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Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell: HB 1775 needs to be 'clarified' as spotlight shines on state's history

Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell and his wife Lisa on the Red Carpet at the Cannes Film Festival lat month.
Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell
Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell and his wife Lisa Pinnell on the Red Carpet at the Cannes Film Festival lat month.

The new film adaptation of Killers of the Flower Moon is already starting conversations about how history should be discussed and remembered in Oklahoma. The movie — set to break out in wide release this fall — could change the way people in the state talk about Oklahoma's past.

Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell is one of Oklahoma's biggest cheerleaders.

The Republican serves as the Secretary of Tourism, Wildlife and Heritage, and is involved with the Oklahoma Film and Music Office, which gives rebates to productions that choose to shoot in Oklahoma.

So, it wasn't surprising when he attended the Cannes Film Festival to watch the world premiere of Killers of the Flower Moon and see the story of the Osage Reign of Terror on the big screen.

"The Osage Nation was the star of the show," Pinnell said. "They weren’t just the star of the movie, but they were the star of the red carpet... the standing ovations that were received after the movie."

Pinnell is part of a group of people wanting to revitalize the Osage County town of Fairfax, where many of the murders took place in the 1920s. Even before the movie began production, the 2017 bestselling book by David Grann prompted people who read it to visit the town.

Gov. Kevin Stitt recently signed a bill that would create a Civil Rights Trail. State leaders have expressed interest in a stop in Fairfax, to visit the site of some of the Osage murders.

Pinnell also thinks the attention could bring some economic development to the small town.

"There's going to be even more people just literally showing up in Fairfax and in northeast Oklahoma, wanting to live this story out, wanting to live it and breathe it," Pinnell said.

The spotlight on the Osage murders comes as debate about what can and cannot be taught in Oklahoma classrooms rages. House Bill 1775 says curriculum in Oklahoma public schools cannot make students uncomfortable or tell students that one race is superior to another. It’s often called a critical race theory ban.

"So 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.

He doesn't want teachers in Oklahoma to be confused about what can be taught, and he wants the Legislature to do something about it.

"That's why I say if we need to clarify that in the language, then it needs to be clarified so that teachers know what can be taught and not taught," he said.

Downtown Fairfax, much of the new 'Killers of the Flower Moon' film was shot in the small town that is also where many of the historical events it depicts took place.
Allison Herrera
Downtown Fairfax, much of the new 'Killers of the Flower Moon' film was shot in the small town that is also where many of the historical events it depicts took place.

Whom would clarity help?

Debra Thoreson is one of those teachers who would like that clarity.

She teaches AP English and American Literature at Dewey High School. Last fall, she told a reporter withThe Oklahoman she didn't feel comfortable teaching the Killers of the Flower Moon book in her class, even though she wanted to. She said it's not about just teaching facts, dates and timelines. To teach the book properly, she says she would need her students to delve into why the murders took place. And that, she says, involves talking about race and gender.

"When you look at it as literature, instead of looking at facts and dates and timelines, you're looking instead at why it's still impactful and what in society at the time actually allowed that to happen," Thoreson said. "Literature is about humanity — why is this story heartbreaking? What is it about this story that draws people in? Why do we still care? You know, what is the connection today? Have those relationships between races changed?"

Oklahoma’s tribal nations have mobilized in the wake of her comments. It started with a bill put forth in the Osage Nation Congress in 2022.

"The purpose of education is to make you feel uncomfortable, to have hard conversations," Congressman Billy Keene said during a debate on the bill last fall. "I'm proud to serve on a tribal body that is standing up to such ignorance and stupidity. And I'd like to see other Oklahoma tribes do the same. Let's all unite against this bill."

Whitney Red Corn, the Osage Congresswoman behind the bill, calling on Oklahoma to repeal the bill. She says clarifying is great, but she wants to go one step further.

"Frankly, I think repealing it is the best option," Red Corn said.

Pinnell wants to have conversations with the Governor and the Legislature over the language in the bill, which was authored by Moore Rep. Kevin West.

He thinks the movie will make people start asking questions about what is and what is not being taught in Oklahoma's public schools. Oklahoma history is taught in the 8th grade, and Pinnell said he didn't learn about the Osage murders or the Tulsa Race Massacre either.

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.

Film could apply pressure on HB 1775

Osage Nation Congresswoman Whitney Red Corn
Osage Nation
Osage Nation Congresswoman Whitney Red Corn

Red Corn, the newest member of Osage Congress, remembers reading about Thoreson being afraid to tell her tribal nation's history and was shocked and really upset.

Encouraged to by former Osage Principal Chief Jim Gray, her introduction of the bill also led way The Five Tribes to also issue a statement calling for a repeal of HB 1775.

Killers of the Flower Moon hits movie theaters nationwide in October. Red Corn knows its release will put pressure on the state to take a look at the law. For her, though, it's too little too late.

"I think that they should have thought about [the lack of clarification] when they wrote the law," she said. "Because the movie was already being filmed and talked about. I think that it's also selfish thinking in the sense that it's going to bring pressure to the state. I think the state should have already felt pressure to teach our history correctly."

Pinnell says he wants students to read the book. He thinks there has been a misunderstanding about HB 1775 and that's why he wants clarity to be added.

He's also aware that there is a call for a repeal.

"I have heard some of our sovereign nations, Cherokee Nation, I believe, and a few others want the full repeal. I don't see that happening with the Legislature, but I could see some clarification, certainly," he said. "So superintendents can tell their teachers in their classrooms what can and can't be taught."

Thoreson isn't sure clarity will solve the problem. She says the part in the law about making people uncomfortable needs revision. The problem is that's the central part of the law.

"I think that can't stand," she said. "We have to talk about racial issues, we have to talk about gender issues or nothing will change."

She's still unsure whether she will teach the book in the fall in her class.

Without clarity or change, she will continue to be guarded in her approach to teaching about race and gender — even when it comes to a bestselling book about Oklahoma history.

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