Movie review by Joseph Bruchac

OSAGE SPIRIT: Thoughts on Killers of the Flower Moon

There are five cemeteries in the town of Fairfax, Oklahoma located in the heart of Osage County. More people are buried there than are currently living. Its population, which has been slowly dropping is now less than 1100 people. Most of them, the living and the dead, are Native. And a number of those resting beneath that Oklahoma red earth were murdered.

When the Osage, the Ni-u-kon-ska or People of the Middle Waters, were uprooted from Kansas and sent to Indian Territory, that part of what became Oklahoma was regarded as a place with little promise. Ironically, that seemingly worthless land was on top of vast deposits of petroleum. In the 1920s, that made the Osage the richest people in the world.

Fairfax is the hometown of two people I’ve always deeply admired, and actually had the pleasure of spending a little time with when I was teaching at the Oklahoma Summer Institute of Arts. They were Maria Tallchief, arguably the most famous prima ballerina in American history—the first American ballerina to dance the Firebird—and her almost equally talented sister Marjorie Louise Tallchief—who became a star of the Paris Opera Ballet. If not for the oil on Osage land, they would never have enjoyed the opportunities that led to their fame.

However, those same underground lakes of petroleum that created Indigenous millionaires, also resulted in Fairfax becoming nationally known in the 1920s for something else—the murders of Osage people by white men who posed as friends to steal their wealth. If a white man married an Osage woman with substantial “headrights” (oil revenue) and she died, he would inherit her wealth. (It should be noted that the federal government changed that policy of inheritance to non-Indian spouses or guardians after the events of the 1920s.)

Today, the Osage Nation and that part of Oklahoma are again in the spotlight as the location of the best-selling book KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON by David Grann and the vastly more famous Martin Scorsese major motion picture of the same name that is barreling toward the Oscars.

Having read the book and seen the movie (which took me almost as long to watch as to read the book), I’d like to share some of my thoughts about both the book and the film, which while praised by most of the majority community has received a mixed reception from Native Americans.

To begin with, there is a lot to admire about the story in both mediums. 

First, the narrative is a painfully accurate depiction of a disgraceful period in American history that has largely been either unknown, ignored, forgotten, or denied—unless you are a person of color. In the 20s racism was the rule, not the exception. The assumption of the superiority of white culture by King Bill Hale (Robert De Niro), his less-than-brilliant nephew Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), and their cronies was the norm in much of America. Indians, blacks, and other people of color were less than fully human. The knights of the Ku Klux Klan marched openly down the main street of Fairfax.

The movie even briefly depicts the 1921 destruction of Black Wall Street—two days that saw the razing by gangs of white supremacists (abetted by the local police) of the prosperous, sophisticated 40 square block part of Tulsa which had been an African American center of commerce and culture. Homes, schools, churches, and businesses were burned to the ground, and dozens were murdered in that Tulsa Race Massacre. It hangs like a dark cloud over the rest of the film. It is even referred to—in a veiled threat—by King Bill Hale. 

Second, the Osage people are not portrayed as stereotypes. Hundreds of respected and knowledgeable people in the Osage Nation guided the author’s years of research and the director’s painstaking attention to even the smallest details. Rather than ethnological subjects or “informants,” you hear real people speaking and see them going about their lives.

Third, though victimized, the Osage people are not pictured as innocent victims, as a nation doomed to eventual disappearance—as businessman King Bill Hale, the mastermind behind the killings paints them to justify his heir robberies. Although sometimes too trusting of those who pretend to love them the Native people at the center of the events are aware of what is happening to them and eventually take control of their own destiny. Strong of spirit in the face of it all. (Today the thriving Osage Nation has over 21,000 enrolled citizens, half of whom live on the Osage Reservation, in Oklahoma.)

Then there are the Indigenous actors. First, of course, Lily Gladstone. In her role as Mollie Burkhart, she’s the heart of the story and as deserving of an Oscar as any actor I’ve ever seen. The large Native cast, the frequent speaking of Osage (even by De Niro), and the incorporation of Indigenous traditions and viewpoints made the movie unforgettable for me.

