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The History Behind “Killers of the Flower Moon”

by Alexandra McManus

Set to be released in November 2022, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” directed by Martin Scorsese, is a movie adaptation of David Grann’s best-selling 2017 non-fiction book, “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.” Although the movie will feature well-known stars like Leonardo Dicaprio and Robert De Niro, many don’t know the true story the film is following.

In his novel “Killers of the Flower Moon,” author David Grann unearths a chilling tale of one of the darkest periods in time for members of the Osage nation. In 1904, the Osage Tribe began a contract with the US government stating that all oil, gas and other mineral rights on their land were reserved to the Osage Tribe. Within 10 years, massive oil strikes were found on the Osage land, and every member of the tribe had a share of the oil lease royalties, which became worth many thousands of dollars. At the time, they became the richest people per capita in the world. These “headrights” lead to immense wealth for the tribe. Their prosperity was quickly restricted, though. Congress required that most of the Osages be assigned a guardian to manage and monitor their wealth. Most of these undesirable guardians were intent on taking advantage of and defrauding the tribe members.

This novel follows one of the most well-known strings of murders in what has since been deemed a "Reign of Terror" for the Osage. While Grann later discusses the fact that the true number of Osage murders during this dark period of time is probably closer to the hundreds, few were ever fully solved. One Osage woman, Mollie Burkhart, had to sit and witness her family being murdered one by one. Her older sister was shot in the head and left in a ravine, her mother was then slowly and painfully poisoned, and another sister’s home was blown up. This was just the beginning of the killings; however, the string of connections to Mollie’s family helped clue in authorities and eventually led to the prosecution of the wealthy rancher William Hale and his accomplices Ernest Burkhart, John Ramsey and several others, who were tied to more than 20 killings. The newly created FBI took the case in stride and out of the hands of more unorganized local crime-solving efforts. The case became the organization’s first major homicide investigation. Working with the Osage, they worked to uncover a truly horrific and inhumane conspiracy.

It has barely been one hundred years since these killings took place. We as a nation have almost no memory of these murders and only a few independent researchers, usually descended from those killed, work to uncover more. Grann emphasizes events from that period that make it clear that these murders happened because the victims were Native. On an individual scale, one of the white men killed his Osage wife's family. He and the other killers only saw the Osage as second-class citizens. This is the main storyline the film will be following, and it’s important to remember that there are many more cases like it. Similarly and on a more societal scale, this prejudice was seen when a jury finally found Hale and his accomplices guilty, but still would not put them to death, as was the standard for such horrific crimes at the time. Furthermore, on a systematic scale, the murders never would have been necessary, or at least would not have been on such an incredible scale, had members of the tribe been treated as capable of handling their own money. The fact that the murders happened is shocking due to lack of humanity, but their ability to even occur is less so. Hale and his accomplices may be the villains of Grann’s novel, but townspeople and implicated law enforcement allowed them to get away with it for so long, which only let more and more Osage be killed for a headright for land they never wanted in the first place.

Corruption and fear politics combined with an existing discrimination towards the Osage led to a “Reign of Terror” that is so absent from our nation’s, let alone Oklahoma’s itself, collective memory is proof of intentional erasure. The prejudice that permitted such terrible violence and disregard to the tribe for so long also allowed their story to be nearly forgotten and robbed it of the attention it deserved. Hopefully the book continues to gain popularity across the country and the upcoming film will attract more attention and recognition to these struggles the Osage have faced. It’s a haunting tale that at many times can be difficult to read, however, this systematic, awful conspiracy and mass murder against the Osage is one of the darkest periods in American history and should be treated as such.


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