Family  /  Profile

The Enduring Family Trauma Behind ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

The murders of her Osage relatives for their oil wealth still reverberate in the life of Margie Burkhart, granddaughter of a central character in the new movie.

Margie Burkhart can’t remember a time when she didn’t know about the murders. As a girl growing up in the 1960s, she would sprawl across her bed and listen to her father talking with her mother and aunt around the kitchen table in their small home in Gray Horse, Okla. Their voices carried; there was no sense of secrecy.

Over time, the full story took shape in Margie’s mind:

In 1918, Margie’s great-aunt Minnie had wasted away of an apparent poisoning. Then in 1921, Margie’s great-aunt Anna had disappeared and was later found fatally shot at the bottom of a ravine. Three months later, her great-grandmother Lizzie had also died of an apparent poisoning. In 1923, a bombing killed Margie’s great-aunt Rita and her husband.

By the end of it, Margie’s grandmother Mollie Burkhart and her two children — Margie’s father, James, and her aunt Liz — were the only survivors in their immediate family.

Margie’s relatives were among at least five dozen Osage Native Americans who were murdered, mostly in the early 1920s, for the oil wealth that had made them some of the richest — and most envied — Americans of their time.

Amplifying Margie’s family tragedy was the revelation that Margie’s grandfather Ernest Burkhart — Mollie’s White husband — was in on the plot.

The Burkharts form the narrative center of the 2017 book “Killers of the Flower Moon,” in which author David Grann resurfaced the little-known history and chronicled the role of the nascent Federal Bureau of Investigation in solving its first big case. The movie based on the bestseller, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone, debuts in theaters Friday.

Margie, 61, was a teenager by the time she grasped that the tragedy extended far beyond her family. She was in her 40s before she realized how it has reverberated throughout her life.

“I see other people and they’re just so happy. ... I’m like, ‘I can’t be like that,’” said Burkhart, who now lives in Tahlequah, Okla., a couple of hours’ drive southeast from Osage County, Okla., where the murders took place. “I think I grew up in a stressful household. ... I feel stressed a lot. And I feel depression at times, not all the time, but a lot of the time.”

“I truly believe it’s in our DNA, that generational trauma,” she said.