Mean Spirit Summary

Inspired by true events, Mean Spirit tells the story of the Osage tribe during the Oklahoma oil boom. When oil is discovered under the tribe’s land in the 1920s, corruption, exploitation, and murder run rampant. With the federal government largely indifferent to their plight, the Osage’s only hope is Stace Red Hawk, a Sioux federal agent who conducts a secret investigation into the crimes.

  • Many members of the Osage tribe make enormous fortunes when oil is discovered under their land in Watona, Oklahoma.

  • After a series of suspicious disappearances and murders—including the murder of the wealthiest person in town—several Indians beg the federal government to investigate. Their pleas catch the attention of the federal investigator Stace Red Hawk.

  • Stace struggles to uncover the conspiracy as the murders continue. Increasingly distrustful of the white world, many members of the tribe return to their traditional roots.

  • The oilman John Hale is eventually sent to jail, but Stace suspects that the corruption in Watona went far beyond Hale. Many of the Osage become disillusioned with the lack of justice and are tricked into selling their land and leaving Watona.

 

Summary

Written in 1990, Linda Hogan’s Mean Spirit gives a fictionalized account of the famous Osage Indian murders of the 1920s. When oil was discovered on Indian land in Oklahoma, the Osage tribe quickly became one of the richest communities in the entire country. Their fortunes attracted the attention of corrupt lawyers, oilmen, and government officials from around the country. When wealthy Indians began to mysteriously die, however, the Osage realized that the blessing of oil was also a curse. Weaving together magical realism and historical events, Hogan explores the struggles of the Osage people to retain their culture in the face of wealth, poverty, exploitation, and danger.

Part One:

The novel takes place in the town of Watona, Oklahoma. Populated mostly by members of the Osage tribe, Watona serves as a metaphorical and literal halfway point between the culture of white America and traditions of the Hill Indians, a group that long ago retreated to the bluffs above Watona to live apart from the white world. The story begins when Lila Blanket, one of the Hill Indians, takes her daughter Grace down to Watona, leaving her to be raised by the Graycloud family. Through the Dawes Act, every member of the Osage tribe is granted parcels of land. Though the land is initially thought to be useless and unfarmable, the Osage people discover that many of their allotments sit atop deep oil deposits. When the richest oil vein of all is found under Grace Blanket’s land, she quickly becomes the wealthiest woman in the town. Though Grace’s mother wanted her to be a bridge between the remote Hill Indians and the modern world below, Grace is more interested in living a life of comfort and opulence. One day, Grace is murdered by several men in a black car. Unbeknownst to the killers, her murder is witnessed by her thirteen-year-old daughter, Nola Blanket, and Rena Graycloud, who watch the men pose Grace’s body to imply suicide. Fearing for the safety of the two young girls, the Graycloud family decides not to tell anyone that the girls witnessed Grace’s murder. They also take in the distraught Nola, who they fear is in great danger as the heir to her mother’s enormous fortune.

Shortly after Grace’s murder, her younger sister Sara is killed when her house is blown up. Sara’s husband, Benoit, is wrongfully accused of the crime and taken into custody. The local foreteller Michael Horse has a premonition that the Indian John Thomas is in danger. Despite Horse’s attempts to warn him, John Thomas is murdered the same night that John Stink, an eccentric hermit, appears to drop dead in the middle of town. Meanwhile, the government agency that manages the Osage’s oil royalty payments arbitrarily reduces the amount of money owed to full-blood Indians, claiming the money is being withheld due to the Indians’ irresponsibility with their wealth. Not wanting to argue with the officials for fear of being declared legally incompetent and having their wealth redirected to a white “guardian,” many of the Osage resort to alternative methods to pay off their debts. Local oilman John Hale begins to lend Indians money and in return takes out a life insurance policy on them. Several Indians who...

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Mean Spirit Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

A historical novel based on actual occurrences on oil-rich Oklahoma Indian lands, Mean Spirit tells a story of exploitation and murder committed against Native American Indians as they struggle against the greed that threatens their lives and the survival of their culture.

The background of the novel’s action is provided by Lila Blanket and her daughter Grace. Repeating the warning the Blue River has “spoken” to her, Lila tells the other Hill Indians that white people are going to intrude upon the tribe’s peaceful ways; to prevent their own downfall, she says, they must send some of their children to town to learn the white ways. Lila sends Grace to live with her friends the Grayclouds, hoping she will grow up and protect the Hill people with her knowledge. Grace, however, takes little interest in the old Indian ways, acquires an allotment of land, and strikes the richest oil vein in the territory. Her discovery of oil in the territory does indeed save the Hill people, as the current building of a dam on the Blue River is discontinued. Yet the riches that come to the Indian community also destroy it.

Near the beginning of the novel, Grace Blanket is murdered. Grace’s thirteen-year-old daughter Nola and her friend Rena, hidden in the river mud, witness the brutal killing and watch as the unidentifiable murderers arrange Grace’s body to suggest suicide. Because the killers are unaware of the witnesses, Belle and Moses Graycloud keep the children’s knowledge secret in hope of protecting Nola, who, though she is constantly guarded by four mystical hill “runners,” also brings a threat to the entire Graycloud family.

Grace’s murder is only one of many that have recently occurred in Watona and is the first of many murders and atrocities to be committed in the plot of the novel. Grace’s sister, Sara, is blown up, and Benoit, her husband, is wrongfully arrested. The local hermit dies of seemingly natural causes on the same night that John Thomas is shot...

(The entire section is 821 words.)

Mean Spirit Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Allen, Paula Gunn. “Let Us Hold Fierce: Linda Hogan.” In The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986. Allen discusses Hogan’s awakening to her own spirit-based ideology and how Hogan incorporates this vision in her work. Hogan, an activist, uses her work to educate readers on the politics of Indian survival. Allen examines the fusion of spirituality and political commitment that dominates Hogan’s work.

Bonaham, R. A. “Mean Spirit.” Studies in American Indian Literatures: Newsletter of the Association for the Study of American Indian Literatures. (Winter, 1992): 114-116. Bonaham outlines the setting, events, and characters of the novel. He then examines the “spare phrasing and power of visualization” that Hogan, as a poet, brings to her prose. In conclusion, Bonaham attributes the power of Mean Spirit to Hogan’s integration of traditional ritual and historical fact.

Brice, Jennifer. “Earth as Mother, Earth as Other in Novels by Silko and Hogan.” Critique 39 (Winter, 1998): 127-138. Brice explores the concept of earth as mother in Mean Spirit by Linda Hogan and the work of Leslie Marmon Silko. She discusses the use of literary trope and Magical Realism to portray the earth as human and the human as the earth, and demonstrates that the suffering of humanity stems from the aggression of “motherless” men.

Smith, Patricia Clark. “Linda Hogan.” In This Is About Vision: Interviews with Southwestern Writers, edited by William Balassi, John F. Crawford, and Annie O. Eysturoy. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990. Smith explores Hogan’s position as an American writer focusing on Southwestern culture. She also looks at Hogan’s themes and their niche within this group of writers.