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 and murder run rampant. With the government 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 disappearances and murders, several Indians beg the government to investigate. Their pleas catch Stace Red Hawk’s attention.
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 sent to jail, but Stace suspects 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.
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 have entered into such an arrangement end up mysteriously dying. Multiple members of the tribe write to Washington DC, requesting a federal investigation into the recent spate of mysterious deaths. The only person who seems to take an interest in the case is Stace Red Hawk, a Sioux government investigator who travels to Watona disguised as a medicine man to investigate the situation...
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During the winter, Nola Blanket marries Will Forrest. Will is the son of Mr. Forrest, who manages Nola's fortune as her court-appointed “guardian.” Though Nola spends extravagantly on the wedding, she marries Will mostly out of fear that if she stays unmarried, her life will remain in danger. Though the townspeople see that Will truly loves Nola, she secretly fears that he will one day conspire with his father to murder her for her inheritance. While imprisoned, Benoit finally marries his longtime lover, Lettie Graycloud. The next day, he is found hanging in his cell, having apparently committed suicide.
After the terrible events of the winter, the spring brings new hope for the Osage people. A noted Sioux medicine man named Lionel Tall comes to Watona to help the Osage people spiritually heal from their terrible misfortunes. Many people begin to reject the white aspects of their lives and return to their Indian roots: the Christian preacher, Joe Billy, begins to practice traditional Bat Medicine; Belle Graycloud draws solace from the spiritual power of the bats who live in Sorrow Cave; and Stace and Michael Horse camp in the wilderness and visit the Hill Indians in an attempt to understand the chaos raging in Watona. Meanwhile, Nola becomes pregnant and gains a sense of temporary security, though she continues to fear the future. One day, the Grayclouds discover oil coming from a creek on Belle’s allotment; desperately afraid that they will be targeted next, they attempt to keep the discovery hidden. Unsure of whom to trust, Belle and Lettie begin to suspect their own family members of being involved in the oil conspiracy. Meanwhile, Stace Red Hawk begins to suspect that the suspicious activity in Watona goes much higher than John Hale. Not sure whether to trust his colleagues, Stace begins to investigate more on his own. Fearing that the Grayclouds are in danger, he leaves them an anonymous note of warning.
Soon suspicious disappearances and deaths begin occurring once more: an Indian man disappears and James Josh turns up at a hospital claiming to have been poisoned by John Hale. James tells Nola’s guardian, Mr. Forrest, about Hale, and Mr. Forrest begins to piece together the conspiracy. On the train to Watona, Mr. Forrest is grabbed and thrown from the train. The death of the white Mr. Forrest on Indian land finally gives the federal government jurisdiction to officially investigate the recent events in Watona. Meanwhile, Belle Graycloud discovers that the Indian Agency is leasing out part of her allotment to John Hale. One day, while tending her bees, Belle is shot but luckily only receives a superficial wound. Her bees swarm off into the forest. Later that day, a warrant for her arrest is issued after the sheriff Jess Gold is found stung to death by her bees. Realizing that Jess Gold and the sheriff's office are in on the oil plot, the Grayclouds decide to fake Belle’s death and send her to hide among the Hill Indians.
John Hale is eventually tried for his involvement in the recent murders by both a state and a federal court. Both trials are rampant with corruption and though Hale is sent to prison, the Osage—who realize that the oil conspiracy went far beyond Hale—are left without justice. During the trial, many Indians are tricked into selling their land and are forced to move away. Nola eventually snaps and, after shooting Will, leaves to raise her baby among the Hill Indians. Belle returns from the hills and the Grayclouds intend to stay on their land. However, one night, Moses Graycloud senses that his twin sister Ruth is in danger and rushes to her house to find her shot dead by her white husband, John Tate. Realizing that Tate has been a part of the conspiracy all along, Moses kills him and flees back to the Graycloud home. Knowing that he will be arrested for Tate’s murder, Moses and the rest of the Grayclouds quickly begin to drive away on a wagon, just in time to escape a bomb that destroys their family home. Defeated but alive, they leave town forever and are joined by Stace Red Hawk, who is finally ready to return to the Sioux people.