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Opinion | The Real Story Behind ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ is Much Worse


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Today, Osages no longer have guardians. But the oil wells are still producing, and Osage oil rights are still managed under a federal trust run by what some Osage people consider a plodding and unnecessarily secretive federal agency — the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs uses production levels, current oil prices and royalty percentages to calculate how much each allottee receives in their quarterly check. All that accounting has been kept under wraps because of what the agency insists are federal privacy requirements. Despite repeated requests and court filings, the agency has never fully opened its books.

But more than a century after the original Osage allotment Act, a federal court in 2009 ordered the bureau to make public the names of 1,744 non-Osage headright owners, a list that includes churches, oil companies, banks, the University of Oklahoma, the University of Texas, the estate of 1930s film star Jean Harlow and several wealthy Oklahoma ranchers.

Today, those non-Osage headright owners continue to receive more than a quarter of all Osage oil money, according to an analysis by Bloomberg News. Later, in a 2011 settlement agreement, the U.S. Justice Department paid the Osage Nation $380 million in compensation for “the tribe’s claims of historical losses to its trust funds and interest income as a result of the government’s management of trust assets.”

As for retrieving the oil royalties that landed in non-Osage hands during the Reign of Terror and since, the Osage Nation announced in January it was working with Republican Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas to create a legal path for non-Osage people and organizations to return their possibly ill-begotten gains to their rightful owners.

Unlike most Indian reservations, which were carved out of ancestral lands under treaties with the federal government, the Osage Nation used its own money in 1883 to purchase a roughly 1.5 million-acre-tract of rocky, non arable land in the northeast corner of Oklahoma from the Cherokee Nation.

The title to the land was transferred directly from the Cherokee Nation to the federal government to be held in trust for the Osage Nation, similar to other tribal agreements. The land was evenly allotted among the same 2,229 then-living members who had been born on the reservation by the close of 1906, with no land reserved for white settlers. But, like most other Native American tribal lands, the federal government insisted that individual Osage landowners were free to sell their land to any buyer — a legal loophole that stands today.

Since the 19th century, U.S. Indian policy has been based on the paternalistic notion that indigenous Americans will be better off if they assimilate with the rest of the population and gradually let go of the land once set aside for them. As a result, most Indian reservations are a checkerboard of Indian and non-Indian ownership.

The Osage Nation has long wanted to restore its homelands to tribal ownership as a way to ensure its sovereignty and traditional culture.

In 2011, the Osage Nation voted to use a substantial portion of its government resources to buy back land whenever an opportunity arises — including re-purchasing 43,000 acres of its ancestral lands from media mogul Ted Turner for $73 million in 2016. Waller hopes the movie will inspire other non-Osage landowners who own a piece of the patchwork to come forward.

But Waller’s dream of reconstituting the reservation under Osage ownership is a daunting proposition. After the original Osage reservation was purchased in 1883, it became Osage County when Oklahoma became the 46th state in 1907. Today, only 3.5 percent of that land is owned by the Osage Nation, according to Bloomberg.

Since the movie came out, Waller has been outspoken about the need to redress the mountains of wrongdoings — the land and minerals theft and untold numbers of murders that occurred in the dark days depicted in Killers of the Flower Moon — misdeeds that he says must not go unchecked.

If those stories don’t come out, the federal and state policies that led to that greed- and race-driven slaughter will persist, Osage attorney Homer says. “There has to be a reckoning, and the telling of these stories is part of that process. If we continue to hide them, our sovereignty will be eroded.”

By the time I pieced together the grisly truth about my great grandfather’s death, my grandfather and grandmother had passed. In the years since, my siblings and I have gathered more shards of the story from cousins in Oklahoma, an aunt in Boston and our great aunt Irene who was a teenager when her father was killed.

It’s unfortunate, in my view, that Scorsese’s storytelling left the impression that only Mollie’s family and a few others were murdered during the Reign of Terror. That’s likely because Flower Moon, the book and the movie, are primarily based on FBI files related to the 26 Osage murders the fledgling agency decided it had the authority to investigate at the time.

While the movie portrays Mollie as falling in love with Burkhart, in reality many Osage women were forced to marry white men under a premeditated scheme to inherit their wealth. To speed up the inheritance process and avoid prosecution, white men systematically shot, stabbed, drugged, ran over, bombed and — as seen in the movie — slowly poisoned their Osage spouses and their families.

Lubricating this killing machine, white conspirators also brought in bootleggers and drug dealers to sell their wares on the reservation so that Osage people would become addicted and incapacitated. And any Osage who, like my great grandfather, tried to stop the murders by reporting them to white authorities was quickly snuffed out.

At a turning point in the movie, an Osage home is dynamited in the middle of the night, and Mollie’s sister, husband and housekeeper are killed. That real-life bombing happened on March 10, 1923. At that time, my grandmother, a young Irish immigrant who had recently married my Osage grandfather, was visiting her in-laws. After a house blew up in the neighborhood, my grandmother decided to leave for Boston the very next day — and demanded that her new husband send a daily telegram, so she’d know he was alive.

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