Read While Listening To: Ghost On by Angel Olsen
I was born into a lineage of rumors. Endless whispers that follow you down every hallway, around every corner, and even into past writings when you least expect it. The kind of rumors that surround my family’s headrights and lineage, opinions on Chief Standing Bear’s time as a litigator and the controversial Drummond family swindling Osages out of their land—and many others too painful to name. These carefully protected “secrets” have been passed down for generations while the validity of these statements has never been called into question. In fact, these rumors are almost entirely forgotten just as quickly as they’re said, never to be brought up again. Yet, there’s always one whisper that guarantees the same answer: the Reign of Terror.
My mom and I were driving across Route 160 to visit my grandmother in the beginning of August while we listened to a podcast, “In Trust,” describing the Reign of Terror—a period in the early 1900s where many Osages were married or killed off (or both) by white people for their land, money, and mineral headrights after a faulty U.S. governmental policy enacted guardianships to curb Osage spendings. I listened and read about devastating stories where people went “missing” or were murdered in both “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI” and “In Trust,” and I looked over at my mom and asked her if we lost any relatives during this time. She paused for a moment, looking straight ahead at the Colorado mountains, before she answered with what she was told when she was my age: Don’t ask questions because there’s answers you don’t want to know. The rest of the way, we didn’t discuss the topic again as we finished the entire podcast series.
When we arrived at my grandmother’s house, I asked my mom if we could search through my grandmother’s old files for a family tree detailing our Osage lineage. I knew that both of my grandmother’s parents were Osage, but I wanted to see if one long held rumor within my family was true: if former Chief Sylvester Tinker was truly one of our great “cousins” (a term I’ve found to be used loosely within Native communities). And though I wanted to directly ask my grandmother this question (along with a million others about her upbringing and family) while we were visiting, her memory just isn’t what it used to be. I found that while names and specific dates are spotty for her to recall, if I instead propose someone’s name with their relation to her, she could discuss a person’s character or specific memories they shared together. So, after we finally tracked down my grandmother’s family tree and discovered that Chief Sylvester Tinker was, in fact, her grandmother’s half-brother, I said to her Sylvester Tinker was your great uncle! To which she replied Yes and quickly followed-up with and he was really stubborn too! before making a sour face. We all laughed as I decided to take a break from our search and began shuffling a deck of UNO cards. My grandmother and I have played together since I was a kid and while she might not remember exactly how the “wild” card works anymore, she still beat me twice that day.
After arriving back in Dallas, I began to call the Osage County Court Clerk every week to track down probate records for “missing” headrights of relatives to attempt to find answers to the question I asked my mom before. And, while I’ve hit multiple brick walls over the course of this past month, I haven’t given up on finding these records. I now know at least five generations of Osage on my grandmother’s side that I didn’t before this column debuted—the Herards and the Tinkers. Moreover, while my situation is not unique, family memories and pieces of tucked-away knowledge will always fade with time, maybe that’s just the Osage price we’re forced to pay today. Maybe we didn’t just lose entire families and hundreds of acres in Oklahoma, but also something more. Maybe, as I’ve discovered, the answers to the questions that keep us up at night aren’t just protected or merely forgotten—sometimes they’re truly gone forever.