David Grann, an American journalist, had a pitch deadline for The New Yorker and had not found the perfect topic to write about. He called friends and family in search of the right story when a friend brought up the Giant Squid, an animal so rare no one had seen alive before. Grann headed to New Zealand where a man named Steve O’Shea was a giant squid hunter who had dedicated his life to finding one alive and keeping it in captivity. His time in New Zealand was not what Grann expected. Grann and a crew of only two others headed out to sea, waited for days in extreme weather at night, constantly pulling up buckets to see if a giant squid would appear. The author imagined this great adventure he would write about, being with the first man to ever find a live Giant Squid. Instead, the hunter, Grann and a graduate student labored away for days and to no prevail did not find a giant squid. Exhausted, Grann gave up and the original idea he had about this exotic hunting experience turned into a story not about the experience of capturing this giant squid, but about a man who not only dedicated his life but made sacrifices to find this one single rare animal day by day.
Background of Killers of the Flower Moon
A similar experience led to one of his most famous novels, Killers of the Flower Moon. Grann had heard about the Osage Indian Reign of Terror, where in Oklahoma there were murders of many Osage Indians occurring between 1921 and 1926. He had not found sufficient information for his article and decided to take a trip to the Osage Nation Museum in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. It was at this museum he saw a panoramic photograph with members of the Osage Nation and white settlers. He noticed a portion of the photo was cut out.
“I asked the Museum Director Kathryn Red Corn why a portion of the photograph had been cut out,” Grann said. “You could tell that a part of it was missing, and she had said that it contained a figure so frightening she had decided to remove it. She then points to that missing panel and says, ‘The devil was standing right there’, and I think in that moment I knew I needed to try and tell this story if possible.”
Killers of the Flower Moon, set in the early 1900’s, starts with the history of the Osage Indians, Indigenous people who were forced to move from their original land stretched from Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri all the way to the Rockies to a smaller piece of land in southern Kansas, then to the spot they currently reside in Oklahoma. In search of a new home, there was this piece of land that white settlers deemed as not good land because of its rocky surface. The Osage Chief Wah-Ti-An-Kah decided they would buy this land, so no white man would make them move again because of how undesirable it was. What both settlers and the Osage did not know was the amount of rich oil under their new reservation. This oil made the Osage Indians the richest people in the world per capita with a value of what today would be $400 million. After becoming the richest people in the world, many began to be murdered including the family of Mollie Burkhart, who is a central figure in this book. After years of asking for help to solve the murder of her sister Anna Brown, the newly founded Bureau of Investigations, now known as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), took up the case but for all the wrong reasons. Agent Tom White gathered a group of agents and began to investigate, leading to some of the most shocking crimes in American history. These Osage Indians were being murdered for their fortune, a fortune that could not even be easily accessed by their own selves and on top of that, by people who they least expected. This book talks about these horrible crimes, how the FBI got its start and Grann’s explanation of how the aftermath of these crimes have affected their descendants.
Interview with the author
Grann explained that writing his book Killers of the Flower Moon took him five years because of the amount of research it took to find even the simplest of information on these crimes. His research included mainly documents and interviews with descendants. He even tracked down a descendant of Mollie who he says gave him a real sense about how these crimes still affect her today.
“We are talking about less than 100 years ago these took place; we are not talking about the earlier colonial period,” Grann said. “In speaking to both the Osage descendants and also through documents, it became clearer and clearer that these crimes were far more widespread than the FBI’s focus and that there really was a much deeper and darker conspiracy in which many more people were complicit in these crimes.”
For Grann, it was unknown how much of an audience outside of the Osage Nation would consider reading his book, especially white Americans. Because of its extreme popularity, it has now been adapted into a film with celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio, Lily Gladstone and Robert De Niro, which will be released in the summer of 2023. Grann acknowledged the fact that a younger audience will more likely go see a movie than read a book.
“I’m excited to see it,” sophomore Emily Hernandez said. “I’m more into movies, so I think I will be really interested.”
With this film, Grann said he was always available for any questions, authenticity or in any way to help these filmmakers. The most important thing for him was that the people involved in this movie created a relationship with the Osage Nation as he tried to when writing his book.
“I hope it’s faithful to this very painful history and gets at the nature of what is one of the ….. worst racial injustices in American history,” Grann said. “A film is able to do some things that a history book can’t, and I hope that it uses its medium, its visual medium, its form of storytelling to form its own work [and] its own examination of these crimes.”
The film includes actors who are from the Osage Nation and reservation in Oklahoma.
The way in which Grann writes is based on storytelling through the eyes of those who have experienced this history rather than just giving the audience facts.
“One of the reasons I spend so much time on the research is so that I can get closer and closer to the consciousness of the people who went through this history and hopefully allow the reader to feel that as well,” Grann said. “If I just give you a list of names, dates, deaths, facts and burial records, your eyes won’t see the victims as fully embodied people, and you won’t hear their voices.”
In Killers of the Flower Moon, he explained his research on Mollie helped the novel bring in the audience into what the she was feeling and experiencing on a personal level, so that readers would remember a story like this for years to come.
For readers of this book, he hopes to help fill in historical gaps over crimes that have been erased over time. Grann also hopes that his readers will take it upon themselves to do more research and to follow their own questions to make sense of some of the American history that is not written enough about in history books.
“History is a dynamic process, which there is no definitive history,” Grann said. “It is like a living organism, and one hopes when you put something out there, it just joins a larger conversation that will continue to grow and deepen over time.”
Killers of the Flower Moon is described by Grann to college students as “one of the most sinister crimes and racial injustices in American history that shows what happens when racism and greed combine.”
Grann’s newest book is titled The Wager–-A Tail of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder, which tells a story set in the 1700’s about a British naval shipwreck that causes the men on board to try and survive off the coast of Patagonia–trying to survive not only leads to murder but even cannibalism. When some men are successful in returning to England, they must tell their story about what happened to avoid being hanged by the government.
Speech at Butler Community College
On Wednesday, Sept. 14, Grann gave two presentations at Butler Community College. At 4 p.m. Grann spoke to Butler students and staff, whereas at the 7 p.m. presentation, Grann spoke to mainly community members, which featured a presentation on the history of the Osage murders. At the 4 p.m. speech, Grann started off with his short story about the Giant Squid and allowed the rest of the time to be a Q&A session between those present and the author. He was brought to Butler with the help of the Harold Smith Cultural Series, which is a fund left by Harold Smith in hopes of bringing important speakers to campus.
“I was surprised as a native Kansan to have never known about this story,” Jennifer Green, communications director in the Foundation office, said. “It was amazing that history just erased this story. I think we all can learn how all individuals add importance and value to our lives.”
Grann explained that his reason for choosing Mollie for his book was the lack of surviving evidence and paperwork on anyone else. He expressed his concern with schools not teaching this type of history to students, and how he hopes that the book will fill the ignorance people have about these events and how it helped him fill those gaps in his own ignorance. Grann also looks forward to seeing how much wider an audience the movie adaptation of his book will reach. He also said it was hard to write about and although he gets more information and evidence about the Reign of Terror, a break for him was necessary emotionally.
“This is close to home, and it’s what being in college is all about–learning and exposure that transforms our thinking and perspective,” Aletra Chaney-Proft, director of Career Services, said.