My personal journey to understanding my own family history with the Osage murders of the 1920s has led me to a realization that it is more than a sad chapter in the Osage Tribe’s history. For me this part of our history should serve as a charge that our people never see such an abuse take place again, even in the telling of the story.
My great grandfather, Henry Roan was one of those murdered during this era. The location of his murder on the Osage Reservation allowed the FBI to come in and investigate his death and in the process uncovered the larger scheme underway to wipe out an entire Osage family and their headrights, which were worth millions.
That’s the story I was told by my family and I always held back the raw emotions that his death brought to our family. My mother and father were both born in the 1920s and were both orphans by the end of that decade. Only through the love of their extended families did they avoid the boarding school and adoption agencies that profited from parentless Indian children. Because of this wealth, many Osage families were able to preserve their families, culture and language while having the means to adapt to the dominant society. At a time when it was official government policy to “Kill the Indian to save the man” the Osage wealth tells a different story that runs counter to the extreme poverty dealt the rest of Indian country but not the dominant view of the non-Indian world that despite our wealth, our lives were cheap. So this history is as vivid to me personally as any treatment written by anyone who ever chose to tell the Osages their history.
Maybe it’s better that an outsider tell the Osages their history back to them because people like me can’t be objective or maybe the events are too hard to believe if told by the Osages themselves. Even after I consider this notion, I disagree because I know Osage people from across the spectrum have their version of these events not told in the archives of the BIA or the FBI but rather passed down from one family member to another and so the Osage version of this story never really goes away. But the story we often hear is the one other people have told about us, but rarely is it the one we tell ourselves.
The prospect that life of an Osage Indian who owned a headright in the 1920’s was a mixed blessing is probably the understatement of the century. Our wealth put a target on our back, people of all stripes came to separate us from our wealth by any means necessary and the people whom we trusted to look out for our interest we’re just as much a part of the problem as any bootlegger, investor, banker, storekeeper, or non-Osage spouse.
Through legal and not so legal means Osage lost millions in investments they knew nothing about because government appointed guardians were in charge of the money each Osage whom the BIA deemed incompetent could do pretty much whatever they wanted. Storekeepers had two prices in their stores, one for Osages and one for everyone else. Food, clothing, cars, homes and other items simply would cost more if you were Osage. Often when an Osage passed away, there was a line of people who profited from their passing. From non-Osage widows and widowers to funeral homes who would respectfully put the recently deceased away for a price in today’s dollars that would exceed $80,000.
Even though the Boom in the Osage Mineral Estate diminished with the ebb and flow of the oil and gas industry, this practice went on clear up until the late 1970s when the Osage Tribal Council successfully lobbied Congress to amend the 1906 Osage Allotment Act denying any more Osage Headrights from leaving Osage hands.
Years later as I became an adult, I chose a profession in the media which fed my desire to allow Indian people to tell their stories and reclaim their histories. As an adult I grew to appreciate the movement in the 90’s in the wake of new federal laws such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act which by federal law deferred to tribes the right to protect and reclaim the actual graves of their ancestors and by extension their histories and their stories.
In the next decade, as chief of the Osage Nation my interest in reclaiming the Osage history and stories of our people became more realized, we started our Nation’s first Tribal Historic Preservation Office and empowered them to reclaim our history under Osage law. Combined with a constitution that extends political rights to all Osage and recognizing them as citizens of the Osage Nation while retaining our Mineral Estate for Osage Headright owners, we chartered a new course for the future of Osage people.
Despite these achievements the legacy of that era is still painfully with us today as we are reminded that over one-quarter of those Osage headrights are out of Osage hands. It burns many Osages after we received our $380 Million settlement from our case against the Federal government in 2011 for mismanagement of our Mineral Estate knowing one-quarter of that settlement went to non-Osages.
Would my parent’s life be different if my grandparents lived long enough to raise their children? Did this story affect the way my parents raised their children? Did this story affect the way I raised my children? I suspect my life choices and my life’s work in Indian country is as much a reflection of that era as any other desire to make my life mean something.
Is this story in your history book? Probably not. This story is in my history book, it is in my family’s history book, and in the history book of thousands of Osage families. As we approach the century mark of the so called “Osage Reign of Terror”, just remember the Osage people have yet to write the final chapter on this story and make peace with our past.
Note: The Book, "Killers of the Flower Moon - The Osage Murders and the Birth of the F.B.I. will be made into a major motion picture Directed by Martin Scorsese, and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro. Production is expected to begin later this year.
Jim Roan Gray, Osage, is the former principal chief of the Osage Nation (2002-2010) and former publisher of the Native American Times Newspaper (1996-2002) Today he's a consultant working in Indian country.
He was the youngest chief in the history of the Osage Nation. During his term, Chief Gray, led the Osage Nation through a comprehensive restoration of Osage sovereignty, the right to determine their own citizens and form their own government. This led to enrollment of thousands of Osages who had been left off the rolls for nearly 100 years and a referendum vote that adopted a constitutional form of government for the first time in generations. This effort gave all Osages over the age 18 the right to vote in tribal elections.
From 2002-2010, Chief Gray has served as both vice chairman and chairman of the Inter-Tribal Monitoring Association consulting with the Department of Interior’s management of Native American trust funds. He was elected as chairman of the board of the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, served as co-chair of the National Budget Advisory Council, which sets the priorities for the Bureau of Indian Affair’s $2.3 billion budget. Chief Gray has accepted appointments to the Office of the Special Trustee Board of Advisors, Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Native American Rights Foundation, and Intertribal Economic Alliance and President of the Indian Country Renewable Energy Consortium.
From 1996 to 2002, he was also a distinguished journalist and publisher of one the largest independently owned Indian Newspapers in America, the Native American Times. He guided the newspaper’s growth over the years to become the leading Native American media group in Oklahoma. During his time at the Native American Times, Jim helped pace public debate on issues important to Native Americans in Oklahoma and across the Nation.
Chief Gray’s work has been recognized over the years by numerous organizations like the Native American Business Development Center. The Greater Tulsa Area Indian Affairs Commission awarded him the Lewis B. Ketchum Award for Excellence in Business. He also received the Abe Venable Legacy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2005 from the U.S. Department of Commerce, accepted “High Honors” award on behalf of the Osage Nation from the Harvard Project on Indian Economic Development, awarded the American Indian Tribal Leadership Award at REZ 2008 and the Chairman’s Leadership Award from the National Indian Gaming Association in 2009.
Chief Gray is a much sought out speaker in Indian Country, academia and in Washington D.C., as the leading spokesperson on Native American issues throughout the United States. In recent years, he has stayed busy doing work for the Native American Contractors Association, the Cherokee Nation, The Delaware Tribe, Global Trade and Technology and as a Tribal liaison for Norfolk Southern Railroad.
Chief Gray is married to Libbi Chissoe Gray, Osage, and is the father of four children, Henry, Naomi, James, and Annette (Nettie) Gray and the step father of three children, Mary, Sarah, and Oli Ramirez. He is culturally versed in his Osage traditions and has been dancing in his tribe’s ceremonial dances since he was six years old.