When Murders were Never Forgotten


The Burkhart sisters (from left) : Rita, Anna, Mollie and Minnie

Writer Tommy Orange makes this observation:

For people of color, or for people from marginalized communities—who have long since given up on being shocked or dismayed by the news, by what this or that administration will allow, what this or that police department will excuse, who will be exonerated, what this or that fellow American is willing to let be, either by contribution or complicity.

Orange, who is Cheyenne and Arapaho and non-Native, wrote these words recently in the New York Times Review of Books about a new novel, Friday Black, that Orange refers to as:

Powerful and important and strange and beautiful collection of stories meant to be read right now, at the end of this year, as we inch ever closer to what feels like an inevitable phenomenal catastrophe or some other kind of radical change, for better or for worse.

I am not surprised that Orange, who describes himself as an urban Indian, would write that people of color have “given up on being shocked” by the news.

Today’s news reads like a tale invented by Ray Bradbury or George Orwell, where books are burned, and lies are masked as truth.

Fiction has become reality, where a para-military force we endorse with our tax dollars removes children from their parents.

We live in a nation where citizens are refused a place to vote.

Sounds like science fiction.

My grandmother might not be shocked to hear such tales because she grew up on a reservation where Native people were shot, poisoned and blown to smithereens.

She grew up in an era where folks you thought you could trust might shoot you dead.

In the 1920s and 1930s, members of the Osage Nation were killed for their oil inheritance.

When dead, an Osage’s inheritance was passed along to a family member–Native or non-Native–or to someone who had taken out an insurance policy on the departed tribal member.

Today, news outlets like PBS call the Osage murders a “forgotten story.”

Truth is, Osage Indians have never forgotten the murders.

My grandmother’s brother heard the homemade bomb explode the night that Rita Burkhart, her white husband, and their housekeeper, were killed in 1923, in Fairfax, Oklahoma.

“My mother told me not to go over there, but I sneaked off, and was sorry I did,” Uncle Fred told True West magazine. “There were pieces of flesh all over, and the house was just a pile of sticks. That stuck with me.”

The history of the murders is described in a best-selling book called Killers of the Flower Moon, by David Grann.

Grann writes that many of the Oklahoma officials—from private detectives to police—were embroiled in the plot to murder Indians.

As a result, the Osages didn’t know who to trust.

When the contemporary writer Tommy Orange notes that marginalized people aren’t shocked by today’s news of corruption and greed, I don’t feel surprised.

For the Osages, it’s a story that has never left us.


Day Five: Native American Heritage Month

5 November 2018
















About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
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3 Responses to When Murders were Never Forgotten

  1. Conrad Ramirez says:

    Still so very sad.


  2. Agreed: the Osages never forgot. What a silly headline in the news.


  3. Cynthia, I have been thinking a lot about my dad’s frequent invitations not to forget that all governments and their surrogates are dangerous. For most of my life I did not really take his pronouncements seriously. Now……


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