(Bloomberg) — This is the transcript for the second episode of Bloomberg and iHeart investigative podcast “In Trust.” Learn more and subscribe to In Trust on iHeart, Apple or Spotify.
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Episode One: The List
Rachel Adams-Heard This is a story about land, and oil. About family. About wealth. About the stories we pass down, and the stories we don’t. It’s about a Native American reservation. And the people who own the land today.
This story took me to northern Oklahoma. To Osage County, on the border with Kansas. One-and-a-half million acres, covered in bluestem grass, with pools of oil below the ground. And that oil – a century ago, it brought tremendous wealth to some of the people who lived here. At least for a while.
Tara Damron Hello!Rachel Adams-Heard Hello!Tara Damron Come on in!
Rachel Adams-Heard This is Tara Damron. She’s a citizen of the Osage Nation. Tara’s in charge of an Osage history center called the White Hair Memorial, outside of a small town called Hominy.
The building is an old house, surrounded by trees, tucked away from the miles and miles of bluestem grass you see from the highway. And I’m here because I wanted Tara to tell me what she remembers from June of 2009.
Tara Damron It is hot. I just remember having to like get myself prepared for the heat. And June for Osages is a really busy month. That’s when we have our In-Lon-Schka, our ceremonies. And it’s kind of like a reunion, because you get to see a lot of your family members, a lot of people will come home for that and come back to that and make a point to be there.
Rachel Adams-Heard Tara’s been going to the June ceremonies—the big meals and traditional dances—since she was a kid, but I wanted to know what she remembered about one specific day from that month: June 18.
Tara Damron It was a Thursday, it was the start of the Hominy dances, you know, everybody’s sort of keyed up and excited. Everybody was talking about “the list” and whose names are on it.
Rachel Adams-Heard The list. This is why I wanted to talk to Tara. I’m a reporter, I had gotten a tip about one of the names on that list she mentioned. The name of a prominent family you might have heard of. We’ll get to that, but first you should know that this list, when it came out, it was a big deal.
Tara had been hearing about it all day. At lunch. Her parent’s house earlier, while her dad read the paper. The first time she heard, it was from her uncle, Charles Pratt. He called her that morning – excited.
Tara Damron Baby was his term of affection. He’s like “Baby! The list came out.” You know, like “What!” But he was like a little kid.
Rachel Adams-Heard Charles was in the middle of a lawsuit. His lawsuit is the reason this list became public. Charles and his co-plaintiffs were suing the United States government over how it was managing something called the Osage Mineral Estate.
The mineral estate dates back more than a hundred years. The US had been breaking up Native reservations, trying to privatize the land, and take it out of the control of tribal nations. But when it came to the Osage Reservation, everything underground–the mineral rights, the oil–the Osage Nation fought to hold onto it. And they succeeded.
Congress passed a law in 1906, and the mineral rights to the reservation were put into one big pot that was divided into shares like a corporation. The shareholders were 2,229 Osage citizens. Each share would come to be called a headright. And everyone who had a headright was entitled to some of the money from oil and gas drilling in the area.
Tara Damron It’s money from the mineral estate set aside for the Osage Indians that our leaders set up to help us provide a financial foundation.
Rachel Adams-Heard The government paid out royalties to headright holders each quarter. Over the years, most shares have been divided into smaller and smaller fractions, passed to descendants.
Headrights are a lot more than just a check in the mail for oil money. For a long time, the federal government didn’t even consider someone a citizen of the Osage Nation unless they had a headright or a fraction of one. They couldn’t vote in Osage elections without them.
When Charles Pratt and his co-plaintiffs filed that lawsuit, they were arguing the government was doing a bad job of managing all the money that belonged to Osage headright holders. They wanted the US to provide an accounting of where all this money, Osage money, was going and had gone, over the last hundred years.
For a long time, the way the US government managed this trust has been wrapped in secrecy. Even the people who were meant to benefit from the trust couldn’t see the financial details. The government had long kept the names of headright holders private, too.
But as part of that lawsuit, a court ordered the government to produce a list—the names of people, churches, oil companies and other groups that were not Osage, but had somehow ended up with a share of the mineral estate. Nearly 2,000 names, made public because of a surprise decision by the court that all those non-Osages would need to be sued, too.
Tara Damron This was the first time in over a hundred years that we, as Osages, were able to see in black and white an official list from the government of all these non-Osages that had headrights.
(sounds of papers rustling) Let’s see, here it is.
Rachel Adams-Heard A local paper had published a list in full that morning. The paper was was the Bigheart Times —its tagline reads, “the only newspaper in the world that really gives a diddly!”
