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The Real Story Behind Killers of the Flower Moon

Although films are released for entertainment value, some hold deeper connections to humanity, and Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon is one of them. The three-and-a-half-hour film contains truths about Native American history in Gray Horse, Okla, during the 1920s. This legendary director’s first film in the Western arena tackles the “Reign of Terror” — a period when Native Americans were murdered for their wealth after oil deposits were found beneath their land. 


**This article may contain spoilers for the film released Oct. 20** 


Historically, Native Americans faced “Indian Removal,” which was an official U.S. policy back in 1830 that carried through the 1900s, resulting in the displacement of thousands from their homes. Later, the Osage people were asked to leave again and go west, which is how they ended up in Oklahoma. However, the oil discovery on their allotted lands made families in the Osage Nation extraordinarily rich over a short period of time, which prompted other people to kill for their money.


The Story


Killers of the Flower Moon is an adaptation of a 2017 nonfiction book by journalist David Grann. The film follows Ernest Burkhart, played by Academy Award-winning Leonardo DiCaprio, a World War I veteran who moves to Oklahoma for a better life under the guidance of his uncle William Hale, portrayed by Robert De Niro. Burkhart was interested in financial prosperity, thus he married Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), a member of the Osage Nation whose family had money from the oil discovery. By marrying Kyle, Burkhart received “guardianship” — a way to control assets and money that Osage people acquired from the oil. 


Guardianship was the only way for outsiders to secure wealth from the oil production on the Osage Nation’s land. According to the book and the official act, the government established something called “headrights,” which gave the Osage people the ability to keep their wealth in the family. Headrights entailed shares in the wealth that could not be sold to anyone else, but instead, it could only be inherited by other members of the same family. Unfortunately, the people who wanted to steal the money in the trust found loopholes. People who married into the Osage families could acquire headrights if everyone else passed away, and that is why some of the Osage murders happened.


The Murders


The murders demanded justice from the federal system. According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, more than 24 people were murdered during the “Reign of Terror” before a federal investigation commenced. The murdered people were poisoned, disappeared, or found shot. Eventually, federal authorities arrested multiple people, including Hale, Burkhart, and his brother. They were convicted for the murders of Osage Nation members in the Kyle family; however, they were not in prison for life. According to the book, Hale was released after two decades in prison, whereas Burkhart received a full pardon in 1965. 


Some of these murders directly targeted Mollie Kyle’s extended family, including her three sisters, mother, and cousins. One of her sisters, Rita, and her husband were killed in their home by an explosion — clearly demonstrating foul play. Both the film and the book focus on the Kyle family to explain the real Osage murders, which was a piece of buried history for a long time. 


The Media and the Osage murders


Although a large portion of the Killers of the Flower Moon book involved the investigation that ensued to figure out who was committing the murders, Grann revealed other aspects of the way the Osage were forced to live. According to Grann, the laws that governed the Osage people’s wealth contributed to the impending murders. If there were other people who were not part of the Osage Nation, but were allowed to preside over Osage money that did not belong to them, that created motives and greed. 


“Sometimes there would be a chief who’d led a great nation and who had a million dollars in the bank, and he had to have somebody tell him what toothpaste he could buy or if he could get a car, or what kind of car, or where he had to buy it,” Grann said in an interview. “That in itself would’ve been outrageous, but on top of that, it was just a system for graft and exploitation. These guardians made a fortune on what became known as the ‘Indian Business.’”


In this particular interview, Grann went on to point out that the story was more than the murders. The history, the federal investigation, and the treatment of Native Americans were crucial to the telling of these crimes. Grann said the amount of research lent itself to that. 


“You realize this is a story about racial injustice, it’s about deep exploitation, it’s about this original sin from which our country was born, which we don’t often want to talk about and look at,” Grann said.        


Scorsese had similar sentiments in a featurette for his Apple TV film. Scorsese said that focusing on one couple is an analogy of a whole historical situation — a “story of betrayal between the Osage people and the outside world.”  


Where does the story go from here?


There are many conspiracies that more Osage people were murdered during the “Reign of Terror,” but a federal law passed in 1925 that stated non-Osages could not acquire Osage headrights. This left the Osage headrights and its mismanagement to be settled with the Department of Justice. The settlement happened on Oct. 14, 2011.  


The Osage murders that inspired Killers of the Flower Moon happened over 100 years ago, but the Osage Nation holds onto the history of their ancestors and the crimes inflicted on them. As the film opens to the public, this story will become more widespread throughout the world and serve as a reminder of humanity’s past, whether or not we want to face it.      

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