Social Studies

‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ Covers Painful History. Can Oklahoma Teachers Teach It?

By Madeline Will — October 26, 2023 6 min read
JaNae Collins, Lily Gladstone, Cara Jade Myers and Jillian Dion in “Killers of the Flower Moon.”
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Martin Scorsese’s crime epic “Killers of the Flower Moon” shines a light on a dark piece of Oklahoma history: the series of murders of Osage Nation members over oil at the start of the 20th century. But are Oklahoma teachers able to teach it?

It’s a question that remains despite efforts to clarify the state’s prohibitions on teaching about racism, leaving Native American leaders concerned that an opportunity to begin a richer conversation in schools about their history could be squandered.

The 2021 state law on classroom instruction about race and sex, known as HB 1775, has come under renewed national attention in recent days given the box office success and critical acclaim for the movie, which is based on the nonfiction book of the same title. It prohibits instruction that includes the principle that students “should feel discomfort, guilt, [or] anguish” based on their race.

The statute carves out an exception for the teaching of history consistent with state standards—but opponents of the law argue that the language is too vague and that teachers are likely to self-censor their lessons in fear of getting in trouble.

Some teachers have reported that they’ve scrapped plans to assign the book to their high school students. And Eli Potts, a member of the Osage Nation Congress, said in an interview that he had been contacted by a teacher who asked him to speak to students about this piece of history—only to later rescind the invitation due to fears of running afoul of HB 1775.

“It can be a difficult topic to talk about, and one that I can absolutely see teachers being scared to teach based on the ramifications of the state law,” Potts said. Yet, he added, “the old adage is true: If you don’t know your history, you’re doomed to repeat it.”

Efforts to clarify the law haven’t advanced

State leaders have expressed similar concerns. After the world premiere of “Killers of the Flower Moon” this summer, Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell, a Republican, called for the legislature to clarify that what’s known as the Osage Reign of Terror can and should still be taught.

“I can understand why there are teachers saying, ‘Well, if I’m teaching the 1921 Race Massacre or the Osage murders, is this going to offend or make a certain segment of that classroom feel like they are being targeted?’” Pinnell said, according to the KOSU news station. “That’s why I say ... it needs to be clarified so that teachers know what can be taught and not taught.”

But the legislature still has not done so. HB 1775’s author, Republican state Rep. Kevin Moore, has said that the law is clear enough—that students may still feel uncomfortable, but teachers can’t tell them “they should feel a certain way.”

“You can have these conversations and some of them do get very difficult, but it’s all in how it’s presented and how it’s applied,” he said this month, according to the Oklahoma City Free Press.

Teachers are still apprehensive about discussing racist parts of history in the midst of such a politically charged climate, leaving members of the Osage Nation to worry that the attention and conversation brought on by the movie’s popularity won’t trickle down into classrooms.

“At stake in these fights is not only factual accuracy,” wrote Jim Gray, a former Osage chief whose great-grandfather was killed during the Reign of Terror, and David Grann, the author of the book Killers of the Flower Moon, in a New York Times opinion essay. “It is also how new generations will be taught to record and remember the past—both the good and the bad—so that they can learn to make their own history.”

Meanwhile, a lawsuit against HB 1775—filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, along with two high school teachers, a high school student, and other organizations—is slowly making its way through the courts. This week, a judge denied a request for limited discovery, which had been filed by the plaintiffs to speed up the case.

A piece of history kept quiet

“Killers of the Flower Moon,” which stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, and Lily Gladstone, depicts how white settlers systematically murdered members of the Osage Nation for the purposes of taking over their land and wealth. Twenty-four members of the Osage Nation were officially reported as dying violent or suspicious deaths during the Reign of Terror in the 1920s, although reports indicate that the actual death toll was much higher.

The federal law enforcement agency that was the precursor to the Federal Bureau of Investigation was brought in to investigate, but many murders were never prosecuted.

Potts, the Osage Nation member, said this history has long been glossed over in Oklahoma classrooms.

As a student, “I would talk about it, being Osage, and say, ‘Hey, what about this experience?’ and sometimes the teacher would try to address it, and sometimes they wouldn’t because they didn’t know about it either,” he said.

“For the longest time in Oklahoma, it wasn’t something we talked about. And even in our Osage culture, I grew up hearing these stories less than sporadically,” Potts continued. “I grew up and was told by great-grandparents, ‘We don’t talk about that.’ And then you get grandparents that say, ‘Well, this is why we don’t talk about it, but we still don’t talk about it.’

“It’s still, to this day, something that’s not talked about, and laws like 1775 just make it harder.”

Last year, the Osage Nation Congress unanimously approved a resolution calling for the law to be repealed.

After all, this isn’t ancient history, Potts said: “This is still ongoing. The trust relationship with the Osage Nation and the federal government is still contentious to this day. ... People—my people, our people, the Osage people—still live this every day, so it’s important to learn about it from that cultural perspective, but also just a basis of understanding.”

‘Students need to know the whole picture’

These days, Oklahoma is making strides in teaching Indigenous history, said Eric Harp, a high school social studies teacher at Bartlesville High School, located just outside of the Osage Reservation. For example, he said, the school offers an Osage Language course to students.

Harp, a member of Cherokee Nation, is also the president of the Oklahoma Council for History Education’s executive committee. Some teachers across the state have been cautious of teaching dark parts of history since HB 1775 went into effect, he said. But he encourages them to teach the state’s history standards, which explicitly refer to “the major political and economic events that transformed the land and its people from early contact through Indian Removal and its aftermath.”

The Osage murders can be taught based on these standards, and teachers don’t need the help of the book or movie to do so, Harp said. He added that the book is violent and might not be appropriate for younger teenagers, and the R-rated, 3-and-an-half hour movie likely would not be shown in schools in its entirety anyway.

Still, he said, he’s hopeful that teachers will be inspired by the movie—and its Native perspective—to incorporate the subject into their instruction.

“When you’re learning about history, it’s a story,” he said. “There are good things that happened in history, and there are bad things that happened in history—and students need to know the whole picture.”

That means that lessons about Osage Nation should not start and end with the Reign of Terror, just like the Trail of Tears should not be considered the whole of Cherokee history, Harp said.

“We’re still here; we’re still around,” he said. “We see black and white photos of Native people in headdresses and think, ‘That’s it,’ but we’re still a thriving community.”

Potts echoed the call for a more comprehensive education of Native American history that goes well beyond the events depicted in the “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

“The Reign of Terror is not what defines the Osage Nation. We’re defined by successes; we’re defined by our rich art, our culture,” he said. “Our story is a story of survival, of resilience. It’s not a story of murder and being taken advantage of. It’s certainly a chapter in our history, but it’s something we’ve overcome.”


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