What exactly was the Reign of Terror? Let’s start with Killers of the Flower Moon, the upcoming film by acclaimed director Martin Scorsese, which has tightly held the attention of the film community since it premiered this past May at Cannes. Even without knowing a lot of details, fans excitedly shared a single still image of Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone at a dinner table for months, and the internet went abuzz with the release of its first official trailer just last week.
After all, the film has plenty to get excited about. A star-studded cast including Gladstone, DiCaprio, Robert DeNiro, Jesse Plemons, and Brendan Fraser. A budget of over $200 million and buzzy positive reviews ahead of its October release. But what truly makes this film seem special is the core of its premise. Based on David Grann’s 2017 book of the same name, Killers of the Flower Moon tells an important and relatively unknown real-life story about greed, oil, and the history of the Osage Nation’s “Reign of Terror.”
The Osage Nation is a Native American tribe that, after being forcefully removed from their ancestral lands between the Missouri and Arkansas river, were slowly moved to Oklahoma in the second half of the 19th century. Their reservation was located in what is currently Osage County in Oklahoma. While the land they lived in was mostly unsuitable for agriculture, the discovery of oil changed everything for the community. And drilling on the first well finished in 1897.
“The Reign of Terror.”
Because of the Osage Allotment Act of 1906, subsurface mineral rights within the Osage Nation Reservation were held in trust by the U.S. government but belonged to the tribe. So the Osage received mineral lease royalties, making them quite prosperous. The tribe received approximately $30 million in revenue and they divided it equally. The right to an equal portion of the revenue was a “headright,” and it was hereditary. So if a member of the Osage Nation were to die, their legal heir would receive mineral royalties. This included people who were not Osage, thus setting the foundation for “The Reign of Terror.”
During this era of prosperity, an increase in criminal activity and targeted price increases by white business owners imperiled the Osage Nation. In fact, a Congressional investigation from 1915 showed instances of white settlers loaning money to Osage people at an interest rate of 10,220%. Worse, things quickly escalated to murder. It’s hard to track down how many people actually died, but we do know that in the early 1920s, at least 24 members of the Osage community suffered violent and mysterious deaths.
The local authorities rarely looked into these crimes and basically ignored these events completely. Some of the most well-known murders were that of Anna Brown, her mother Lizzie Q. Kyle, her cousin Henry Roan, her sister Rita Smith, Rita’s husband William E. “Bill” Smith, and their housekeeper Nettie Brookshire.
A story of American greed.
The Osage Tribal Council sought urgent support from the federal government, which eventually dispatched agents of the U.S Bureau of Investigations (the first iteration of what we know call the FBI). The investigations focused on the Roan murder, which happened on restricted native land, meaning that it was under federal jurisdiction. And after exhaustive undercover investigations and pushback from residents of the area, they were able to discover a vast conspiracy to steal the wealth of the Osage led by…well, we’ll save that spoiler for anyone interested in checking out the movie, but suffice to say, it shouldn’t be all that surprising.
Expectations have been high for Scorsese’s take on this true and currently under-learned story, which clocks in at a staggering 3 hours and 26 minutes. In the teaser trailer, we saw some of the beautiful scenery and context surrounding the film, as well as the inherent tensions that emerged after the discovery of oil. In this newer look, shown below, we get an introduction to Ernst Burkhart and William Hale and see some of the action-packed moments surrounding the series of crimes. With Killers of the Flower Moon, we certainly have a cinematic event to look forward to, but most importantly, it could be the gateway to more Americans finally learning about some of its darkest history.