant nation that have endured incredibly despite these crimes. >> i was in a conversation with some black folks, friends of mine the other day. and we were sitting around having dinner and we saw the tv was on and there was one of the teasers for a story coming up after the break. and somebody made the comment as i have done and every black person has done at one point or another in their lives, i hope this ain't a negro. i hope the story they're about to show in a minute is not about a black person. whether it's right, whether it's just, whether it's fair, you feel that burden as a black person that you don't want this to be done at the hands of another black person. i say that to ask as a white man, how did you process researching and writing what you had to write about white people? i'm not suggesting you should have oenld. that but i'm curious to get
inside your heart. how did you process what the white men did as a white man writing the story what they did to the osage? >> you know, it's funny. i think like a lot of journalists, journalists are portrayed as cynical. i think it's the opposite. i think we have illusionors driven by moral impetus. and i'm often naive when i begin a story in a sense that i'm not an expert in this when i begin the story. this is all new to me. before i saw that photograph in the museum, dinlt know aboi did this history. i've done a lot of crime stories. i was disturbed in a way about this in a way of more than anything else i ever covered. because it got to that question of it's easier to think of this case as, which is the way the fbi thought of it, a singular evil figure. somehow one person is so bad who did these things and if the law comes in and removes that person
everything goes back to normal. what was so hard to reckon with that so many seemingly order white citizens were talking about people in prominent society and complice it in these crimes. and that was something that shook me. i mean i'll be honest with you. and in the telling you feel a certain moral burden in both telling it and reckonning with it. you know, when people often ask me why i did the book, one reason i did the book is to address my own ignorance. how is it possible that i was not taught this in history? how is it possible i never read about this? >> you know the answer to that question though. >> well -- >> you know the answer. >> yeah. that the stories are marginalized because of prejudice. >> it doesn't make the white man look good to teach you this in school. he wants to be the starring role. >> so for me, i think that this is an important part to reckon with. i also don't think we can understand our current life and
world if we don't understand this. i don't think this -- first of all this is the 1920s. we're not talking about the colonial era. we're talking about less than a century ago when the crimes took place. i interviewed in osage a guy who fought in afghanistan and the in the army. he was a scout. during this standing rock protest in north dakota which we were just talking about, he walked from oklahoma almost all the way to north dakota. he hitched a ride at the very end to get there for a certain date. he told me that during that pilgrimage, he thought about the osage murders. and when you look at the particulars, they seem different. they're not getting money from oil. they're trying to protect the land much he said it was the same funneldamental issue which native-american nations to protect their land, to protect their sovereignty and dictate the fate of their resources. i just give you one story. i think it gets to that question. the woman molly burkeheart i
wrote b i found a document in an archive two years before she died in 1936. and it was an appeal by her of her incompetency. and the court had finally deemed her competent in 1934. two years before she died. she was finally allowed to control her money, her destiny, her faith that she was finally granted the rights of an american citizen. and i think, you know, again, that's recent. >> after all those years of having an overlord. telling what she can and can't do. >> so two years before she died the court finally deemed her competent. and, again, when you have so many osage going out to standing rock and a former osage chief told me, and there is also talk about even trying to privatise and break up reservations to day. there are membersst trump administration that express this interest which is basically the old unfeddered settler's dream
to get this land. that gets back to what you said. he told me, you know, i didn't believe it's 2017 and we're still having this fight. so i think unless we reckon with this history, we can't fully understand the country we live in today. >> i'm glad you raised standing rock. i think it's important for fellow citizens today who sort of poo-poo this stuff and don't understand it or don't pay attenton and don't understand why they're so upset. it's just a pipeline. no. this is a history here. >> there is a history. >> you have to understand how they've been aligned from the very beginning to understand why they do not want to be trampled on yet again. i was going to sashgs the flip side seems to me of burying that burden as a white man that you felt writing this book, the good side of that is that if the truth isn't told, then it ends up being winded. and when the truth is rendered
invisible, dwoenlt learn from. that somebody thooz tell the truth. and we owe you a debt of gratitude. >> thank you very much. >> for taking the time to tell this storey. i can't wait to see it on big screen. it is called "killers of the flower moon: the osage moon and birth of the fbi" written by david grand. you have another movie in theaters as we they. thank you for doing this, my friend g to have you on the program. that's our show tonight. thanks for watching. and as always, keep the faith. >> hi, i'm tavis smiley, join me for a conversation with eric braden about his new memoir. that is next time. we'll see you then.
good evening from los angeles. i'm tavis smiley. tonight a conversation with a award winning novelist joyce carol oats. she, is of course, one of the countries most honored writers and most prolific with more than 70 novels and short stories to her credit. she joins us to talk about her latest title, "a book of american martyrs," we're glad you joined us. conversation with joyce carol oats in just a moment.