Tara Damron So this is dated Thursday, June 18, 2009, the Bigheart Times and the headline reads “Suit Names Non-Osage Shareholders.” “The list of defendants is vast: 1,749 people and entities that includes ranchers, lawyers, churches, schools, and even a former librarian of Congress who once joined the Communist party.” Rachel Adams-Heard That’s an amazing detail. Tara Damron So in addition to individuals, there were corporations, there were a number of churches, a lot of trusts, you see that a lot, Jean Harlow, the Hissom Memorial Center, University of Oklahoma, the University of Texas, several oil companies are on there. Of course the Drummonds were on there. They’re a big ranch family, in Osage County.
Rachel Adams-Heard Some of these names, Tara told me, were pretty surprising: the family of Jean Harlow, a famous Hollywood actress from the 1930s; the Hissom Memorial Center, an institution that was forced to shut down decades ago because staff were accused of abusing the intellectually disabled patients who lived there.
Tara Damron Like, how in the world did they get ahold of Osage headrights, which is the next logical question, anyone looking at that list would ask.
Rachel Adams-Heard We do know how some non-Osages would have ended up with headrights. For a long time, they could be sold to non-Osages. Sometimes, Osages used their headright share as an investment for a stake in a company.
If you scan through the list, with all the churches and nonprofits, it seems likely that a lot of them received headrights from Osage citizens who died and left them as a charitable donation.
But there was another way non-Osages got headrights. For a long time, someone outside the Osage Nation could inherit one if they married an Osage man or woman, and that person died.
And when oil was discovered in Osage County, and headrights became incredibly valuable, Osages who had them became targets.
Often, you’ll hear that time—the 1920s—referred to as the Reign of Terror, when dozens of Osages were targeted in widespread, violent schemes. These weren’t just one-off crimes. It was an entire criminal conspiracy, led by White people, who would marry Osages for their headrights and then kill them. And what I hope you’ll see as we get into this, is that the Reign of Terror left a profound impact on the Osage Nation. It devastated the community. Ripped families apart. And the effects are still present today.
Tara says, for a long time, the Reign of Terror just wasn’t discussed. It was too painful, and the risk of becoming a target again seemed too high.
So when this list came out –
Tara Damron People started asking questions. They were asking family members. So it started sort of this unearthing of this sort of big, huge, giant secret that Osages or local people that grew up in and around Osage County always knew or suspected. It was huge. It was a significant moment. Think about that: 1906 to 2009. Imagine being defrauded all those years. I think you’re gonna be pissed, right? Yeah.
Rachel Adams-Heard Tara laughs sometimes when she talks about this. But I don’t get the sense she thinks it’s funny. There’s this outrageousness to it all. That the Osage Nation’s trustee, the US federal government, is keeping this information from the very people this trust is for. Even after that system created one of the worst tragedies in the Osage Nation’s history.
Tara says, when the list came out, and people started talking about where those headrights ended up. It gave more momentum to what her Uncle Charles was saying in his lawsuit: that the federal government wasn’t doing a good job managing Osage money.
Tara Damron It absolutely made us start to question and wonder and ask. All these things, that someone like a shareholder in a corporation, those would be normal things, financial reports. And you know, we have a right to know where our money’s going.
Rachel Adams-Heard Just so you know, I’ve asked the government agency that manages the mineral estate, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, about some of the names on that list, like Hissom. Where those checks are going, and who’s getting paid, especially if the organization literally doesn’t exist anymore. A spokesman said they don’t comment on issues involving ongoing litigation.
When it comes to headrights, the federal government tends to say it’s a matter of privacy. That the protections in place for Osage headright holders are the same ones in place for non-Osage ones.
It’s important to remember that when it comes to the Osage Nation and tribal nations across the country, the United States isn’t just a bureaucrat. It’s a trustee, a relationship born from the treaties that were signed, and often forced, more than a century ago. It means the federal government has a fiduciary obligation to tribal nations and tribal citizens whose money, land and mineral rights are held in trust by the US on their behalf. And that fiduciary obligation, it’s a big deal, considered the highest degree of duty that exists in the American legal system.
Tara Damron What I always tell people is that, that government, that relationship can’t end. We can’t divorce each other. You know, what I mean? It is what it is. We can’t just say, “You know what? We really don’t like you. We want someone else to manage our money.” It doesn’t work like that. So we are stuck with each other, for better or worse.
Rachel Adams-Heard Over the last several decades, the US has settled multiple lawsuits for falling short of its trust duty when it comes to managing Native American assets. That includes a case the Osage Nation brought more than 20 years ago that the US settled in 2011 for $380 million. The settlement paid out to all headright holders, Osage or not, meaning someone with one headright received a little over $150,000.
But Tara says, the fact that non-Osages continue to get headright money shows the US is still falling short of its obligation to the Osage Nation. When Tara’s Uncle Charles died, she took his spot as one of the plaintiffs on the case. They’ve been successful in getting a partial accounting, but the lawsuit is still ongoing.
Meanwhile, the Osage Nation’s been working to get federal legislation passed, so that some of those headrights can be returned. Today, a little over a quarter of all headrights are owned by people or groups that are not Osage. When you account for inflation, headrights owned by non-Osages have paid out $500 billion over the last few decades.
