A reporter from Harper’s Monthly Magazine wrote, Where will it end? Every time a new well is drilled the Indians are that much richer." The reporter added, "The Osage Indians are becoming so rich that something will have to be done about it."

William Shepherd, the author of the above passage from “Million Dollar Elm” (p. 83), notes elsewhere in his article that people in Osage County have become “bad” and “Money-crazy,” obsessed with cheating the Native Americans out the wealth oil has afforded them. This larger context makes the passage cited in Killers of the Flower Moon even more sinister. As the Osage become wealthier, white Americans become crazed with envy, creating a situation Shepherd rightly predicts will become lethal. Part of what the passage communicates, too, is the belief that the Osage do not deserve the wealth that has come their way, a racist assumption that it inherently belongs to white Americans. As the book makes clear, mocking the Osage for spending their wealth was widely shared sport, one that fueled the entitled idea that it was acceptable to swindle them to make sure the profits ended up in the proper, white hands. 

This so-called Indian business, as White discovered, was an elaborate criminal operation, in which various sectors of society were complicit. The crooked guardians and administrators of Osage estates were typically among the most prominent white citizens: businessmen and ranchers and lawyers and politicians. So were the lawmen and prosecutors and judges who facilitated and concealed the swindling (and, sometimes, acted as guardians and administrators themselves).

Bandits and outlaws crowd the pages of Killers of the Flower Moon but, as the above passage from “Dying Words” indicates, the most brazen criminals in the book are the prominent men who ran the “Indian business”. These people used the legal system to hide their crimes and hired stick-up men to handle the dirtier parts of the business. The corruption they deploy and the greed that fuels their actions undermines the social fabric of Osage County. Although its remote location is proposed as a reason for the region’s frontier atmosphere, the rampant greed and systematic corruption of social and political institutions provide equally plausible explanations for the lawlessness that prevails there during the 1920s. As the U.S. government settled a lawsuit with the Osage in 2011 and agreed to pay the tribe $380 million, it’s clear that the corruption was not restricted to Oklahoma alone.

Louis F. Burns, an Osage historian, wrote that after oil was discovered, the tribe had been “set adrift in a strange world,” adding, “There was nothing familiar to clutch and stay afloat in the world of white man’s wealth.”

Greed is a crucial theme across Killers of the Flower Moon but, as this passage from “King of the Osage Hills” indicates, the American pursuit of prosperity also presented problems for the Osage themselves, distinct from any of the ways that they were manipulated by unscrupulous white people. Their traditional values and customs did not include the kind of real property associated with American wealth—large homes, large bank accounts, expensive belongings. Although gift giving was a part of Osage tradition, and their wealth enabled ever more lavish offerings, the sudden influx of money eroded the tribe’s relationship to its past without providing equal access to the world of white Americans. Mocked in the press as ridiculous and targeted by fortune-hunters (often turned murderers), many were unable to “stay afloat.” One Osage chief even asserted in 1928 that his people would be happier when the money ran out