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Teaching Tragedy

Mike McBride lectures on Killers of the Flower Moon

Published in 2021 Oklahoma Super Lawyers Magazine

Growing up, Mike McBride heard whispers of the “reign of terror.” A fourth generation Oklahoman, his grandparents lived in Fairfax and owned a five-and-dime store across the street from the Big Hill Trading Co. That name might ring a bell if you’ve read Killers of the Flower Moon.

In the nonfiction bestseller, author David Grann details the string of mysterious Osage tribe murders, as well as the then-fledgling FBI’s involvement. While McBride grew up knowing bits and pieces of the story, he was surprised to learn from Grann’s book just how evil those conspiring and committing the murders were.

“My mom told me stories about some awful things that happened in Fairfax—like someone’s house getting blown up with dynamite, and that there were some murders. But I didn’t know there was an organized conspiracy,” he recalls. “I just thought it was random acts during a lawless time period. It was much more than that.”

In the early 1900s, the Osage were forced from their Kansas homeland and onto scrubland in what later became Oklahoma. The land turned out to be rich in oil, and Osage leaders negotiated monetary compensation to tribe members, known as headrights, for its sale. When the petroleum industry was booming, each headright owner annually received about $180,000 in today’s dollars. However, due to the guardianship and conservancy laws around headrights, McBride says the Osage weren’t treated as adults, but as wards. 

Some guardians even killed to make the inheritances their own. The official record includes 24 deaths, but other evidence suggests the count may be more than 300. “Given the number of unsolved murders and the details that have been lost to history, as I’m out driving in Osage County, I’m struck by the feeling of what happened out here and whether any of this will be solved,” says McBride.

Spending his childhood years on his family’s ranch in Osage County taught McBride an appreciation and respect for the Osage people and their culture. It led to his career in Native American law and opportunities to serve as counsel for tribal nations, including as general counsel to the Osage Nation.

Having previously read the 1994 release The Deaths of Sybil Bolton by Dennis McAuliffe, McBride eagerly picked up Killers upon release. He says the book brought context and light to some of the Native American law cases he read in school. “I think David Grann did an excellent job of representing the individual concerns of Osage citizens, and of the evil side of this great wealth and the corruption that it attracted.”

Given his professional experience, the Tulsa City-County Library first asked him to lecture on Killers of the Flower Moon in 2017, and his presentation maxed out the room at 300-plus attendees. “It demonstrated a fascination and interest of the community for that historical time period and this book,” McBride says.

The presentation was part cultural history and part legal history, covering treaties, allotment laws, Oklahoma’s statehood and other facts. McBride has since given the lecture several more times, including at University of Central Oklahoma, Tinker Air Force Base and the Society of American Indian Government Employees’ national conference. 

He notes that he approached the subject matter carefully: It’s an obviously painful episode in the tribe’s history, even if it has much to teach us today. Before giving the first presentation, McBride spoke with tribal elders and asked what points he should emphasize and—more importantly—what things shouldn’t be said. “I did so out of respect, because it’s very sensitive and a lot of Osage people don’t like to talk about it. It’s painful to revisit.”

Additionally, McBride corresponded with Grann, who reiterated the importance of recognizing the evil of the guardianship system, which was emblematic of the prejudice and greed underlying the murders.

With the Scorsese flick forthcoming, McBride hopes that the movie will convey what the characters were facing and feeling during this terrifying time; and that it will show how the state and local government failed to provide equal protection for the Osage, or see them as whole people. 

“I hope people who watch the movie don’t see [the perpetrator] as the only villain,” he says. “There was a culture of greed that allowed this tragedy to occur.”

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