Unpacking the Indigenous Dilemma in Killers of the Flower Moon

Unpacking the Indigenous Dilemma in Killers of the Flower Moon

Martin Scorsese’s highly anticipated and probably Oscar-worthy film Killers of the Flower Moon, based on the Pulitzer Prize winning non-fiction book of the same name, tells the story of the reign of terror in the plains of Oklahoma in the early twentieth centruy. From 1918 to 1931 over 60 members of the Osage Nation were murdered for their land by white settlers.

While the film promises a gripping narrative, it has also stirred controversy regarding its portrayal of Indigenous communities. This deserves a deeper look at the indigenous perspective, and drawing insights from thought leaders and subject matter experts to understand the complexities surrounding the film, as since it has released, although widely acclaimed it has drawn criticism.

To comprehend the indigenous concerns, it’s essential to revisit the historical backdrop. The Osage Indian murders were a series of brutal killings targeting the Osage Nation, who, after discovering oil on their land, became incredibly wealthy. This wealth, however, triggered a sinister plot that led to the murder of numerous Osage individuals for their inheritance.

Critics argue that the film may perpetuate harmful stereotypes or overlook the depth of the indigenous experience. Dr. Adrienne Keene, a leading voice on Native representation, raises concerns about Hollywood’s tendency to present indigenous characters through a narrow lens, often reducing them to outdated stereotypes. Keene emphasizes the need for accurate and respectful portrayals that reflect the diversity and richness of indigenous cultures.

Recently on the NPR podcast It’s Been A Minute highlighted the problems with American Indigenous representation in the episode Pressing pause on ‘Killers Of The Flower Moon’ and rethinking Scorsese’s latest. Host Brittany Luse interviewed Robert Warrior, a literature professor and Osage Nation citizen, Liza Black, a Native American and Indigenous Studies professor and Cherokee Nation citizen, and Nancy Marie Mithlo, a gender studies professor and Fort Sill Chiricahua Warm Springs Apache citizen.

Tropes that emerge over representation in the media are problematic as Nancy Marie Mithlo explained: “People in the United States unfortunately identify with the “cowboys and Indians” trope and this story just extends that unhelpful narrative, because native people are objects, just like our resources, our land and our minerals, Native Americans are there for extraction, exploitation and commodification.”

“If you’re interested in social change, you have to have both the perpetrator and the victim in the same scene with equal agency. If you don’t have that, you are not going to be able to move to a space of equity and empathy.”

As one of American cinemas iconic genres, Liza Black said that perhaps the film industry will never get there in its representation of Indigenous Americans and their stories: “We’ve given film 100 years to tell the story of “cowboys and Indians”. Is the film industry taking its job as a storyteller really seriously or has it relinquished that role to commerce, because if entertainment means murdering native women and men onscreen and you’re going to eat popcorn and laugh and somehow that’s what America is ready to pay money for, then that to me is a sign that maybe the film industry is irretrievable.”

As Robert Warrior notes that in order to bring about change perhaps viewers need to vote with their feet: “The one thing you can control is what you are watching. You may want it to get better, but you can always turn it off. There’s always something better to do with your time.”

Indigenous communities have long faced misrepresentation in media, leading to the erasure of their diverse cultures and histories. As filmmaker and activist Sterlin Harjo noted, Hollywood must prioritise cultural sensitivity, consulting with indigenous experts to ensure authentic narratives. The danger lies in perpetuating harmful tropes that contribute to the marginalisation of indigenous voices. Also the lack of education about what really happened to indigenous peoples in America means that films are often taken as shorthand for the reality of the Indigenous experience, which is far from the case.

One of the central issues highlighted by indigenous critics is the lack of meaningful collaboration and consultation during the filmmaking process. Navajo filmmaker and professor Dr. Elizabeth Weatherford stressed the importance of including indigenous perspectives not just in front of the camera but behind it as well. True representation, she argues, involves indigenous voices influencing the storytelling, ensuring accuracy, and avoiding the perpetuation of harmful stereotypes.

“I think another central problem to add to the list of issues in cinema is the problem of white characters,” said Liza Black on It’s Been A Minute. “I think that the movie refuses to turn Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio) into a villain. I think it even refuses to turn William (Robert De Niro) into a villain. And so I want to make it  clear that the problem in the history of cinema is Hollywood’s refusal to portray white characters as the premeditated murderers and dispossessors of native people. This is really what Hollywood is afraid to do.”

Tribal sovereignty is another crucial aspect often overlooked in mainstream narratives. Terese Marie Mailhot, an acclaimed writer and member of the Seabird Island Band, emphasises the need for filmmakers to respect tribal sovereignty and engage in open dialogue with indigenous communities. Recognising the autonomy of these communities ensures that their stories are told with authenticity and respect.

Indigenous narratives are powerful tools for dispelling stereotypes and fostering understanding. Filmmaker and actress Tanis Parenteau emphasises the potential of Killers of the Flower Moon to educate a global audience about a dark chapter in American history. However, she cautions against sacrificing authenticity for dramatic effect, urging filmmakers to prioritise truth over sensationalism.

In navigating the indigenous problem with Killers of the Flower Moon, it is evident that the film carries a responsibility to represent the Osage Nation and indigenous communities accurately. By heeding the insights of indigenous thought leaders and subject matter experts, filmmakers can contribute to a more inclusive and respectful cinematic landscape.

The importance of collaboration, cultural sensitivity, and respect for tribal sovereignty cannot be overstated, ensuring that the film serves as a platform for indigenous voices rather than perpetuating harmful stereotypes. As the industry evolves, it is imperative that filmmakers embrace diversity and engage in meaningful dialogue to bridge the gap between representation and reality.

Listen to the full It’s Been A Minute Podcast Episode here.


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