Killers of the Flower Moon, the Long Road to Restoring Trust

Indigenous readers please note that this article contains the name of someone who has passed away.

This three-and-a-half-hour film epic on the 1920’s Osage Nation murders is set to be the last major work of the now 80-year-old director, Martin Scorsese. My own interest in this film had little to do with the legacy of Scorsese, but an anxiously earnest investment in how Native North Americans and our stories are represented in the mainstream. Like the Osage, my own Tribe is one of thousands of Indigenous communities around the world irreparably transformed by the discovery of oil under our land. The oil under our North Utah Reservation is a viscous oil, too sludgy for pipelines, meaning that a near constant stream of huge rigs can be heard rumbling through the Reservation. It’s an ever-present reminder of the complicated relationship we all maintain with the land, the scars of history and the uncertainty of the future. 

Killers of the Flower Moon tentatively promised to address a chapter in the Osage Nation’s history which has not yet been addressed much outside fellow Native North American communities. The intentional murder of members of the Osage Nation by White families in order to secure financial rights to their oil patches is conspiracy in the highest form, but it is not an isolated incident of systematic violence against Native Americans. The film follows the true story of Mollie Ne-Kah-Es-Sey-Cue Kyle (yet notably from the perspective of the would-be murderers of her family), as she watches her family and community be killed by an ever-present but seemingly elusive force. Geoffry Standing Bear, Principal Chief of the Osage Nation, said the production of the film had “restored trust”, remarkably high praise rarely heard coming from our communities.

The film represents many elements of the Osage world with respect and integrity, which is healing work for an industry responsible for popularising hideously inaccurate representations of Native American cultures. On screen the Osage are elegant, artistic and knowing; a far more just and welcome depiction than the usual narrativized representation of Native Americans as violent, uncivilised, and unintelligent. We are kindly permitted to observe aspects of Osage life, language and religion, all things which have been passed down by dogmatic resistance of Osage ancestors. 

Beautiful woven blankets, some custom designed by Pendleton, some borrowed from Osage members, punctuate the film’s visuals consistently. They provide a constant and authentic reference point to the Indigenous experiences which this film is ultimately predicated on. “This blanket is a target on our backs”, Rita, Mollie’s sister, solemnly foreshadows shortly before her murder. The ‘blanket Indian’ is a term referring to Native Americans who chose to retain the traditional aspects of their culture, yet also can refer to Native women married to White men. Rita’s profession contains meaning. The calculated targeting of the Osage Nation may appear to be the actions of one scheming man but are in fact the goals of an entire system which has conspired to contain, exploit and ultimately eradicate Native Americans. 

William Hale, the central figure in the murders, espoused the sordid belief that Native American communities were destined to be destroyed and that taking advantage of this destruction was just smart business. Whilst Hale orchestrated the Osage killings of the 1920s, he was supported by a system which is ambivalent to Native death and situates itself as superior to Native life and Native ways. In an important scene for centring Native voices, the film brings the audience into a Council meeting of the Osage. “In the past, we could see our enemy”, declares one member of the Council, lamenting how the war for Osage life has become harder to fight. This is more than just a cinematic indication that the Council does not yet suspect Hale, it is a poignant acknowledgement that the installation of colonial systems in America has progressed to the point that the enemy is the system itself. When we speak of decolonising spaces, it is not as simple as removing individuals who act in offensive or prejudiced ways, it is about addressing the conditions under which the space came to be. 

people can claim to love and admire Native Americans and still do extreme harm when it benefits themselves.

Whilst Hale speaks the Osage language, understands their customs and attends their meetings, this intimacy does not lead him to empathy but instead leaves him feeling entitled to murder. Whilst such a scenario may be unimaginable to outside audiences, those of us within know well that people can claim to love and admire Native Americans and still do extreme harm when it benefits themselves. We encounter this attitude many times when we inform someone about their harmful misappropriation of Native American cultures and are met with resistance as they tell us they can’t possibly be hurting Native Americans because they love, or ‘respect’ us so much. Whilst appropriation and stereotyping are not comparable to the murders that occurred in the Osage Nation, they are part of a system of entitlement and White supremacy which oversees the taking of our culture, and in the case of the Osage, the taking of our lives. For too long non-Natives have controlled the script on what Native American culture and history is. Scorsese depicts this by concluding the film with an all-white theatrical retelling of the events, ‘true crime’ style, staged for a live 1950’s audience and complete with a dodgy impersonation of the Osage accent. Scorsese himself delivers the final spoken line of the movie, reminding us that this story is not just a story but a true history.

It is pertinent to ask if Killers of the Flower Moon really addresses this narrative imbalance, or did Scorsese not succeed in truly altering the perspective through which those outside the Osage Nation see this history. What the Burkhart-Hale family put Mollie through is “beyond abuse”, said Christopher Cote, the lead Osage language consultant of the film, something that he feels perhaps the film did not adequately convey to its non-Native audience. “I think it would take an Osage to do that”, Cote added. Although this film is of significance to many Native Americans, it is important to remember this story belongs to the Osage Nation, and specifically the descendants for whom this is their living history.

Viewers must remember that Tribal land in North America is seldom the true home of its Indigenous population. The barren land which many of our communities were pushed onto caused mass starvation and poverty in the earlier days of many Reservations; the unanticipated discovery of oil under these lands provided such a rare win but deeply difficult dilemma for our communities. Killers of the Flower Moon is a vision of a time when Native Americans were allowed to economically benefit from the vast wealth of their land, but also a reminder that this sort of wealth and the violence it brought was never something asked for. 

The film ends with a performance of Wahzhazhe (A song for my people), produced by Osage singers for the film. As I sat listening, I covered my eyes and brought back the feeling of the Powwow ground, the Colorado sun and the jingle dancer’s bells. As I watched people file out the North London cinema, I knew it would take far more than a film to make this history and its implications real to the rest of the world, but it’s a start.

Image Credit: (1) Gina Dittmer, cropped from original, (2) The Osage Nation archives.

Image Description: (1) An oil rig in Oklahoma, pictured at sunset, (2) Four Osage women in 1907.