Tara Damron It’s not their money. It’s our money. It’s not Jean Harlow’s money. It’s not Hissom Memorial Center’s. It’s our money, those original allottees and their descendants.
Rachel Adams-Heard This story starts with headrights. But it brought me far beyond that. Because when I started asking about how a bunch of non-Osages ended up on that list, I found another story too – a story about a whole system that worked to move Osage wealth into the hands of White people. A system that shapes who has land and influence here today. A system set up by the federal government.
You’re listening to “In Trust.” I’m Rachel Adams-Heard.
I want to tell you more about that list of non-Osage headright holders. But to really understand what it meant for that list to go public, you have to know how the Osage Nation got to its reservation, and how the headright system was created.
For a long time, Osage territory stretched across land that would eventually make up Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas. But the US government pressured the Osage Nation into a series of treaties, until it was left with just a small fraction of that land: a reservation in Kansas.
But after conflict with White settlers on that reservation, the Osage Nation went south, to what would later become Osage County.
Jim Gray The tribe had sold her lands in Kansas and used that money to buy this reservation.
Rachel Adams-Heard This is Jim Gray, he was chief of the Osage Nation from 2002 to 2010.
Jim Gray We didn’t just get moved here by treaty, we bought it. We had a property title to it.
Rachel Adams-Heard The Osage Nation purchased its new reservation from the Cherokee Nation in the 1870s. Jim told me that property title would prove to be massively important. Because not long after the Osage Nation moved, the US government wanted to change things, again. The government wanted to take the Osage Reservation, which the Nation as a whole held the title to and parcel it out to individual Osage citizens instead. This was called allotment.
Jim Gray This individual Osage receiving an individual allotment, that was new. We never went down that road of individual landowners, even in Missouri and Arkansas. Everyone benefited from the collective ownership of this land and they, whatever bounty came from it was spread with all the people.
Rachel Adams-Heard Allotment started on a lot of Native land after Congress passed the Dawes General Allotment Act in 1887. This was part of a broader, deliberate, and violent strategy to try and assimilate Native communities, kill off their traditions and lifestyles and make their land available for White settlement.
According to the book “Uneven Ground,” allotment reduced Native American-controlled land from 2 billion acres to 150 million acres. But the Osage Nation was initially exempt from the Dawes Act and allotment, because of that property title Jim mentioned.
Jim Gray So when they tried to allot the Osage lands, they couldn’t do it without our consent, where they could just do whatever they wanted with everyone else’s land that was in Indian Territory. The tribe had some political rights that protected their property interest.Rachel Adams-Heard Some negotiating power? Jim Gray Mhm. But not enough to stop it all together. Statehood was coming. There’s no way you can stop that. And the tribal leader at that time, James Bigheart—who was a brilliant man and way ahead of his time—did what he thought thought was the right thing to do, and so we cut a deal. Okay, allot of surface lands, but the subsurface remains as a mineral estate.
Rachel Adams-Heard This was a savvy and unique deal that Osage leaders negotiated. It’s all laid out in a law called the 1906 Osage Allotment Act. And that law is where headrights come from: all those shares of all the oil and gas rights beneath the land. A year after that law, Oklahoma became a state, and it established Osage County directly on top of the Osage Reservation. There were already some White families living there, traders and cattlemen. But after allotment, more and more settlers moved there, and started trying to get land and headrights for themselves.
Starting in the 19-teens, headrights became incredibly valuable. Oil production took off, and money was pouring in. A lot of Osage families could afford the finest cars, the nicest furniture. There were tales of this wealth across the country, many of them exaggerated. In June of 1921, the Osage Nation made the New York Times. The headline: “Osage are Richest People” in all caps. And then: “Greatest per capita wealth in world results from oil deal.”
But that wealth, and all that attention, it brought tragedy.
Jim Gray It was the the the dominant society’s view that these savages weren’t entitled to anything. And if they got something, then it was within your right as a White person to take it, and that mentality spilled out into the entire society.
Rachel Adams-Heard In 1918, an inspector from the Department of Interior was sent to Osage County to report on the explosion of wealth. Two years later, that inspector, a man named H.S. Traylor, submitted to Congress a racist tirade against Osages and how they spent their money. He called it sinful, and he said if something wasn’t done about Osage wealth, then, quote: “Their everlasting damnation is as sure and certain as the daily sinking of the sun in the west.” He neglected to mention the uptick in crime against Osage headright holders. No acknowledgment that this money belonged to Osage citizens, and they could do whatever they wanted with it. Or that Osage spending was largely in line with that of White Americans in the same income bracket.
Jim Gray These guys weren’t friends of the Native American community. And the fact that these particular Native Americans ended up incredibly wealthy, “something that something’s wrong with the system,” you know? And if one of them got killed, and someone sought justice in the state courts, they didn’t get it. Do you think these guys lost any sleep over it?
