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'People need to know the history': Osage citizens excited, nervous as 'Killers of the Flower Moon' hits the big screen

A promotional photo from Killers of the Flower Moon shows actress Lily Gladstone with Leonardo DiCaprio. The film was largely shot in Oklahoma.
A promotional photo from Killers of the Flower Moon shows actress Lily Gladstone with Leonardo DiCaprio. The film was largely shot in Oklahoma.

The film Killers of the Flower Moon will premiere at the Cannes Film Festival Saturday in France. Osage citizens say they are anxious and hopeful that the movie sheds light on one of the worst chapters in the tribal nation's history.

When Osage Nation Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear heard that David Grann's bestselling novel Killers of the Flower Moon was going to be made into a movie, he was concerned.

"We're used to Hollywood stereotypes and not being accurate to our language, our culture…and so that was always a concern," Standing Bear said.

Killers of the Flower Moon examines the story of the Osage murders in the 1920s after oil was discovered on Osage land.

Even when Standing Bear heard it was Martin Scorsese that was going to be directing it, he still had mixed feelings. Like a lot of other moviegoers, he is a fan of Scorsese's work.

Scorsese has directed some of the most iconic movies of our time — Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed, Age of Innocence, Gangs of New York — just to name a few.

Most of those films have scenes of violence, and Standing Bear was concerned how the murders of Osages would be depicted on the screen.

"How are you going to portray the Osage?" Standing Bear remembers asking him.

How will Osages be portrayed?

Standing Bear, who couldn't reveal more than that, said Scorsese was true to his word. The Principal Chief and other Osages who were involved or consulted on the movie are under a non-disclosure agreement and can't divulge details until the movie is more widely released this fall.

Osage Nation Director of the Language Department Vann Bighorse (left) and Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear.
Osage Nation Director of the Language Department Vann Bighorse (left) and Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear.

"I think Martin Scorsese said it best when I asked him, ‘how are you going to approach this story?’ And he said, ‘this is a story about trust and betrayal of that trust,’" Standing Bear told KOSU.

Scorsese met with people in the community of Grayhorse near Fairfax, where many of the murders took place. KOSU spoke with Osages who said they were impressed and that he listened to their concerns.

Standing Bear said he appointed people within his administration to work with Scorsese on the language, culture and customs depicted in the film, so it would be accurate. One of the people he appointed was the late John Williams, who was a special forces veteran who advised the director on accuracy. Williams consulted with Vann Bighorse, who works in the tribal nation's language and culture department.

"He had a chair right next to Scorsese," Standing Bear said.

He met with Scorsese before filming began and said the director talked about other films he directed that examined other cultures and racial violence — like 1997's Kundun, which is about the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government's violence on the people of Tibet. The movie was released but was never promoted due to pressure from the Chinese government. Despite this, it received critical acclaim and Academy Award nominations.

The history behind the movie

In the early 1900s, the Osage Nation bought their land in Oklahoma after leaving their Kansas reservation. This happened at a time when Osages were being forced to allot their land — give up communally owned land for 160 acre plots. Leftover land would then be sold to white settlers.

Seal of the Osage Nation
Osage Nation
Seal of the Osage Nation

Many Osages resisted allotment but eventually, Chief James Bigheart reached a deal: the Osages would accept allotment but retain the ownership of the mineral rights underneath, which would be put into a trust managed by the federal government. The government was obligated to safeguard Osage interests. Each share was given to Osages on a roll and were known as headrights. In 1906, it became known as the Osage Mineral Estate and still exists today.

A decade later, when oil was discovered, those headrights were sought after, and put a target on the back of Osages who owned them. People from all over flocked to Osage County to try to get some of that money and wealth for themselves. Dozens of Osages were murdered in a plot to obtain wealth and headrights.

Media coverage at the time contained racist language and depicted Osages as having squandered or being incapable of handling wealth from oil.

A caption from The Daily Oklahoman newspaper published in 1929 read, "Epidemic of death revenge of Gods for reckless squandering of riches and departure of simple life from forefathers."

Eventually William Hale, a cattleman from Texas who rose to power through bribery, extortion and intimidation, was convicted in a scheme to murder Osages for their wealth. He ordered the murder of his nephew's wife's sister and mother.

Of the 2,229 headrights in the Osage Mineral Estate, more than 500 are now in non-Osage hands. A list published inThe Bigheart Times in 2009 revealed some of those names. However, through records requests from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bloomberg reporter Rachel Adams Heard was able to obtain the amount owned by those non-Osages.

The movie is sure to bring a lot of attention to the Osage Nation and Oklahoma. That attention could put pressure to return Osage headrights.

In 2021, The Osage Minerals Council, which oversees the estate, asked for non-Osages to return their headright and is seeking federal legislation to make that process easier.

A bill, sponsored by Oklahoma Congressman Frank Lucas to do that, is slowly moving in Congress, but it's unclear if or when it would become law.

It’s been illegal to transfer a headright share to a non-Osage person or group since 1978, when the law was amended to prevent more shares from leaving Osage hands.

A history that ‘needed to be told’

Osage Nation citizen Margaret Sisk (left) and her aunt Mary Shannon Brave.
Osage Nation citizen Margaret Sisk (left) and her aunt Mary Shannon Brave.

Margaret Sisk, who had a small part in the movie, thinks it's time the story is told. She and other Osage citizens KOSU spoke with said they grew up hearing a little bit about it from relatives but knew that people were afraid to talk about it.

"Think about that…they lost their loved one," said Sisk.

But, she thinks people need to know about it and what happened to her people.

Sisk's mother, Mary Agnes Wagoshe Shannon had a guardian, an appointed person to manage her money. During the time of the oil boom, the federal government appointed guardians to Osage citizens because they were deemed 'incompetent' and unable to manage their own affairs. Osages had to apply for competency, and Sisk said there's still a highway named after her mother's guardian.

"It's part of history that needed to be told because it's not in Oklahoma history," she said, referring to the history Oklahoma students are taught. "It's Oklahoma's dirty little secret."

Killers of the Flower Moon will be in wide release this fall. It has a current run time of 3 hours and 26 minutes, and stars Lily Gladstone, Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro, among others.

Follow Allison Herrera on Twitter, as she covers the film's premiere, and Osage citizens' reactions to it, at the Cannes Film Festival.

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Allison Herrera covered Indigenous Affairs for KOSU from April 2020 to November 2023.
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