Killers of the Flower Moon

by David Grann

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Killers of the Flower Moon Themes

The main themes in Killers of the Flower Moon are tradition versus progress, prejudice and exploitation, and appearance versus reality.

  • Tradition versus Progress: Grann shows how the Osage people were caught in the tension between their own traditions and modernity.
  • Prejudice and Exploitation: The book demonstrates the racism the Osage experienced at the hands of white American culture.
  • Appearance versus Reality: Throughout the book, situations and individuals prove to be far different from how they initially seem.


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Last Updated on August 24, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1217

Tradition versus Progress

The introduction to the Osage ballet Wahzhazhe proclaims that the Osage “walk in two worlds.” Their “hearts are divided” between their cultural heritage and traditions and the progress of the modern world. Killers of the Flower Moon highlights this theme of tradition and progress, showing how the Osage have indeed been caught between two worlds, striving to hold onto their customs while adapting to white ways and trying to survive the “progress” that made them both rich and poor.

Mollie Burkhart and her family illustrate this theme most clearly. Mollie’s father, Ne-kah-e-se-y, was an Osage warrior who once, as a young man, participated in the buffalo hunts. He dressed in traditional Osage style, painted his face, and worshiped Wah’Kon-Tah. Ne-kah-e-se-y also became a respected elder in the tribe and even a judge. Yet as the Osage came into greater contact with white settlers and the United States government, Ne-kah-e-se-y became known as Jimmy. Mollie’s mother, Lizzie, continued to hold fast to old ways, praying to Wah’Kon-Tah even as her daughter attended a Catholic church.

Mollie herself straddled both the traditional world of her parents and the modern white society. Forced into a boarding school as a child, Mollie learned the English language, absorbed white culture, and continued to live primarily in the manner of a white woman, even marrying Ernest Burkhart, a white man. Mollie was devoutly Catholic, quite well off due to her oil headright payments, and comfortable in her home and life. Yet Mollie still held on to her traditions, and these became especially salient when her family members began to be murdered. At Anna’s funeral, for instance, Mollie and her family and neighbors blended Catholic rites with Osage customs. The priest chanted the hymn “Dies Irae,” whereas Lizzie and the elders sang Osage prayer-songs. Mollie was upset that the state of Anna’s body would not allow her face to be painted with the marks of her clan and tribe, for Mollie believed that these ornaments would have helped guide her sister’s spirit to the Happy Hunting Ground. Still, the family placed food in Anna’s casket to sustain her on the journey.

The other members of the Osage community also struggled to live in two worlds. With their oil-induced wealth, they could afford to purchase large homes and cars, fancy clothing and the “finer things” in life, and some did. Yet because of the guardian system, most members of the tribe did not have free and full access to their money. Their white guardians controlled their resources, and many Osage were reduced to poverty, unable to use their own money. Progress—as defined by white society—was denied to them even if they desired it, and they were barred from returning to their traditional ways. They were indeed caught in the middle of two worlds.

Prejudice and Exploitation

The Osage faced prejudice, exploitation, and corruption on every side. In fact, white Americans’ continual prejudice against Native Americans was one of the driving forces behind the exploitation of the latter and contributed significantly to the corruption of Oklahoma society.

In the 1920s, many members of white society viewed Native Americans, such as the Osage, with contempt. According to media portrayals, the Osage with their oil-based wealth were “good-for-nothing” drunks who squandered their money in high living. These criticisms, however, smacked of jealousy, for plenty of white people in the 1920s lived ostentatiously, striving to have the biggest homes, the most expensive cars, and the most lavish lifestyles. The Osage were not alone in their pursuit of the good life, to the extent that they pursued it.

This prejudice quickly led to exploitation. When government officials decided that the Osage could not manage their own money, they set up a guardian system—in addition to the land allotment system, mandatory boarding school requirements, and oversight bodies like the Office of Indian Affairs. In the eyes of the government, the Osage were like children who needed to be educated, monitored, and protected from themselves.

These systems provided prime opportunities for guardians and officials to take advantage of their superior positions and to lie, cheat, and steal the Osage out of their resources. Guardians funneled Osage funds into their own pockets and even refused their wards basic necessities, such as food and medical care. In their eyes, the Osage were inferior and therefore able to be exploited without guilt. Some, like Hale, went even further by setting up elaborate and often violent schemes to gain control of Osage resources, especially the valuable headrights.

Prejudice against the Osage also led to decreased efforts of investigation. One more “dead Injun” was not important to officials. Many suspicious deaths that might have sparked outrage if the victim were white simply slipped by unnoticed. Even Anna Brown’s murder was deemed committed by persons unknown and left to rest. The Osage had to work hard and appeal to the federal government before finally finding some sort of justice for Anna and other victims. Even then, winning a conviction of the guilty parties proved difficult almost to an extreme as white juries resisted convicting white men for the murder of Native Americans. As one Osage grimly noted, “the question for them to decide is whether a white man killing an Osage is murder—or merely cruelty to animals.”

Appearance versus Reality

In Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann warns his readers that things are not always as they seem. The Osage and their white neighbors, for instance, appeared to live in harmony and peace with one another. They intermarried, as in the case of Mollie and Ernest Burkhart, and they worked together in the community. Many prominent white men served as guardians for the Osage, appearing on the surface to care conscientiously for their needs and their welfare. Yet beneath the surface lay a web of corruption. Guardians exploited their wards. Prominent men participated in plots to take control of Osage headrights and resources. Even within households, spouses betrayed one another for the sake of money. The surface of the situation may have appeared bright and clean, but the depths of the reality were dark and dangerous.

This dissonance between appearance and reality played out in individuals as well. Ernest Burkhart, for instance, appeared to be a loving, supportive husband who cared for his wife, Mollie, and comforted her in her grief as she lost one family member after another. Yet in reality, Ernest Burkhart was involved in planning and carrying out the murders of his wife’s relatives. He knew exactly what was going on the whole time even as he pretended to soothe his wife. Bill Hale, too, presented one face to the world yet wore another when it suited him. He seemed to be an upstanding member of the community, committed to law and order. He called himself “Reverend” and assured Mollie that he would do everything he could to find justice for Anna. Yet in reality, Hale was a violent mastermind who cruelly and remorselessly killed people for the sake of material gain. He stood at the head of a network of corruption that extended deeply into the community. Indeed, Hale’s appearance had nothing at all to do with the vicious and heartless reality of his nature.

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Chapter Summaries