Rachel Adams-Heard It’s hard to communicate the full breadth and impact of the Reign of Terror. But you can’t understand the importance of the list without knowing that this was a tragedy that many White people in Osage County were complicit in. Groups of White people conspired to manipulate and murder Osage citizens. The FBI confirmed as much nearly a hundred years ago. Osages were shot. They were poisoned. Their cars were run off the road. One couple’s house was blown up.
Jim Gray And it was just like a cottage industry of finding different ways to off Osages. And in all those cases, there was always some non-Indian benefiting from that. Whether it was a guardian, or spouse, a creditor, whatever.
Rachel Adams-Heard We don’t have exact numbers on how many people were targeted then, because what researchers have found is that a lot of these cases weren’t investigated. A lot of times, they were covered up. Official figures put it somewhere between 24 and 60 Osages who were killed in the early 1920s, but at least one federal investigator thought it could be in the hundreds. Corruption was rampant, and local officials often couldn’t be trusted. But the Reign of Terror wasn’t limited to murder.
It was shady financial maneuvering on behalf of bankers and lawyers. Intricate schemes involving probates and powers of attorney. Sometimes, it was more blunt: getting someone drunk and tricking them into signing away their land.
Jim Gray It was like every institution that existed in Osage Nation at the time or Osage County, however you want to call, it was not there for any other purpose but to separate the Osages just from their land and their money. That’s how Osages felt.
Rachel Adams-Heard It’s worth remembering—the US legal system, the English language—this was all almost totally new to a lot of Osages at the time. The government, specifically the Department of Interior’s Office of Indian Affairs, they were supposed to make sure that didn’t lead to exploitation. But they didn’t do a very good job. What the government chose to do was label Osage citizens incompetent—that was the official word they used, incompetent—and put White people in charge of their finances.
This was an official system. At one point, hundreds of Osages and other Native Americans were, by default, appointed a guardian—an educated White person, usually a lawyer or businessman—who would manage their money for them. A paternalistic policy, steeped in racism, that White politicians justified as a way to protect Native Americans from getting swindled and stolen from. But often, those guardians were in on the very schemes the government said it was trying to prevent.
Jim Gray We don’t really see them as incompetent fools who lost everything. We see him more as a horrible victim of a greedy society. That, while they were trying to learn to walk in both worlds, this world just came and stomped on them. Some of them survived. Some of them didn’t. But it’s a difficult, difficult chapter in our tribe’s history that unfortunately has created a form of generational trauma. And in not so much in the way that you think, but that it robbed us of generational wealth.
Rachel Adams-Heard A single headright today, adjusted for inflation, would have paid out about $4 million over the last 100 years.
Jim Gray Can you imagine if we were able to hang on to that fourth of the headrights that have gone out of the tribe, and those dollars got reinvested in our children’s education, or buying land, or building the land up, or protecting our tribal communities in ways that we can’t even imagine? And have the children raised in that environment, do the same in their lives. And have those headright monies coming in and they’re building wealth? But that was never going to happen to us. Because of all these different interests from the outside that were bent on either exploiting the laws, or bending the law, or ignoring the law to get away with whatever they would needed to do to get their hands on the money.
Rachel Adams-Heard It’s hard to know how many headrights left Osage ownership because of the Reign of Terror. A big part of that is because very few people were investigated back then, much less convicted.
The most famous conviction from that time was of a rancher named William K. Hale, who was accused of masterminding the murders of several Osages. He only got caught because the Osage Nation hired the FBI to look into the murders: $20,000, out of pocket, to get federal authorities to investigate.
Jim Gray You know, this took a long time to get this guy behind bars. He had vast resources at his disposal that, you know, manipulated the media, that influenced the judges, influenced juries, influenced the prosecutors. Public sentiment was all in his favor at the time.
Rachel Adams-Heard Eventually, Hale was found guilty of just one of the murders he allegedly ordered. He was convicted for aiding and abetting the killing of an Osage man named Henry Roan. Roan was shot in the head, in his car. He was Jim’s great-grandfather.
Jim Gray Being the last of seven kids, I guess Mom was running out of names to give us—I don’t know. But she named me James Roan Gray. I think it was her way of making me aware of that past.
Rachel Adams-Heard The mayor of Fairfax said Roan considered Hale a friend. One of his best friends. But there isn’t much surviving knowledge about Henry Roan’s life outside of the FBI files.
Jim Gray Looking back, when I think about how many Osage families just stopped talking about the Reign of Terror, for fear they would bring about some tragic consequences to their lives. People just stopped talking about it. Mom grew up in that environment. And since she didn’t really talk about it that much, you could see this generational trauma that it caused. My education is whatever I read. It wasn’t any oral stories that were passed down.
Rachel Adams-Heard It wasn’t until the ‘90s, when Jim was a young adult, that he would ask his mom about the Reign of Terror.
