Before David Grann’s Presidential lecture, a panel debated indigenous issues in future adaptation of “Killers of the Flower Moon.”
In the past two weeks, there have been three events discussing David Grann’s book, “Killers of the Flower Moon.” On Oct. 17, the Oklahoma Center for the Humanities organized an event called “Big Ideas at TU: Killers of the Flower Moon” in anticipation of David Grann’s upcoming lecture on Oct. 24, the first installment of the 2019-2020 Presidential Lecture series.
Sandwiched between those two lectures was the third event. I was invited to participate in a small student discussion with Grann in the afternoon of the 24th before his formal remarks. Most of what Grann covered in the student conversation he repeated in the evening lecture.
For a bit of background, Grann’s book (and his lecture) outlined the Osage murders of the 1920s in Greyhorse and Fairfax, Oklahoma over headrights. As Grann describes, headrights are the inheritable shares of a collective mineral trust that the Osage people retained even after they had to divide their communal land into allotments.
When the Osage people struck black gold and found out that they had been relocated onto a mineral-rich land, many white oil barons and ordinary people tried to buy and inherit as much of the land as possible. The Osage themselves were appointed white guardians to manage their money as a blood-quantum racist assertion that the Osage were incompetent. Since headrights couldn’t be sold, “Killers of the Flower Moon” describes the tragic murders of many Osages so that white guardians could gain access to their headrights.
The first event advertised a panel discussion “of native activists and artists [speaking about] the book, the upcoming film adaptation and native representation.” Grann just sold the movie rights to his book; it will be directed by Martin Scorsese and will feature big-name actors such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert DeNiro. The panel featured Garrick Bailey, a TU professor of anthropology and a Native studies scholar that assisted Grann’s research, and Cecelia Tallchief, an Osage woman and a prominent member of the Osage community whose father was poisoned as a part of the Osage Reign of Terror and Crystal Echo Hawk, a Pawnee indigenous activist. The discussion was moderated by Wilson Pipestem, a native rights lawyer and the nephew of Cecelia Tallchief.
The panelists expressed their concerns about the upcoming film and about modern-day native representation. Tallchief described how she used to know the Burkhart family; Mollie Burkhart was the first person depicted in Grann’s book, and her section reveals that the murderers of her sisters and mother were people that she thought loved her. Cecelia’s story was indicative of one of Echo Hawk’s comments: “These are people’s lives” and the descendants of these victims still live today.
Echo Hawk reminded the audience that the Osage murders happened less than a century ago; this traumatic wound has not had time to heal. Grann mentioned this point in his lecture as well: there are families that still didn’t know who is responsible for the murders of their ancestors.
Echo Hawk also described the issue of representation. She stated that “invisibility is among the biggest barriers native people face today,” and, “Nearly 90 percent of schools don’t teach about natives past 1900.” She and other panelists expressed concerns that “Killers of the Flower Moon” is, as Pipestem articulated, “not an Osage story, it’s a story about Osages.” This is one of few media representations of native people after 1900.
Due to apprehension about the upcoming film adaptation, Pipestem explained that the Osage community came together to draft a letter to Martin Scorsese asking for accurate representation and volunteering to be both cultural and oral history consultants.
“Killers of the Flower Moon” is a compelling, haunting and well-researched history of the 1920s Osage murders. In his lecture, Grann explained how “one of the most powerful parts of my research was tracking down the descendants.” Hopefully, Scorsese will understand the importance of doing the same. As Echo Hawk expressed, this movie “could either be a bomb or an opportunity for truth-telling and Osage voice,” and it could be the “start of reconciliation and healing.”