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'This is their story': Why a teacher in Osage County wants to teach 'Killers of the Flower Moon'

MChe Lee

The new Killers of the Flower Moon film is sparking conversations about Oklahoma’s difficult history. But that is complicated by a state law limiting school lessons that make students feel uncomfortable about their race or sex.

It's the Friday before the Thanksgiving break. Current and former students in Sarah Eaton's Hominy High School English class are going to the movies.

They’re excited about getting time off from the school day, but the movie they're seeing isn't a comedy or holiday-themed. It’s Killers of the Flower Moon, which depicts the true story of how Osage tribal citizens were defrauded and murdered at the beginning of the 20th century for rights to their oil-rich land.

The students are either in Sarah Eaton's AP English class this year, or they were last year. She says these kids, whose school is on Osage land, have more of a stake in the movie than most audiences.

"[We have] kids that are in the movie, we have students that did music, they helped with costumes,” Eaton said. “And Ms. Toineeta, our Indian Education teacher, she’s in it."

Besides the community’s involvement in the film, there’s another reason why students came to see it — because they read and studied the book it’s based on in Eaton’s class.

David Grann's bestselling non-fiction book Killers of the Flower Moon debuted as a major motion picture this fall. While the Oklahoma-filmed movie generated buzz all over the state, for some Oklahoma teachers it’s created fear and anxiety.

That's because of House Bill 1775 — also known as a critical race theory ban, though it doesn’t mention CRT, and CRT is not taught in K-12 schools. And while lawmakers argue the law is reasonable and straightforward, educators say it has had a chilling effect on teaching some difficult topics.

After the movie ended, Hominy senior Jasmine Keen said it “opened [her] eyes a little more” to the atrocities committed against the Osage Nation.

“That was just a really hard thing to watch,” Keen said. “Just sit there and watch all of these Osage ladies get shot, just because of money. Just because of money. That’s ridiculous.”

Teaching a difficult story

Eaton has been teaching Killers of the Flower Moon for two years. And even though she feels the shadow of HB 1775 hanging over her, it is important to her that Hominy students know their history.

"It's hard in Oklahoma because there's so much racism and there's a lot of issues that they don't like us to discuss that could cause problems with, like, my teaching license or something like that," Eaton said.

Bookshelves, paintings and other student artwork fill Eaton's small classroom at Hominy High School. Last year, she asked her students to make art based on the book. She pointed to one that was completed with blacklight paint by Abigail Hopkins.

"It's Osage County. Okay, so this is the creek that they found Anna's body," Eaton explained. "And then she's got a bunch of symbolism. We got the flowers, and she's got the million dollar elm in the back, and you can't really see it because they're really dark, she's got a bunch of pump jacks in the back."

When the lights are off, you can see footprints and fish in the creek. Eaton said it symbolized the sneakiness and the dark deception non-Osage people engaged in to take money and resources.

Students in Sarah Eaton's English class created works of art while reading Killers of the Flower Moon. This painting by student Abigail Hopkins uses blacklight paints.
Allison Herrera
Students in Sarah Eaton's English class created works of art while reading Killers of the Flower Moon. This painting by student Abigail Hopkins uses blacklight paints.

Her students had very strong reactions to the book, especially when they read about how Osage people had to have guardians control their money. They couldn't believe the federal government would allow this.

"You know, how can they do that to them? How did they get away with that and things like that?" Eaton said, explaining her students’ outrage. "How did the government say that someone had to come and you couldn't spend your own money [that] someone had to do it for you? And they were upset."

The ‘chilling effect’

With such serious consequences at stake, teachers like Debra Thoreson say threading this needle through state law just isn’t worth it.

Thoreson is an 11th-grade English teacher at Dewey Public High School, about an hour and 20 minutes north of Tulsa, near the Kansas border. And she loves opening students’ eyes to the world of books.

“One of my students in my Reading for Pleasure class has read some books that kind of relate to his life, and he said that if we took those books away, he wouldn't know how to process it,” Thoreson said.

In Thoreson’s classroom, there are shelves and shelves of dog-eared paperback books — students in her Reading for Pleasure class get to pick one for their semester project. You get the sense from Thorsen that her perfect place is with a book in her hand — and that it’s something she encourages her students to do even when they’re not in her classroom.

But as much as Thoreson wants her students to branch out and read more books, teaching Killers of the Flower Moon isn’t on her syllabus.

The lack of clarity around HB 1775, she said, has created a chilling effect in the school system where teachers have to look over their shoulders when talking about race, gender or anything to do with sexuality.

“When I first saw House Bill 1775 proposed, I thought there is no way that anyone will vote for such a ridiculous bill that is so vague that it has the word ‘discomfort’ in it,” Thoreson said. “Because that, it just means someone's uncomfortable, and there are times in life when you're going to be uncomfortable. And we should be teaching people how to deal with that.”

Thoreson was concerned about her school’s accreditation status and her losing her teaching license. That's why she made the hard decision to forgo a unit on the book.

"In school, we can learn history, but you might learn where the battles occurred or what dates they happen on, or how many people died," Thoreson said. "If we are only doing easy stuff, if we're not engaging people's feelings, then one, it's boring, and two, they're not getting that humanity, they're not getting the deeper, more critical reading that they're supposed to."

