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On the Line:
The Osage Nation v. The Koch Brothers
An upcoming documentary details how Charles and David Koch made billions off of the Osage people's oil money.

  • by Zach D. Roberts
  • for the Palast Investigative Fund and The Progressive

No one becomes a billionaire without victims. Charles and David Koch, commonly known as the Koch brothers before the latter died in 2019, were no different. Throughout the 1990s, the Kochs made billions off of the Osage people, illegally skimming money from the tribe’s small oil claims. It was the modern version of Killers of the Flower Moon, David Grann’s nonfiction account of the Osage murders of the 1920s that filmmaker Martin Scorsese adapted into a 2023 Oscar-nominated film. The Kochs figured out how to get the oil money without any murders.

Greg Palast, then an energy industry and racketeering expert, uncovered this story for a documentary that never saw the light of day, until now. The story will be released later this year as Long Knife: The Osage Nation, Koch Oil and the New Trail of Tears. The images below are from the documentary, which was directed by David Ambrose and produced by Palast and George DiCaprio.

The last native Osage speaker passed away in 2005, so the Osage added their language to road signs as part of an attempt to save it. Hundreds of students are now enrolled in language classes through the Nation’s schools in Oklahoma.

The Osage people have fought for their history to be told, but with a recent state law targeting “critical race theory,” that struggle is even more of an uphill battle in Oklahoma. “If we had to live through this history,” former Osage chief Jim Roan Gray (far left), whose great-grandfather’s murder was a part of the “Killers of the Flower Moon” story, said to Greg Palast (right), “Why can’t white kids have to know about it?”

“This is our land, and we bought this land, this mineral estate, with our own money,” Chief Standing Bear says, adding that he believes the theft is still ongoing. “The Department of Interior says, ‘It belongs to us, and not you.’ And who do they get to help manage? Koch Oil.”

An independently owned pump jack like this one on Osage Nation land made many Osage members millionaires but allowed the Kochs to skim their way to billions of dollars more.

Josh, a member of the Osage Nation, prepares for the In-Lon-Schka dances in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.

Chris (left), a member of the Cherokee nation, and his partner Jennifer explain how the pump jack delivers oil from the ground to the tank battery (behind them) from which companies like Koch Oil would measure and remove the oil.

Everett Waller, chairman of the Osage Minerals Council who was cast in Martin Scorcese’s film adaption, gave a speech that referenced genocide in “Killers of the Flower Moon.” Waller is still angry at the Kochs and is fighting them in court. “When you get a quote from Koch Oil that said they deserve a barrel for every two they had to pay for,” he said at a meeting with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, “you should have hung the bastards.”

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Progressive.

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Zach D Roberts is an investigative photojournalist who covers far-right extremism and voter suppression in America. He covered the Unite the Right Rally in Chalottesville and his work there helped put four white extremists in jail. He co-produced Greg Palast's films The Best Democracy Money Can Buy and Vigilantes, Inc: America’s Vote Suppression Hitmen (out Fall 2024). Roberts is a Palast Investigative Fund Fellow and Puffin artist grant recipient.

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