It’s true that the movie begins with loss—the reverently filmed ceremonial burying of a sacred pipe being treated not as an object, but as a beloved relative to be mourned. But the story is not one of the irreparable loss of a culture but rather one of change and adaptation. We see how, among the Osage, the old is honored and held onto—even though the People of the Middle Waters may dress in the clothing of the new. And the last overhead shot of a powwow emphasizes the continuing flowering of a culture. 

Another of the Indigenous threads that I loved (and wished I’d seen more of) was the inclusion of the character of John Wren, subtly played by Tatanka Means. An actual federal investigator who worked the murder cases in Fairfax, Wren was of Ute ancestry and presented himself as a medicine man during his underground investigations around Fairfax. 

And now, here are two of the things that I can understand some folks objecting to, or at least viewing with something less than uncritical enthusiasm. 

First of all, I found myself a bit saddened that it took a non-Native writer (a good white writer who does an excellent job) to finally bring this part of American history to light. The story of the Osage murders has been very well-known in Indian Country for a century. 

(I personally became acquainted with it decades ago through my own many visits to Oklahoma and from my friend Louis Littlecoon Oliver, a Muskogee Creek elder who showed me an unpublished story about the oil murders he’d written in the 1960s. I wish Louis had included that story in one of the two books of his we published, CAUGHT IN A WILLOW NET and CHASERS OF THE SUN, but I’m afraid it’s lost.)

Suggested Reading

There are books by Indigenous writers that deal with that period. 

Chickasaw author Linda Hogan’s superb, prize-winning novel MEAN SPIRIT, published in 1991, has a plot much like that of the Martin Scorsese film.  After the murder of Grace Blanket and the mysterious deaths of other family members, a government official, Stace Red Hawk, is finally sent from Washington. Like John Wren, an Indian. A Literary Guild selection, it’s only one of the many books in several genres by Hogan, two of whose early titles were published by our Greenfield Review Press.

There’s THE DEATHS OF SYBIL BOLTON. It’s a true family story by journalist Dennis McCauliffe, who only learned as an adult that his Osage grandmother was murdered in that 1920s killing spree.

Then there’s A PIPE FOR FEBRUARY, a 2005 novel by the late Osage writer Charles Red Corn which tells the story from the Indigenous perspective of a traditional Osage—not focussing on the white businessmen who were the perpetrators. According to Yancy Red Corn, an actor in the film, Charles Red Corn’s novel was one of the source books that Scorsese referred to in making the hit movie. In fact, in a November 2023 press conference, Lily Gladstone and Scorsese suggested that they were “interested in adapting Charles H. Red Corn’s novel…into a movie.” (“Interested” in Hollywood  = unlikely.)

Second, which I just hinted at, there is the way the focus in the film is so strongly on King and Ernest. It could have been a shorter film with a bit less of those two—especially in the second half of its 3-hour and 26-minute runtime. However, in defense of Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, the focus of Grann’s book is much more on the BOI investigation of the killings. It was the input of the director, the leading actor, and more than 200 Osage people that the script was reworked to focus primarily on Mollie Burkhart and her family. 

Final Thoughts

Could the movie have been made on a $200,000,000 (two hundred million) budget without Scorsese and the star power of De Niro and DiCaprio, who were willing to play such fully realized, though unattractive, pivotal roles? It’s unlikely. There’s no question about the sincerity of this film or the lessons it offers for a 21st-century America in need of both honesty and healing. And there’s no doubt about the true heroes of this morality tale—the Osage Nation.

While it is not perfect, KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON is a film of epic proportions that deserves its 10 Oscar nominations, to win the Best Picture Oscar, and to last as part of the American conversation. 

And I hope that it may be a step toward clearing up some of the confusion about what this nation has actually been, a step that may help all of us continue to move toward a more inclusive future.

To read more of my father’s daily blogs, check out GENERATIONS