THE DEATHS OF SYBIL BOLTON: An American History by


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McAuliffe, an editor for the Washington Post, offers an informative, often poignant story of a suppressed chapter of American history -- a kind of Native American Roots. Sybil Bolton, the author's maternal grandmother, died many deaths -- or so it seems. Did she die of complications from diabetes, as McAuliffe was first told? Did she succumb to kidney disease, as his mother later claimed? Did she commit suicide, as the death certificate attests? Or was she murdered while holding her infant daughter in her arms? McAuliffe, who was not told of his Indian heritage until he was 15, sets out to find the answer. The title of his book not only reflects the varied accounts of her demise but also seeks to universalize her story, as the author uncovers an unsavory corner of the American Dream. Bolton was an Osage Indian, a tribe that became unimaginably rich during the first part of this century after oil was discovered on their Oklahoma land. Whites, who had previously taken little notice of it, sought to secure the land by purchase, swindle, subterfuge, and even murder: In what became known as the Osage Reign of Terror, 1%--3% of the tribe were killed within a short period of time. Virtually all these deaths were swept under the rug and never investigated. Journeying to Pawhuska, Okla., center of the old Osage reservation, the author becomes convinced that BoRon was indeed murdered, probably by her mother's husband, in an attempt to get her oil royalties. As he searches for clues to a homicide, he gets in touch with his Indian past and comes to know himself better. It's all very intriguing and reads like a murder mystery, but the book is flawed by McAuliffe's essentializing of Indians. His attribution of his alcoholism to his Indianness, for instance, comes perilously close to racism.

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 1994
Page count: 288pp
Publisher: Times Books