Jim had just read a new book from Washington Post journalist Dennis McAuliffe Jr. It’s called “The Deaths of Sybil Bolton.”
Jim Gray I talked to her about it. We had one conversation.
Rachel Adams-Heard In the book, McAullife, who’s Osage himself, investigates the murder of his grandmother, a woman named Sybil Bolton. McAuliffe had grown up believing his grandmother died from kidney disease. But what McAuliffe found was that she was murdered: shot in front of her home, likely by her guardian, her White stepfather, while the FBI was focused on getting Hale. Her stepfather was after her headright.
Jim Gray One of the things that startled me about reading Dennis’s book was that he was writing about killings in his own family, but also scenarios that he could tell through his research, that there was a lot of unsolved murders going on. He explained how the the mortuaries would write the death certificates in such a way where they would not draw any attention.
Rachel Adams-Heard Henry Roan is mentioned in that book. And that got Jim curious about other members of his family. So one day, while he was visiting his mom back home, he decided to ask her about it.
Jim Gray She was in the living room and I was in the kitchen, and I was just shouting questions at her because I was reading the book. I said, have you read the book, have you read? She goes, “Yeah I read it, you know.” So how to Grandpa Gray die? “He had a heart attack.” How did Grandma Gray die? “She died giving birth to your, your Uncle Clarence.” How did your mom die? “She died in a car wreck.” As did your uncle, when he was an infant? So you read the book, you have this conversation with your mom. And next thing you know, what Dennis was writing was, arguably, could be happening in this family. But we just didn’t talk about it. Rachel Adams-Heard What did you think after that conversation? Jim Gray She’s way too smart, to be naive. But she was, but she was trying to pretend she was. That’s what I thought.Rachel Adams-Heard Mhm.Jim Gray I’m trying to put myself in my mom’s place right now. She lived through all that as a child, and here she is in her late-60s in the 1990s, trying to explain it to her young son in his 20s. And, how much do you share? Whatever more she knew, it went to her grave. But just that one little conversation we had about how everyone passed away, she acknowledged in that 10-year span, my grandfather, my grandmother, my grandmother—on my other side—and my uncle, on that same side, and my great-grandfather all died.Rachel Adams-Heard And what were those 10 years?Jim Gray From 1921 to 1930. The reason that this is important is that it has not gone away with our tribe. Our people have not made peace with this yet. We were forced into silence out of fear. And fear is probably not the right word, because fear is something that you imagine in your mind that’s not really happening. No, it was happening. You know, it’s not fear if it’s really happening, right?
Rachel Adams-Heard Jim Gray is not the only Osage citizen who’s had to piece together parts of his family history with books and research. That generation, their elders, they just didn’t talk about it.
What I took from that conversation with Jim, and the many other phone calls and sit-downs we’ve had over the last several months, is that it’s not just the Bureau of Indian Affairs that’s keeping details about non-Osage headright holders a secret. There’s this big gap in a lot of Osage families’ history when it comes to that time period. And that’s made it difficult for even the Osage Nation to piece together which outsiders have shares of their mineral estate. Jim says people have tried.
Jim Gray We got a list that was handwritten. It was copied, and copied, and copied, and handed out at different meetings. There was just a list of names of organizations and individuals, but no value next to each one of them. Whether they owned one headright, or ten headrights, or a fraction of one.
Rachel Adams-Heard When Jim became chief, he says that handwritten list had already been circulating within the Osage Nation’s government.
Jim Gray That list that I had, that old wrinkled up over copied list, it wasn’t actionable. I couldn’t attribute it to anybody at the BIA as an official list. The BIA would never go on the record and say these are the people who got headrights.Rachel Adams-Heard And who wrote the list? Jim Gray We don’t know. No one at the BIA would ever acknowledge who authored that list.
Tara Damron They’ve been protecting those names for over 100 years, you know, names of non-Osages, who have our money and get our money, you know.Rachel Adams-Heard Today?Tara Damron Today, yeah.
Rachel Adams-Heard When the official list came out – the one Tara Damron saw in the paper, with all the non-Osages who had headrights, it wasn’t just Osage citizens who noticed.
Tara Damron A lot of people, a lot of, namely, probably those people that were on that list, were not happy. You know and they were very vocal. And I know that from, you know, personal communication with Charles Pratt. And they came up to him, and were just so angry that this list had come out.
Rachel Adams-Heard This had all been kept under wraps for so long. Now it was out there, in the open.
Tara Damron You should have seen the amount of attorneys that showed up to represent the White people.
Rachel Adams-Heard Tara told me about one time, when her Uncle Charles brought her to court with him.
Tara Damron And I had driven him, and we went to court and I said, “Who were those people?” And he said, “Oh, those are the attorneys for the White people, you know. They’re all here.”
Rachel Adams-Heard One attorney told me, after the list came out, the courtroom was like an Oklahoma Bar Association meeting. A bunch of people on that list got a lawyer. But in the end, they didn’t really need the lawyers anyway. After all that, the court said it wasn’t necessary for all these people to be added as defendants for the case to go forward.
