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.
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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