During the early 20th century, members of the Osage Nation in Oklahoma were systematically murdered by white settlers. Yet outside the Osage Nation, the history of this racial injustice — one of the worst in American history — was distorted and then largely erased from memory.
“Killers of the Flower Moon,” a film directed by Martin Scorsese, shines an extraordinary light on these events and provides a long overdue opportunity to restore them in our consciousness. But ironically, at the same time that the film is being released, there is a new attempt to suppress the teaching of this very history in the state where it took place.
In 2021 the Oklahoma Legislature passed a bill prohibiting teachers in public school from instructing several concepts, including that “any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress” on account of their race or sex. The vagueness of the law has caused teachers to censor themselves, for fear of losing their licenses or their school’s accreditation. In a high school classroom in Dewey, Okla., copies of “Killers of the Flower Moon,” the nonfiction book behind the film, were left unread because the teacher worried about running afoul of the law. Another teacher confessed that she was uncertain if she could refer to the settlers who murdered the Osage as white.
At stake in these fights is not only factual accuracy. 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.
The story of what’s now called the Osage Reign of Terror is essential to understanding America’s past. After vast oil deposits were discovered under their lands, the Osage were suddenly, by the 1920s, among the wealthiest people per capita in the world. In the year 1923 alone, the roughly 2,000 Osage on the tribal roll received a total of more than $30 million, the equivalent today of more than $400 million.
As their wealth increased, though, it unleashed an insidious backlash across the country. The U.S. government passed legislation requiring many Osage to have white guardians to manage their fortunes — a system that was both abhorrently racist and widely corrupt. Then the Osage began to die under mysterious circumstances: There were shootings, poisonings and even a bombing.
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