DENVER — Before age 40, all Dennis McAuliffe Jr. knew about Sybil Bolton, his Osage maternal grandmother, was that she had attended an East Coast boarding school, died alone of kidney disease at age 21 with her infant daughter at her side, and was buried in an ermine coat.
Three years later, McAuliffe, a Washington Post foreign editor, unraveled the mystery of his American Indian grandmother's murder. He chronicled his life-shaking discoveries in his book, "The Deaths of Sybil Bolton, An American History," recently published by Random House.
Inspired by his son's 1991 birth, McAuliffe traced his grandmother's 1925 death to the "Osage reign of terror," when hundreds of Osages were murdered by white settlers who wanted their land and oil wealth.
"My son's heritage has placed upon small shoulders a burden so great that a mighty nation has been unable to carry it, or chooses not to," he wrote.
"He must find a way to balance the two sides of himself, to find a place in his life for the Indian part of him, which continues to have no place, or part, in his society. That is his challenge, and his curse. That is my gift to him."
McAuliffe, 44, an award-winning journalist who has worked in Europe and Latin America, did not set out to rewrite history. However, as he tells his family's story, he evokes voices rarely quoted by U.S. historians.
"In a mystery, the guy always gets his man, and there's always justice, and everybody's happy," McAuliffe said during a recent Denver visit. "Well, the strings in real life weren't tied. And nobody was happy--except for the bad guys who walked away with the Osage millions."
A real-life murder mystery, his book is punctuated by tales of Indian warfare, Gen. George Custer, Thomas Jefferson, gunfights in Dodge City and haunting reflections about six generations of McAuliffe's family, his ethnic identity, and his painful experience with alcoholism.
As his family story unfolds, he rattles a few beloved perceptions about settlers in America's Old West, taking a stark look at one famous illegal Kansas squatter--Pa Ingalls of "Little House on the Prairie" fame.
"The real Charles Ingalls wore a 2-foot-long vinery of beard. His dark, narrow, hard, glassy, chilly, creepy eyes would, a century later, stare out of photos of Charles Manson, the Hollywood murderer," he wrote.
McAuliffe, described by his sister as "the new Indian storyteller," has no qualms about writing the Osage side of the story in what some would deem an era of political correctness and historical revisionism.
"Why not tell both sides of the story? Why not say that was Osage territory and that they were squatting. Why not tell that story? Because it's a very one-sided presentation," McAuliffe said about the Ingalls family.
"Why does (Pa) have to look like Michael Landon? Why can't he be a hard-eyed guy who would absolutely give you the creeps. Because that's what settlers looked like. Is that revisionism, or is that being a realist? Is that telling an honest story?" he said.
To get his story, McAuliffe left his comfortable Baltimore home in 1991, returning to Pawhuska, Okla., for three months to research the murder scene. He also spent three years poring over history books, press reports, birth records and FBI documents. He learned Sybil Bolton's death, like the deaths of most murdered Osages, was papered over with a false death certificate.
Sybil's murderer, identified in the end, had powerful reasons to kill the beautiful, well-educated young woman. Her birthright included a large annual income based on historic tribal oil holdings or "headrights."
In 1907, each Osage, regardless of age or amount of Osage blood, was given a headright worth 657 acres of land in what would become Oklahoma's Osage County.
A year earlier, Congress had adopted an allotment act for the tribe, not realizing Osage land sat atop one of the biggest oil fields in North America and the tribe would become the richest ethnic group in the nation.
From the day a 15-year-old McAuliffe learned his grandmother was Osage and had died at an early age, he suspected his white grandfather is responsible.
He set out to solve Sybil Bolton's death with that disturbing thought in mind. While McAuliffe later vindicated his innocent grandfather, he cannot reconcile himself to Harry Bolton's general dislike of Indians.
"My mother would explain to us children that her father's prejudices were unfortunate, but not unusual for a man his age who lived in places in the Midwest where prejudice grew like the weeds and wildflowers coloring Kansas," McAuliffe wrote about Bolton, a Denver resident who died of throat cancer in 1981 at the age of 81.
Now a "card-carrying" Indian journalist, he has undergone an extraordinary metamorphosis since identifying with his Osage roots. McAuliffe is an enrolled member of the tribe, and has a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood, the official Indian identification card.