No legislative act will hide the ugly truth featured in 'Killers of the Flower Moon'

The movie "Killers Of The Flower Moon" includes numerous scenes filmed in Pawhuska but representing activity that took place in Fairfax. This train depot set, labeled "Fairfax," was actually located in Pawhuska for filming purposes.
The movie "Killers Of The Flower Moon" includes numerous scenes filmed in Pawhuska but representing activity that took place in Fairfax. This train depot set, labeled "Fairfax," was actually located in Pawhuska for filming purposes.

The movie “Killers of the Flower Moon” is a careful, thorough telling of the hideous story of white settlers in Osage County exploiting, killing and robbing members of the Osage tribe in the 1920s. The method employed by rancher William K. Hale was one of cultivating trust and ruthlessly betraying members of the Osage tribal community who held headrights, or shares, in the tribal mineral estate. Hale learned the Osage language, developed relationships with multiple members of families, encouraged them to view him as a kindly elder and benefactor, and arranged for their murders.

All the while, Hale also spoke the language of the Bible and religious wisdom. Hideous, disgusting, obscene, all of these words apply. Robert De Niro portrays Hale with the skill of a master craftsman. Leonardo DiCaprio ably portrays Ernest Burkhart, Hale’s handsome, lecherous but bumbling nephew. Lily Gladstone’s character, Mollie Kyle Burkhart, finds out, as so many women do, the heartbreak that frequently results from marrying a good-looking but stupid and weak man. He has those dreamy blue eyes, but lacks the soul and spine to defend her.

What happened to the Osage people was unique in its particulars, not all of which can be said to be known owing to a lack of sufficient investigation at the time that the crimes were committed, but the overall tale fits well within a long history of white settler and fortune seeker exploitation of indigenous people. In the late 1820s, European-American settlers became aware of gold on Cherokee land in the mountains of what is now north Georgia. The greed and lawlessness that followed that discovery contributed to the lengthy chain of events that led to the Cherokee being removed from their lands and relocated to what is now Oklahoma.

In the 1840s, the California gold rush resulted in white settlers and prospectors spreading into areas where indigenous people had lived, bringing violence and disease with them. Later influxes of white settlers and prospectors into Montana and the Dakota Territory were the result of the discovery of valuable mineral resources.

In other words, what happened to the Osage people in the 1920s was, in addition to being evil and criminal, a natural outgrowth of the American way of life. European Americans disrespected the lives and wishes of indigenous people, and assumed that land and mineral resources were theirs for the taking. The U.S. government, including its legal system, supported that view. It still defends white privilege against native sovereignty to far too great an extent.

The results were and are breathtaking. According to a History Channel account, fewer than 238,000 Native Americans remained by the end of the so-called Indian Wars in the late 19th Century, down from more than 5 million at the time of first contact between Native Americans and European Americans. Additionally, the new settler population killed off wild animal life at an alarming rate. The American Bison population declined from an estimated 30 million or more to fewer than 1,000. European Americans thought of themselves as civilized people, but what they perpetrated on the North American continent was nothing short of savage. So, I am prone to cough when I re-read Thomas Jefferson’s words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident …”

What whites in Osage County did to the Osage people in order to get their hands on mineral headrights was savage. It was also characteristic of the culture that formed the basis of the society that became the United States.

The Oklahoma Legislature in 2021 passed a law that has had the effect of discouraging teachers from trying to tell their students about our nation’s atrocities. I am here to tell legislators that they can pass all the laws they please, but the people won’t shut up about what they know. The facts won’t go away. I think of the story of Cain and Abel in the book of Genesis. The blood of the slaughtered cries out from the ground where they were killed. No legislative act will silence it. No hostile state governor will intimidate it. No banning of a book will keep future generations from learning. Piety without repentance will be futile.

This article originally appeared on Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise: Facts of brutality toward Osage tribe won't be silenced by legislation