February 25, 2024

Martin Scorsese’s $200 million epic “Killers of the Flower Moon,” based on David Grann’s 2017 non-fiction book, centers on the Reign of Terror, a term the Osage Nation used to define the murders of at least 60 community members in the late 1920s. The film tells this true crime tale through the lens of a marriage between Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a World War I veteran who relocates to Oklahoma to work with his rancher uncle, and Mollie Burkhart (Lily Gladstone), a local Osage woman whose family was one of the community’s wealthiest. Robert De Niro stars as Ernest’s uncle, William Hale.

As both Grann’s book and Scorsese’s film lay out, the cause for the murders trace back to the early 1870s when the U.S. government forced the Osage people to leave their Kansas lands and move to northeastern Oklahoma. The Osage bought their Oklahoma reservation, a game-changing decision that gave them the rights over their new land. The U.S. government thought the Oklahoma area owned by the Osage was worthless, but everyone soon discovered the land was rich in oil.

As The New York Times reports: “After large [oil] deposits were discovered in 1894, the Osage, who retained communal mineral rights, came into enormous wealth: Prospectors had to pay the tribe for leases to extract the oil, as well as royalties on the profits. In 1923 alone, the Osage earned $30 million in royalties, the equivalent of roughly $540 million today.”

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