It was an unusually cold October day in 1922 when Henry Roan Horse (Osage) drove out to a remote pasture in northern Oklahoma to meet a local moonshiner and whiskey peddler named John Ramsey. Dressed in a fine gray suit and sporting a flashy wristwatch, Roan Horse sat next to Ramsey on the running board of his Buick and had a few drinks. After taking their fill, the two men got up to leave. That’s when John Ramsey pulled out a .45 caliber revolver and shot Roan Horse in the back of the head.
Roan Horse’s body wasn’t found until the following February. Although it was unclear at the time who had pulled the trigger, the main suspect was William K. Hale, a Texan rancher and the self-proclaimed “King of the Osage.” He had moved to the reservation on the heels of the great oil boom there, which brought tremendous profits to the tribe. Between 1907 and 1929, the Osage had banked $233 million in oil income. The average Osage family of five received a headright of $65,000 per year, an astounding sum in those days, which led to the adage that the Osage were “the richest people in the world.”
Unfortunately, the windfall attracted some of the most unscrupulous and vile characters that side of the Mississippi. To make matters worse, headrights could be inherited by non-Osage spouses, resulting in a staggering number of whirlwind marriages and divorces. It also led to more nefarious plots—like the premeditated murder of Henry Roan Horse.
In the trial that followed, the prosecution discovered that William K. Hale was the sole beneficiary of a $25,000 life insurance policy that Roan Horse had taken out. It didn’t take long for the jury to find Hale guilty of plotting the murder and hiring John Ramsey to carry it out. Although his attorneys appealed the ruling, Hale was ultimately sentenced to 99 years in prison.
Henry Roan Horse was just one of many victims of the greed that the Osage oil boom brought. The Bureau of Investigation in Washington, DC, estimated that hundreds of people had been killed for their headrights, giving the Osage reservation the dubious dis tinction of having one of the highest murder rates in the United States. Although much of this was due to outsiders, the oil boom also led to family feuds, backstabbing, and more internal changes that undermined traditional Osage culture.
In his book, The Invasion of Indian Country in the Twentieth Century, Shawnee historian and intellectual Donald Fixico warns that the demand for oil can fundamentally transform the tribes that possess it. “Cultural change for most of the energy tribes involves a major transformation to modern American society’s norms,” he writes. “At risk are the traditional tribal values which do not stress the accumulation of wealth.” Fixico goes on to caution that oil exploitation also works insidiously to threaten Native peoples’ connection to and reverence for Mother Earth. Climate scientists tell us repeatedly that our continued reliance on oil is hastening a critical stage in the environmental history of our planet. Even the Pentagon recognizes the gravity of it all, projecting that there will be a 50% increase in armed conflict by 2030 due to climate change.
Despite such foreboding, there are no easy answers for energy tribes. For too long American Indians have experienced the highest poverty rates and the greatest unemployment. There’s no question about it, oil and other fossil fuels offer economic opportunities that can help uplift Native nations. In her article, “Oil and the Iñupiaq,” Ilisagvik College president, Pearl Brower offers a brief history of petroleum exploration in the Arctic, and shows how the industry has provided opportunities and career pathways where previously they did not exist. Moreover, industry giants such as ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil have donated generously to the college, enabling it to expand its programing and its reach.
Clearly, oil and Indian Country is a complex, multifaceted issue. In the feature article, “Beyond Standing Rock,” veteran environmental journalist and former TCJ editor, Laura Paskus, wades into the morass by exploring how events at Standing Rock have brought this issue into sharper focus. “Tribal colleges and universities, which already connect culture and heritage to science and technology, can help lead the way to a better future,” she writes. “At TCUs, faculty and students can study problems and solutions and also implement alternative power projects on campus and in their communities.” Paskus further shows that tribal institutions of higher education are uniquely situated to host conversations that address these complex issues and difficult questions.
At some tribal colleges and universities, such as Turtle Mountain Community College (TMCC) in North Dakota, those conversations have helped bring about major changes, which Stacie Blue explores in her article “Protecting the Sacred Water Bundle.” In 2011, after a series of tribal meetings in which TMCC faculty, students, and administrators played a crucial role, the tribal council of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians voted unanimously to ban oil fracking on the reservation. “Our women have carried the sacred water bundle for our tribe since we migrated from the east hundreds of years ago,” states now-retired TMCC vice president Carol Davis. “Our stories and our ceremonies continue to guide our people.”
Other TCU leaders and students have put their bodies on the line in confronting the environmental threat that oil exploitation poses. Tribal college educator, administrator, and researcher Deborah His Horse Is Thunder joined the water protectors at Standing Rock to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL). The subject of this issue’s Profile department, her courage and sacrifice should serve as a rallying cry for all of us in the tribal college movement. It certainly has for the American Indian Higher Education Consortium, which issued a resolution that expresses solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux and opposes DAPL. You can read it on page 51.
In his 1924 survey of the Osage, the Santee Sioux physician Dr. Charles Eastman saw firsthand the great wealth that came from oil revenues on tribal lands. But he also recognized the precariousness of economic development built on a finite resource. “If their oil should fail the Osage people would be in a hard predicament, more so than any other Indian tribe,” he wrote. Today, many energy tribes are faced with great wealth and economic opportunities. But they also must confront social ills, threats to their tribal values, and the moral conundrum of what oil exploitation means for our Mother Earth. It is perhaps the most pressing issue we face today. And tribal colleges and universities are poised to serve as the catalyst in our search for answers.
Bradley Shreve, Ph.D., is managing editor of Tribal College Journal.
Fixico, D.L. (1998). The Invasion of Indian Country in the Twentieth Century: American Capitalism and Tribal Natural Resources. Boulder: University Press of Colorado.
Smith, L.C. (2010). The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization’s Northern Future. New York: Dutton.