But the list: they couldn’t undo the list. It was just out there, lingering. No explanations. No amounts. Just names. And for the last 13 years, lots and lots of questions about how on earth they ended up with Osage headrights.
(Broadcast news clip: “Work is underway in Pawhuska where director Martin Scorsese will make his next movie, ‘Killers of the Flower Moon.’”)
Rachel Adams-Heard People talk more than ever about the Reign of Terror now, maybe partly because of that list, but mostly because of a movie about it, set to come out within the next year or so. A lot of the movie was filmed in Osage County and features Osage citizens.
(Broadcast news clip: “Construction crews recreating the 1920s, tearing out metal to recreate what the streets of Pawhuska looked like.”)
It’s directed by Martin Scorsese. Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro are starring in it. So is Lily Gladstone, who grew up on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Montana. As filming started, Osage leaders met with Scorsese. If this story was going to be told, they wanted it told right.
The movie is based on a book, also called “Killers of the Flower Moon.” It’s from a few years ago, by a journalist named David Grann. The book focuses a lot on the murders William Hale was behind, including Henry Roan’s.
There have been a few books about the Reign of Terror, but none of them took off quite like Grann’s. The book’s success has meant a lot of people across the country are now learning about this history for the first time.
And as that history becomes more widely known, people have even started traveling to Osage County to see where it all happened. An Osage News article from June of 2019 counted four tours being offered in the county. At the cemetery where many of the victims are buried, the Osage Nation had to put up a fence to keep tourists out.
This history didn’t end a hundred years ago. It still shapes Osage County today, and not just its tourism. It’s left behind questions, about who gained wealth back then, and how. Questions that could have painful answers. I asked Tara—would it be better to leave that past alone?
Rachel Adams-Heard I don’t want it to be like, unnecessarily opening old wounds. Tara Damron You know, there’s never been any closure. So, the truth has got to come out, you know, and it’s not always pretty and it’s not always flattering. But I think that’s one thing that as Osages, we as a people have to acknowledge that, and go through that. And then the same thing for everyone else that was involved, that is involved. And it’s probably going to depend on who you talk to because some people will feel differently about it. And they say, “Oh, just they’re just too powerful to stop.” Rachel Adams-Heard They being?Tara Damron They, they being like the Drummonds or someone that has so much property—Osage property. But how’d you get it? How’d they get it?
Rachel Adams-Heard I haven’t fully told you yet why I’m telling you this story. Why I first called Tara, more than a year ago, why we’re talking about this list. I’m telling you all this because on that list, alongside the Catholic Church, oil companies, the family of a movie star, is another name.
(Introduction from “The Pioneer Woman” television show: “I’m Ree Drummond. I live on a ranch in the middle of nowhere, and all my recipes have to be approved by cowboys, hungry kids and me. Here’s what’s happening on the ranch.”)
Rachel Adams-Heard If you know the name Drummond, it’s probably because of the Pioneer Woman, Ree Drummond. She’s another reason Pawhuska’s getting so much attention now.
(Broadcast news clip: “We told you last night at 10, Ree Drummond also known as the Pioneer Woman and for her hit show on the Food Network, held a job fair in Tulsa today for the Pioneer Woman Mercantile store opening in Pawhuska.”)
Rachel Adams-Heard Ree’s a Food Network star. She’s become famous for her down-home cooking recipes for chicken fried steak and chocolate peanut butter pies and “Knock-You-Naked Brownies.” Her restaurants in downtown Pawhuska bring a bunch of tourists. You can shop at her store, called The Mercantile, and stay at her hotel, The Pioneer Woman Boarding House.
Ree started out as a blogger, but over the last 10 years or so, her brand has kind of exploded. She has a lifestyle website published by Hearst, and Wal-Mart carries a line of dishes and throw towels and clothing, all with her trademark floral design.
Ree fashions herself as a city girl turned ranch wife. She married into the Drummond family. Her brand sells a lifestyle, call it upmarket pioneer. In her books and blog posts, she calls her husband, Ladd Drummond, the Marlboro Man. He runs a massive ranching operation alongside his brother, Tim.
(Broadcast news clip: “His family’s been herding cattle for four generations here in Pawhuska Oklahoma, near Tulsa.”)
I’ve asked Ree for an interview with her and Ladd, but so far, she hasn’t responded. And I want to be clear, that while she’s built her brand around the Drummond ranching legacy, a lot of what I’m going to tell you about in this series happened long before Ree or any other present-day members of the family were even born.
Today, when you look at a map of Osage County, a place that was once owned entirely by the Osage Nation, a huge chunk of it is now owned by the Drummond family and other large, non-Osage ranching incorporations. A lot of Drummonds are still ranchers. Some are lawyers.
(Audio clip: “Alright the following segment is sponsored by Blue Sky Bank.”)
