Film

What has Oscar-nominated Killers of the Flower Moon changed for the people at its heart?

A century on from a series of traumatic murders, has a film galvanised change for the Osage Nation?

Killers of the Flower Moon

Espinoza (left) with actor Tommy Schultz, who played Blackie Thompson in Killers of the Flower Moon. Image: Supplied

It’s impossible to know what the judges for the 96th Academy Awards felt when they watched Killers of the Flower Moon, Martin Scorcese’s true-life tale of how members of the Osage Nation were systematically murdered a century ago. The film, starring Native American Lily Gladstone, could win 10 Oscars this Sunday, including best picture. But for Tristan Joseph Espinoza, it has already changed his life.

After watching the film, Espinoza, an Osage studying in London, has decided to track down the fates of the original Osage women awarded oil rights in the 1920s.

“The film has changed my life in the sense that this summer I’m conducting an independent research project for the Osage Nation that’s going to track the original allottee members. It was around 2,000, in the 1920s when the government did a census to decide who gets the headrights,” he explains.

“I’m going to track those original Osage women and see what happened to them. Were they missing or murdered? Did they live out their whole life? Because that data has never been collected before.”

Espinoza’s desire to map out Osage history is just one part of the legacy of the film. In October, ahead of the film’s release, The Big Issue spoke to Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear, who explained that the injustices in the film – and the dark legacy of the murders – still lives on among a people who struggle for recognition and wealth.

Lily Gladstone (Mollie Burkhart) and Leonardo DiCaprio (Ernest Burkhart) in Killers of the Flower Moon.
Lily Gladstone (Mollie Burkhart) and Leonardo DiCaprio (Ernest Burkhart) in Killers of the Flower Moon. Photo: © 2023 Apple Studios

At the heart of the film is a decade-long campaign of murders known as the Reign of Terror, in which Osage people were murdered in a bid to inherit the rights to oil beneath the reservation – known as headrights. Director Martin Scorcese spoke of his efforts to deeply involve the community in the making of the film – it was shot on location in Oklahoma, with Osage actors in speaking and background roles, and Osages working in production. Ahead of the Oscars, we explored what impact the film’s release has had on the marginalised community, and how far a blockbuster can galvanise change.

Perhaps the most tangible impact, Espinoza explains, has been the conversations it has sparked.

“Osage are very reserved people, and with what happened in the film, the tragedy, because of this instilled fear – if you talk about what had happened, or your experiences – it was likely you would face violence. So for many years this story was just whispers and rumours. It was really suppressed. And with that you suppress Osage identities, cultures, just whole families were wiped out, and so were emotions,” he says.

“I’ve definitely experienced family members I’ve talked to be like ‘I wonder what happened to this family member, I didn’t really touch on that, I was always too scared to’. Every single Osage I’ve talked to after the film has been like, ‘this part reminds me of when I was a kid, this reminds me of what my grandmother said’.”

“It’s been really exciting covering the making of the film,” says Allison Herrera, a journalist for APM Reports who has covered Indigenous affairs in Oklahoma and writes for Osage News.

“It’s been really exciting to watch the media coverage around it in Oklahoma, and the way it’s really brought to the forefront some of the issues highlighted in the film – the issue of guardianships and the issue of headrights.”

Tourism in the wake of Killers of the Flower Moon has increased to the extent that the Osage Nation has had to release an etiquette guide on how to visit respectfully.

Those making trips have reportedly asked to see Osage children, according to the Osage News, with the new visiting guide reminding tourists to refrain from entering or approaching sacred burial grounds and cemeteries.

Last month, Herrera’s employers put on a tour of locations around Osage county, starting in Pawhuska and visiting sites from the film.

“It sold out. People were just crazy about wanting to learn more about history, and I think that’s really exciting to see from the non-native population in Oklahoma,” she says.

Herrera hopes the film can change the narrative around Oklahoma, with media coverage of banning books and clampdowns on “woke” history.

“I think everyday Oklahomans really want this story told, and to go against this narrative that Oklahoma is a backwards state that doesn’t want this history to be told,” says Herrera.

The legacy of the Reign of Terror is still felt among the Osage, with Chief Standing Bear citing a lack of consistent internet access as an emblem of their struggles with poverty.

Although not a consequence of the film, progress has been made on that front. In March, a $40 million (£31m) project to expand broadband access on the reservation broke ground. Dr James Trumbly, who led the project, said it could incentivise families who left during the Reign of Terror to move back.

“I think a lot of people moved to California and Colorado and Arizona and New Mexico, and all over the country – and we’ve had difficulty bringing them back. One of the reasons is because we need connectivity,” he told Osage News.

Espinoza believes this may help Osages become more involved in politics. Currently, Native Americans have the lowest voter turnout of any group in the USA, and 1.5 million eligible Native Americans aren’t registered to vote.

“The largest percentage of people in the United States who don’t believe in voting, or the electoral system, is the Indigenous population, because of how the United States government has treated them. So if you get these people connected to the internet, you can get them to care about issues, and you can get them to vote,” says Espinoza.

However, the fight for justice continues – at its core is retaining the rights and control of the vast mineral wealth. The nation has recently won a battle to have wind turbines placed on their sacred removed. A federal judge ruled in January that the owners had failed to get proper permits from the Osage. There is also a lengthy battle over whether the Osage reservation still exists in law, and a bid to make it easier for non-Osage owners of headrights to give these rights back.

Native Americans and the Oscars do not have a happy history. It was only in 1983 that Buffy Sainte-Marie became the first Indigenous person to win one of the famous statuettes, and Marlon Brando famously sent Sacheen Littlefeather to reject his best actor award for The Godfather in protest at the treatment of Native Americans.

Killers of the Flower Moon is a sign of what’s changed. Osage singer Scott George is nominated for best original song, and will perform at the ceremony. The film’s journey through awards season has been a way for the community to come together.

As Lily Gladstone took to the stage as a Golden Globe winner, extras, actors, and production from the film gathered in a casino in Pawhuska to watch. 

“It was just this huge celebration about the film, talking about it, we’d honoured elders while we were there. It’s definitely been a celebration point as much as it’s been a conversation point,” recalls Espinoza, who expects similar scenes on Sunday night.

“For better or worse, I think it’s changed the course of history for the Osage Nation, that all these people – myself included – suddenly have this bigger platform because people want to listen to this tribe that was really silenced for a long time.”

He adds: “If anything, the Oscars has showed us that it’s turned this really tragic incident into a point of celebration. And just showing that we are worth celebrating, our story means something, and we are still here.”

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