The Osage Nation is in strong opposition to the chilling effect that HB 1775 has had.

Whitney Red Corn is an Osage congresswoman. She introduced a resolution calling on the legislature to repeal House Bill 1775.

"If you don't learn history, you're doomed to repeat it," Red Corn said. "And so for me as a parent, it is so important for my kids to learn all history that has happened, and that's sometimes really ugly. As an Osage mother, it's even more important that my kids learn this history.”

The Osage Congress eventually passed her resolution. That made headlines, which sparked another by the Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Tribes, calling on Oklahoma lawmakers to strike the bill from the books.

What does HB 1775 say?

The lawmakers who penned HB 1775 say Eaton and Thoreson shouldn’t be afraid to teach hard histories. Primary Senate bill author Sen. David Bullard (R-Durant) is a former U.S. history and government teacher and holds a master’s degree in education and educational administration.

He said the bill itself doesn’t prohibit discussions on controversial topics in the classroom.

“Racism has existed and needs to be taught. Sexism has existed and needs to be taught,” Bullard said. “But we had better be very careful about teaching our kids that they are somehow responsible for the actions of people who came before them, [that is] left-wing rhetoric and cannot be allowed in our schools.”

Within HB 1775, the line that is often focused on says educators cannot teach students that, “they should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex.”

Bullard said the wording of that line is important — he stresses the word “should,” saying the law only forbids teachers from actively telling children they “should” feel bad for their race or sex. If a student happens to incidentally feel negatively as a byproduct of learning about history, Bullard said that’s not a violation.

“It does not say anywhere in it that a student is not allowed to feel shame or feel anguish because of things that have happened in the past,” he said. “Those are two polar opposite things that we’re talking about.”

Primary House bill author Rep. Kevin West (R-Moore) agreed, citing his own experiences as an Oklahoma student. West said the bill wording is intentional and explicit.

“There were a lot of really bad things that happened that made me, on a personal level, feel bad for what had happened in the past. But it wasn’t put to me in such a way that because I am white, I should feel a certain way,” West said. “And that’s what that clause is really addressing.”

Bill co-author Rep. Chad Caldwell (R-Enid) said the confusion comes not from the bill, but in misrepresentations of the law from media reports and political operatives.

“Opponents of this bill or members of the media continue to misrepresent [it],” Caldwell said. “I don’t want to assume intent. So at best, they’re repeatedly using incorrect language and words. At worst, they are intentionally misrepresenting what the bill says. (...) Those that want to find vagueness in it are looking for it and are using that imaginary vagueness for a political argument, not a legitimate argument.”

The law went into effect summer of 2021, and since then, two districts have been penalized for violations: Tulsa and Mustang Public Schools. Both had their accreditation statuses downgraded.

In the case of Tulsa Public Schools, the state department’s lawyer found no evidence the teacher training course at issue had included explicit statements that violated the law. However, the district still received an accreditation demotion because the training was designed around concepts that run counter to HB 1775.

It’s not an issue that’s faded into the background since the violations last year. At every month’s State Board of Education meeting, there’s an agenda item for reviewing potential HB 1775 violations.

There is some momentum, though, to revisit the law in the wake of the movie. Shortly after the film debuted at the Cannes Film Festival, Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell said he thought it should be “clarified.”

Too important to ignore

In Hominy, Eaton felt like she didn't have a choice, she had to teach the book. A lot of students at Hominy High School are Osage. Eaton herself is married to an Osage man and has Osage children. Despite that, she says many students here didn’t grow up hearing the stories portrayed in the book. She wanted to change that.

"They're old enough… to give them the full, true history of what actually happened, you know, because you can gloss over the violence all you want, but this doesn't," Eaton said.

Hominy High School teacher Sarah Eaton smiles at her desk in her English classroom. Eaton has taught Killers of the Flower Moon for two years.
Allison Herrera
Hominy High School teacher Sarah Eaton smiles at her desk in her English classroom. Eaton has taught Killers of the Flower Moon for two years.

Some of her students were in the film. One student is a descendant of Henry Roan, whose murder is depicted in the book.

"It gives them what actually happened. And those students who aren't Native, who aren't Osage, who don't have family members that are affected by this, they get a better understanding of what they went through during this time." 

Students like senior Caroline Shadlow are appreciative. Shadlow is Osage, and she said the story – both as a book and a movie – is an important tool to teach others about her community’s history of resilience.

“I think a lot of people don’t understand that, like, Native people are still here and that we’re like, thriving,” Shadlow said. “Especially Osages, because I mean, we were targeted for our money and a lot of us were murdered not just in Fairfax, but in Hominy and Pawhuska. And I think [the movie is] just a good way to, like, show that we’re here and we’re not going anywhere.”

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Corrected: December 1, 2023 at 8:47 AM CST
An earlier version of this story misspelled Debra Thoreson’s name.
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Beth Wallis is StateImpact Oklahoma's education reporter.
Allison Herrera covered Indigenous Affairs for KOSU from April 2020 to November 2023.
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