Martin Scorsese’s latest movie, Killers Of The Flower Moon, received a resounding nine-minute standing ovation at its Cannes Film Festival premiere. The movie is based on real-life events from the early 20th century, portraying a gruesome tale from the dark underbelly of American history. It's a shocking depiction of the betrayal and murder of people from one of the nation’s most persecuted minorities: Native Americans. Yet many people had never even heard of this true-life crime.
The unvarnished facts of the case
Scorsese’s movie is based on a series of brutal murders that took place in Oklahoma in the 1920s on land owned by the Osage. The film is largely faithful to the true story, but it inevitably includes moments of poetic license to enhance the on-screen action.
But the bare facts of this tale of murder and corruption are utterly horrifying. To tell the story of the Osage murders, we need to start back in the 19th century at the scene of the U.S. Government's actions against the Osage.
The Osage faced a heavy toll
In 1871 the U.S. Government forcibly resettled the Osage people from Kansas to a reserve in Oklahoma’s north-east quarter. According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, this was their third forced move in just 46 years.
This last relocation had been grueling in the extreme for the Osage. “This move almost destroyed the Osage people,” the Oklahoma Historical Society explains. “Old tombstones indicate the greatest toll was among young mothers and infants.”
Osage's fortunes changed with the discovery of oil
At first sight, this new territory seemed extremely unpromising. However, the Osage were able to make a reasonable living by leasing out pastures for grazing. Then, in the 1890s, everything changed: oil was discovered on their land.
When the Osage moved to Oklahoma, they had purchased their land and renamed it Osage County. That meant they owned the mineral rights in their territory, a crucial piece of fine print for the future. But at first, it was a white man, Henry Foster, who obtained a ten-year lease allowing him to exploit the oil.
Taking control of the oil exploitation
Foster agreed to pay the Osage people 10 percent of the income from drilling. But in the early days, that did not produce notably large amounts. Foster’s son, also called Henry, then negotiated another ten-year lease taking the Foster interest up to 1906.
After this, the Osage took direct control of the oil exploitation on their land. Now they would sell individual leases, rather than the Foster set-up that had involved control of all the oil wells in Osage County.