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The Student News Site of Oregon State University

The Daily Barometer

The Student News Site of Oregon State University

The Daily Barometer

Trapped in the Projector: ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’: legacy of living on conquered land

Natalie Lutz
General Opinion Graphic

Editor’s Note: This is a column and does not reflect the views or opinions of the Daily Barometer

At one point during Martin Scorsese’s latest film “Killers of the Flower Moon,” local businessman and secret crime lord William “King” Hale (Robert De Niro) tells his nephew Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DeCaprio) that “Osage don’t live longer than 50 years,” and that in a few generations there would be none of them left. 

Hale is ultimately proven wrong by the end of the movie. The Osage live on despite his efforts to speed up their extinction, as do many other Native American tribes despite the efforts of Euro-Americans to functionally exterminate them over the course of four centuries.

In many ways, “Killers of the Flower Moon” and the real-life Osage Murders of 1918-1931 is a story no different from those told in the more “traditional” westerns, being one of conflict between Euro-American settlers and local Native Americans, with the Euro-Americans first and foremost after something the Native Americans have. 

In the case of the Osage, it was not merely land to live on; a conflict over that had already driven them from their original home in the Ohio and Mississippi river valleys to the tribe’s current home in Osage County Oklahoma. In this case it was resources; an abundance of crude oil bubbling under the surface of the land granted to the Osage by the United States government as part of the relocation agreement.

Euro-Americans wanted the wealth that comes with oil. Hale’s scheme, in life and in the film, has his Euro-American family marry Osage women to become functional heirs to their fortunes, while conventional thugs discreetly kill off the other claimants.

His scheme is a more “polite” but no less violent and bigoted version of what came before; where U.S. Army officers sent after Great Plains tribes would massacre whole camps of unarmed Native American civilians with little if any provocation.

“I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s heaven to kill Indians,” said Col. John Chivington before committing the truly heinous Sand Creek Massacre in 1864, according to the book “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.”

Such actions were considered abhorrent, even in the 19th century. The aforementioned Chivington would have his political ambitions torpedoed by his atrocity, most of his men flat out refused to take part in it, and, like Hale a century later, Chivington would have a man who testified against him murdered.

But even if the violence is long over, the legacy it leaves behind stays. This is especially true in the United States as most Americans live on land once lived on by people who are very much still alive. 

Of course, that Native Americans still exist is something everyone is probably aware of, but rarely reminded of since most living Native Americans still live on or close to their tribes’ reservation lands.

As a land grant university, Oregon State itself sits on land conquered from its original inhabitants. In this case the Kalapuya-speaking peoples, now part of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde or the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz. 

There were no major battles or massacres, but the Kalapuya and other local tribes still ceded their lands in the Treaty of Dayton in 1855. It was still forced, in that the Kalapuya were functionally left with the options of “relocation” or “annihilation.”

It was a cession of land, and only land, as there are few natural resources or precious minerals to be found in the Willamette Valley. The most valuable resource on the land OSU now sits on is arguably OSU itself.

After the relocation, the Kalapuya, like many tribes before, suffered from great decline. According to Esther Stutzman, a modern Kalapuya elder in an OPB interview, “The estimate is that there were 15,000-plus living throughout the entire Willamette Valley.”

A century and a half later, and that number is down to around 4,000. As well, in that same interview, Stutzman recounts that the last native speaker of the Kalapuya language has long since passed away.

“The last known speaker, I believe, passed away in the 1950s. He did a recording, one of the few recordings of the Kalapuya language — in 1953, I believe it was,” Stutzman said.

Still, the Kalapuya have, arguably, gotten off easy compared to other tribes in U.S. borders.

In areas where there were resources and, by extension, riches to gain there would be violence. First there were the gold rush in Georgia that led to the infamous Trail of Tears, and then another in California that led to the aptly named California Genocide.

And finally came the Oklahoma oil boom with the Osage. Fittingly enough, oil has been called “black gold” given how lucrative it is; and it was sought after by Euro-American opportunists eager to use everything at their disposal to get it.

Much of this violence is romanticized on screen and in popular memory on account of settlers bringing their stories back east, or any number of “Wild West Shows” run by figures such as William “Buffalo Bill” Cody, which often employed Native Americans in their performances such as Sitting Bull of the Hunkpapa Lakota.

In “Killers of the Flower Moon” there is no romance to what is being done, a telling shift from Scorsese’s other works in the gangster genre where the life in the mob is made a bit more glamorous than perhaps it ought to be portrayed. 

But in this film no sympathy is spared for the criminals, even Ernest Burkhart who seems to genuinely be torn up about the things he’s doing to his wife’s family and community. But his own greed means he goes along with it, no matter what, until he and everyone else is immediately caught by the FBI, at the time just the Bureau of Investigation.

Unfortunately, the killings did not stop when the movie did. According to the book the film is based on and named after, the murders continued for a few years after Hale and Burkhart were convicted and many, many more likely went unreported.

David Grann, the book’s author, described it to the Smithsonian as a case, “(That was) less a story about who did it and who didn’t do it. It was really about a culture of killing and a culture of complicity.”

Fittingly enough, there’s a moment in the film where Hale brings this up to Burkhart, callously describing the murders of his Osage “friends” as an “everyday common tragedy.” No one with authority cared until the Osage went directly to the Feds.

As of now, “Killers of the Flower Moon” has made $146.6 million, meaning it likely will not make back its $200 million budget. Its rather limited release means it can be a bit difficult to see, especially for Native American audiences.

The film was made with the cooperation of the Osage Nation of Oklahoma, Martin Scorsese specifically traveled to meet with Geoffrey Standing Bear, the current principal chief of the tribe, to seek their assistance and involvement. 

Chief Standing Bear said in a statement on the Osage Nation’s Facebook page, “The film lays bare the truth and injustices done to us, while challenging history not to be repeated. We honor our ancestors who endured this time by continuing to survive and ensuring our future.”

And it is that cooperation that is perhaps the guide to living on land conquered from its original inhabitants, who have long since been exiled to a small corner of their home, akin to being restricted to a single room in one’s own house.

In making this film with the Osage Nation’s full involvement, including as actors, extras and film crew, “Killers of the Flower Moon” makes it clear the path forward is cooperation wherever and whenever possible.

“The film (makes) a strong statement that it’s no longer acceptable to extract valuable assets from Indigenous communities – whether that be our stories or our natural resources – without our consent and input,” Kate Nelson wrote for the BBC.

“Let’s hope this is the first of many feature films produced by and with Indigenous peoples that tell our stories in all their uncensored, uncomfortable, and undeniably complex beauty,” she concluded.

Representatives of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde and the Confederated Tribes of the Siletz were unable to be reached for comment on this notion.

Nevertheless, we should hope that further collaborations with the Native Americans of Oregon increase as well, and not merely in entertainment spheres. For they had no resources to take but land, and it was taken anyway.

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