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The real story of ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

As always, we are penning the last two articles of our Martin Scorsese series with a general summarizing information.

Famed director Martin Scorsese reunites with frequent collaborators Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro in his latest film “Killers of the Flower Moon.” This term “last film” will be explained later, as it’s important. “Killers of the Flower Moon” is a crime drama revolving around a series of murders that took place on the lands of the Osage Tribe in Oklahoma during the 1920s.

Like some of Scorsese’s most acclaimed films such as “Raging Bull” (1980), “Goodfellas” (1990), “The Aviator” (2004), and “The Wolf of Wall Street” (2013), his latest film is also based on a true story. “Killers of the Flower Moon” is adapted from a non-fiction book of the same name by David Grann.

The film has received rave reviews since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival and has already created Oscar buzz for next year’s Academy Awards, possibly earning Scorsese (particularly De Niro) some accolades as a tribute.

Let’s first look at the saga of the Osage Native Americans, then examine David Grann’s book, and finally move on to the film.

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The Osage Tribe (translated as “Nation”) literally means “People of the Middle Waters,” a Native American tribe from the Midwest. The tribe settled in the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys around 700 B.C. along with other groups of the same language family. After the 17th century, following the Beaver Wars, they migrated to where the Missouri and Mississippi rivers converge due to the Iroquois expansion into the Ohio region.

The term “Osage” is actually the French version of the tribe’s name, roughly translated as “calm water.” The Osage people call themselves Wazhazhe or “Middle Waters” in their Dhegihan Siouan language.

In the early 19th century, the Osage tribe became a dominant power in the region, feared by neighboring tribes. They controlled a vast area from the Missouri and Red rivers, east to the Ozarks, and south to the foothills of the Wichita Mountains, relying on nomadic bison hunting and agriculture.

19th-century painter George Catlin described the Osage as “the tallest race of men in North America, either red or white skins; there being several of them six and a half, and others seven feet.” Traveling Baptist missionary Isaac McCoy, who arrived in the next century to spread Christianity, characterized the Osage as “an extraordinary warrior, brave, warlike nation” and described them as “the finest looking Indians I have seen in the West.” He was unfortunately also the first to propose the idea of removing all Native Americans from the East of the USA.

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In the Ohio Valley, the Osage originally lived with the Kansa, Ponca, Omaha, and Quapaw, who are from the same Dhegihan language stock. Researchers believe that after splitting from the lower Ohio Country, their languages and cultures diverged. The Omaha and Ponca settled in present-day Nebraska; the Kansa in Kansas; and the Quapaw in Arkansas.

Black robes!

In the 19th century, the Osage tribe was forced to relocate from modern Kansas to Indian Territory (present-day Oklahoma), with most descendants still living in Oklahoma. The European settlers, who arrived later in America, quite literally encroached on the fertile lands of the Native Americans, pushing them to dry, barren, and endless plains.

The white Europeans thought they had rid themselves of the Osage. The only group interested in the Osage nation were the missionaries.

The United Foreign Missionary Society, supported by Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed, and Associate Reformed churches, sent clergymen to them. They established Union, Harmony, and Hopefield missions, beginning to impose their religion.

Adding to the tension caused by enormous cultural differences, there was also Protestant-Catholic conflict in the region, and soon the Jesuit priests entered the fray, seeking permission from the federal government to preach their faith to the Osage people.

The Osage thought the Jesuits could better assimilate into their culture than the Protestant missionaries. Consequently, a girls’ school operated by the Loretto Sisters from Kentucky was established. The principal of the school was Anne Bridget Hayden, actually a doctor and an Irish-American missionary. This girls’ school established by the missionaries had a tremendous impact and won the hearts of nearly all Osage women.

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Meanwhile, the new white European owners of Eastern America were very pleased.

But, as if by divine intervention, a thick black liquid began to spurt from the land of the Osage people. The Native Americans did not know what this black liquid was, but soon the Europeans descended upon the tribe.

Edwin B. Foster, from Palmyra, New York, decided that the Osage tribe should receive a 10% royalty on all oil sales from their lands. Even this 10% amounted to a tremendous sum. White Europeans began leasing their lands for large sums. What was once barren land became immensely valuable. The landowning families of the Osage tribe turned into millionaires. By 1923, the Osage alone were earning $30 million from royalties.

Their earning money concerned the Europeans, particularly the government.

Indian Guardians!

In 1921, the U.S. Congress passed a law requiring the appointment of a guardian for every Osage with half or more Native American ancestry until “competence” was proven. For those with less than half Osage ancestry, guardians were required even if the parents were alive. This system was not managed by federal courts; local courts appointed guardians from among white lawyers and businessmen. The law initially required little record-keeping on how the guardians accounted for the difference; they provided their wards with an allowance of $4,000 a year.

After holding mineral lease auctions and discovering more land, the oil business in the Osage reservation boomed. Tens of thousands of oil workers arrived, over 30 oil towns were established, and almost overnight, the Osage principal landowners became “the richest people in the world.” At the peak of royalties in 1925, the annual principal holder earnings were $13,000. A family of four on the allotment list earned $52,800 annually, equivalent to about $600,000 in today’s economy.

Oil money attracts traders, and traders bring trouble, of course.

Guardianship appointments, like everywhere else in the world, led to massive corruption. Many Osage were legally deprived of their lands, headrights, and/or royalties.

And worse was yet to come.

Because the Osage tribe’s family heads began to fall victim to murders one after the other.

In most of these cases, the police did not investigate. The coroner’s office colluded by falsifying death certificates, for example, claiming suicides for people who were poisoned. Since the Osage Allotment Act did not grant Native Americans the right to an autopsy, many deaths went unexamined.

In the 1920s, during the period known as the “Reign of Terror,” there was an increase in Osage murders and suspicious deaths. In 1921, a European American named Ernest Burkhart married Molly Kyle, an Osage woman with headrights. His uncle and the leader of the conspiracy, powerful businessman William “King of the Osage Hills” Hale, and his brother Bryan, used numerous dirty hitmen to kill the heirs of the Kyle family. Kyle’s mother, two sisters, a brother-in-law, and a cousin were murdered through assassination methods like poisoning, bombing, and shooting.

It didn’t stop there; her husband even began poisoning Kyle.

The young Native American woman, unable to stomach the local police’s inaction for years, took the matter all the way to the White House. This is where the FBI stepped in. The FBI was just starting to form institutionally at the time. Hence, the Osage murders are the first official case in FBI history.

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Between 1921 and 1925, an estimated 60 Osage Native Americans were massacred.

And years later, Davio Grann published this event as a book.

Tomorrow we will analyze this book and the ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ film made based on it.

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