Killers of the Flower Moon, Martin Scorsese’s latest film, is based on the true story of a serial of killings committed on Osage Nation land in Oklahoma in the 1920s. The film digs into the race and family relationships that shocked Oklahoma to its core when oil was discovered on Osage grounds, based on David Grann’s thoroughly researched 2017 book.
White settlers attacked Osage Nation members in order to seize their land and the riches underlying it. However, from a historical standpoint, this crime is only the tip of the iceberg.
From the early 1800s to the 1930s, official US policy uprooted thousands of Native Americans from their ancestral places under the Indian removal policy. Throughout the twentieth century, the federal government amassed billions of dollars from sales or leases of natural resources such as lumber, oil, and gas on Indigenous grounds, which it was meant to provide to the land’s owners. However, it neglected to account for these trust assets for decades, let alone pay the owners what they were owed.
I am a law professor and the manager of the University of Arizona’s Indigenous Governance Programme. My father’s ancestors are Comanche, Kiowa, and Cherokee, and my mother’s ancestors are Taos Pueblo. Killers of the Flower Moon, in my opinion
The Untold Story of the American West: A Dark Chapter of Forced Relocation and Land Grabs
According to popular belief, the American West was settled by hardworking settlers who eked out a living from the land, founded cities, and eventually established states. In truth, hundreds of Native American tribes already existed on those territories, each with its own form of governance, culture, and language.
Eastern cities were expanding in the early 1800s, and congested metropolitan centres were becoming cumbersome. The West’s native lands were enticing, but westward development ran against what became known as “the Indian problem.” This widely used expression expressed the conviction that the United States had a divine mission to settle North America, and that “Indians” stood in the way.
Beginning in the 1830s, Congress put pressure on Native American tribes in the East to sign treaties requiring them to relocate to reserves in the West. This occurred despite public personalities such as Tennessee frontiersman and politician Davy Crockett, humanitarian organisations, and, of course, the tribes themselves.
Every tribe east of the Mississippi River and some tribes west of it were affected by forced removal. Around 100,000 Indigenous Americans were relocated from their eastern homelands to western reservations in all.
The most heinous land grab, however, was yet to come.
The Dawes Act and the Forced Assimilation of Native Americans in the United States
Even after “Indians” were segregated on reservations, settlers continued to fight for greater access to western territories. Congress formally ceased the policy of making treaties with Indigenous Americans in 1871. The General Allotment Act, popularly known as the Dawes Act, was passed in 1887. With the passage of this statute, the United States’ stance towards Native Americans switched from separation to assimilation—forcibly assimilating them into the national population.
This necessitated a shift from tribal institutions of shared land ownership under a reservation system to a private property paradigm that dismantled reservations entirely. The General Allotment Act was intended to divide reserve lands into allotments for individual Native Americans while opening any unallotted lands deemed surplus to non-“Indian” settlement. Land could only be given to male heads of families.
Under the original statute, the United States government held “Indian” allotments in trust for 25 years before each allottee could gain clear title. During this time, Indigenous allottees were supposed to adopt agriculture, adhere to Christianity, and become citizens of the United States.
The statute was revised by Congress in 1906 to empower the secretary of the interior to award land titles anytime an Indigenous allottee was found competent of handling his business. When this occurred, the allotment became taxable and could be sold immediately.