DiscoverLaw on FilmKillers of the Flower Moon (Guest: Wilson Pipestem) (episode 21)
Killers of the Flower Moon (Guest: Wilson Pipestem) (episode 21)

Killers of the Flower Moon (Guest: Wilson Pipestem) (episode 21)

Update: 2024-02-29


Killers of the Flower Moon (2023) describes the series of murders of members of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma in the early 1920s. Because tribal members retained mineral rights on their reservation, they became extraordinarily wealthy after oil was discovered on tribal land. This leads a corrupt local boss, William K. Hale (Robert De Niro), to conspire with others in the community to deprive the Osage of their wealth by murdering them. Directed by Martin Scorsese and based on the 2017 book by David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon focuses on the plot by Hale and his two nephews, Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Byron Burkhart (Scott Shepherd), to take the oil rights of one Osage family. Hale's scheme is for Ernest to marry one of the sisters in the family, Mollie (Lily Gladstone), and then kill her other family members before finishing off Mollie herself so that Ernest can inherit Mollie's headrights. Eventually, federal agents come to Oklahoma to investigate the murders and uncover Hale’s plot, saving Molly and uncovering evidence to prosecute Hale and Ernest. But this is only after many Osage are murdered and their wealth stolen in a chilling story of violence, greed, and the racially motivated devastation of the Osage Tribe. I’m joined by Wilson Pipestem, a partner at Pipestem Law and citizen of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe and an Osage headright holder, who has dedicated his career to protecting the rights of tribal governments and American Indians.


0:00      Introduction

4:26      The historical context and Osage tribal rights

14:35   The stereotype of rich Osages

15:25   Legal trusts and exploitation of the guardianship system

22:17   How limits on federal and tribal jurisdiction led to violence and impunity

26:30   Fear and terror in the Osage community

29:48   The federal investigation

32:06   The level of local complicity in the Osage murders

33:55   The treatment of the Osage as “incompetent” under the law

38:33   Capturing Osage tradition and belief on screen

41:27   Mollie and Ernest’s complex relationship

45:50   How the Osage overcame a legacy of violence and impunity 

48:50   The role of law and lawyers

51:58   How Martin Scorsese listened to and engaged the Osage people

Further reading:

Bahr, Sarah, “What to Know About ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’: A Guide to the Osage Murders,” N.Y. Times (Oct. 23, 2023)

Blackhawk, Ned, The Rediscovery of America: American Indians and the Unmaking of U.S. History (2022)

Fletcher, Matthew L.M., “Failed Protectors: The Indian Trust and ‘Killers of the Flower Moon,’” 117 Mich. L. Rev. 1253 (2019)

Grann, David, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (2017)

Strickland, Rennard, “Osage Oil: Mineral Law, Murder, Mayhem, and Manipulation,” 10 Nat. Resources & Env’t. 39 (1995-96)

Law on Film is created and produced by Jonathan Hafetz. Jonathan is a professor at Seton Hall Law School. He has written many books and articles about the law. He has litigated important cases to protect civil liberties and human rights while working at the ACLU and other organizations. Jonathan is a huge film buff and has been watching, studying, and talking about movies for as long as he can remember.
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Killers of the Flower Moon (Guest: Wilson Pipestem) (episode 21)

Killers of the Flower Moon (Guest: Wilson Pipestem) (episode 21)

Jonathan Hafetz