One of them runs a bank.
(Audio Clips: “This is a bank that’s been around for a long, long time.” “We are one of the last remaining true community owned banks, began in Pawhuska in 1904.”)
The Drummond in this interview, the one who owns Blue Sky Bank, is named Gentner Drummond. He’s also the Republican nominee for Oklahoma Attorney General. The election is this November, and it comes at a pretty critical time for the state and tribal nations in Oklahoma. If Gentner wins, he’ll be leading the way Oklahoma responds to a series of Supreme Court decisions that have huge impacts on tribal sovereignty.
(Broadcast news clip: Now no Democratic candidates filed to run for AG in this race. The victory comes as a big relief for Drummond who lost in a close Republican primary runoff in 2018.)
I could go on about the various ways the Drummonds are deeply rooted in Oklahoma. The family’s been here since before it was a state.
They were some of the first White people on the Osage Reservation. The first Drummond who came here, named Frederick, was a Scottish immigrant. He moved to the Osage Reservation in the late 1800s.
But the reason I’m telling you all this, is that a 100 years ago, members of the Drummond family were intertwined with the financial affairs of generations of Osage families.
They owned a store that almost the whole town of Hominy shopped at. They ran the town bank, helped oversee the publisher of the local paper, owned part of a funeral home. They were financial guardians, administered estates.
And they bought land. Lots of it. Today, a bunch of members of the extended Drummond family have land and ranching businesses in Osage County. When you put the dozens of Drummond individuals and entities together, the broader family owns more land there than anyone else, almost 9% of the county. In fact, they’re some of the biggest landowners in the state.
The name Drummond’s on that list of non-Osage headright holders, too. It’s right there, in black and white. The Alfred Alexander Drummond Trust. Frederick Drummond. Someone named Jean Drummond. Those last two have died since the list was published, meaning those headright shares have passed down to someone else.
I’ve been reporting on energy—oil and gas, for the most part—for a few years now. And one day, I got a call from a source, an Oklahoma oil guy. He had a tip.
This source told me there was more to the Drummonds than people outside Osage County knew. He told me the Drummonds had headrights. Maybe even a lot. This was just a rumor. But knowing the history of the place, all the tragedy surrounding headrights, I wanted to know if it was true.
We’ll be right back.
Rachel Adams Heard The list in the Bigheart Times told me some of the Drummonds had headrights, or at least pieces of them. But I wanted to know if this was the name that stood out to folks.
Male Speaker One There are so many people out there that have access to headright payments that are non-Osage, that have no business whatsoever with them.
Rachel Adams Heard I started asking around about headrights and the non-Osages who had them, and I learned that Drummond is one of the first names people bring up.
Female Speaker One There’s always, you know, the tales that you hear that the Drummonds have headrights.
Female Speaker Two ConocoPhillips has some. The Drummonds have some.
Rachel Adams Heard I asked everyone who would talk to me what they had heard about the Drummonds’ history, and what they might be holding onto today. And the more people I talked to, the more I started to hear a lot of different numbers.
Male Speaker Two It’s anywhere from 23 to 27. It was a number in that range that I heard.
Male Speaker Three I’ve heard 22 and 24, you know because people talk too, so like, all the checks go through this thing called the BIA, the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
Rachel Adams Heard Someone told me you were in a meeting one time, and you said that the Drummonds have 22 headrights.Male Speaker Four “Approximately” was the exact quote. I don’t know the real answer. I haven’t seen the list.
Rachel Adams Heard Sometimes the numbers were lower. Male Speaker Five That’s more than I thought. I thought it was like 19, but that’s a lot!
Male Speaker Six I don’t see any evidence of it.Rachel Adams Heard You think that the number is a lot lower? Male Speaker Six I think it’s a lot lower, probably two, three.
Rachel Adams Heard I’ve talked to members of the Drummond family for this story. You’ll hear from some of them later in this series. And I want to note that their family history, Oklahoma history, it’s complicated. One member of the Drummond family told me he’s a citizen of the Choctaw Nation, that his mother’s side has its own history with the fallout of White settlement. We’ll get to that, but for now, just know that when I asked some of the Drummond family about headrights, they also said the number’s a lot lower.
Jason Aamodt My name’s Jason Aamodt, and I’m an attorney at a law firm called the Indian and Environmental Law Group here in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Rachel Adams Heard Jason Aamodt has seen the list. The one with numbers. Jason’s spent the past 20 years working on the mismanagement case that made the list public. He represented Charles Pratt, Tara’s uncle.
At the heart of the lawsuit is this idea that the government has mismanaged the mineral estate and never had to fully account for where all the money’s gone.
Jason Aamodt We said, look, not only is the federal government failing to account for these things, but when they’re failing to account for them, they’re also paying some people too much money, and not paying other people enough money, not paying some people who are entitled any money at all.
Rachel Adams Heard And when Jason and his co-counsel made that argument to get an accounting, the government turned around and said, “It’s not just us you should be suing.”
Jason Aamodt There’s all these other people who are out here who are non-Indians. And if the plaintiffs are saying that we’re paying those people money, and we shouldn’t, then they should have to name them as defendants. And initially, the court bought that really crappy argument, right? And ordered us to do that.
Rachel Adams Heard The court’s order got the government to turn over the list to Jason. That version has numbers, but Jason’s bound by a protective order. The court has limited how much he can talk about this, so he has to be careful what he says.
Jason Aamodt And while we complied with, very carefully, with the court’s protective order, we were required to name each of those entities and people in the complaint that was filed in the case and so they’re all named in the caption of the case.
Rachel Adams Heard So that’s how the names, without numbers, ended up in the Bigheart Times – all of them were listed as defendants in this case, which was public, and not bound by the protective order. That’s the list that Tara saw. So even though the court changed its mind and said all those non-Osage headright holders didn’t actually need to be involved in the case, the list is out there.
Jason still has the original list, the one with headright amounts alongside the names. I’ve tried to get Jason to give me his list. Over the phone, in his office, at lunch. I’ve asked specifically about the Drummonds, too.
Jason Aamodt If I could tell you, I might try to, but I don’t really know. I just don’t know that number. I’ve got it on a CD-ROM, which is how the federal government gave it to me back in the day. But I don’t know the answer.Rachel Adams Heard What happens if you share that information?Jason Aamodt I’d probably lose my bar license.
Rachel Adams Heard I asked if the Drummonds had a lot. He wouldn’t say. I asked if the number was only a few. No answer. And it did seem like Jason wanted to tell me.
Jason Aamodt I don’t get it. I don’t understand why the management of these resources is kept a secret from the people who are the beneficiaries. Right? Every other trust situation in the world—your family trust, right if you have a family trust, there’ll be a trustee who provides, on-demand and regularly, an accounting for what it is that they’ve been doing. “Here’s your money. This is your land. These are the other things that we’ve been managing for you as your trustee. Your stocks or whatever it is, this is how they’ve performed.” Right? A beneficiary’s entitled to know that. This is the only trust I know of where that information is a secret, even from the beneficiary.
Rachel Adams Heard Around the time I first started asking about this, I filed a public records request. I asked the Bureau of Indian Affairs for a list of all the non-Osage headright holders, and how many shares each of them had. When I met with Jason, that request had just been denied. The government said it would violate the privacy of non-Osage headright holders to disclose how many they had.
Jason Aamodt The federal government’s great at this. If they’ve got a situation—and there’s lots of them in Indian Country—where there’s a resource that benefits the individuals but is managed by the tribe, the federal government plays this game of: “Well, you’re not the tribe. We can’t talk to you. Well, you’re not the individuals. We can’t talk to you. We have this Privacy Act concern, therefore, we can’t give you any information about this.” This is what they’re doing to you and your FOIA request or that information is their MO. It’s the way they play.
Rachel Adams Heard I wasn’t surprised when the government denied that FOIA request. Everyone told me this would happen. I’m not the first person to ask. But each time someone presses the BIA, this privacy argument comes up.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs is the only one able to answer this for sure, but I want to let you know I have found records about the Drummonds’ headrights.
I’ve had to go by what I’ve seen in old documents deep in the National Archives. And what I’ve found is a much smaller number than those I originally heard: I’ve been able to confirm only three-fourths of one headright owned across a couple branches of the Drummond family. I haven’t found any indication there may be more.
But still, when I started asking around, I realized this feeling, this suspicion, has been lurking for decades in Osage County: a deep sense of distrust over the origins of the Drummond family’s wealth. That a big cache of headrights must be in the hands of the extended Drummond family. A family that owns so much land, land once owned by Osage families. What was the source of that wealth? Was it headrights? Or something else?
This question, it took me across Oklahoma, across Texas. Into people’s homes, courthouse vaults, warehouses of records, to a sea of grass in the middle of the prairie. Through over a 100 years of history.
I’m going to tell you the story of the Drummonds’ headright share, but I’m also going to tell you about something else. Because once I started looking into headrights and what I heard might be an unknown oil dynasty, I realized this story wasn’t what I thought.
What I found was another chapter of this country’s history of White settlement. After the forced removals and the land runs. Something more gradual than the murders of the Reign of Terror but still resulted in a massive transfer of wealth and land, from Native Americans to White people.
It was an entire system that put certain people in positions of power—power that could be used to gain wealth and influence for future generations. A system that some of the earliest Drummonds in Osage County learned to operate and build businesses around.
This story is about that system and the place it shaped—a place that’s reckoning with that history today.
It’s a story about the Drummonds and the Osage Nation.
But it’s also a story about America. About the land, and the people who ended up with it.
Next time on “In Trust” a clue left behind by one of the first Drummonds in Osage County, and what it reveals about their headright share.