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Scorsese’s Take on the War Against the Osage

The Osage called the war that was waged against them in the 1920s a “Reign of Terror.” The terrorists were all white men—white settlers, white businessmen, white criminals, white cowboys and white lawmen— who committed heinous crimes to steal Indian money, land and property. When oil was discovered in Osage  county in Oklahoma, the Indians suddenly became wealthy, and in many ways assimilated white values, without totally surrendering their own heritage and language. Both resistance and compliance went on at the same time. 

Some Indians built mansions, hired servants and drove expensive cars. That’s all part of the historical record. In the eyes of many whites on the Oklahoma frontier in the 1920s, Indians with money were Indians who had no right to exist. 

Hence the Reign of Terror which took the lives of dozens of Osage and perhaps far more than that number. No one kept an accurate record of the number of mostly Indian women who were shot to death, poisoned and blown to bits with dynamite. The whites lied, conspired and tried to cover-up their crimes. 

Based on David Grann’s 2017 non-fiction narrative, Killers of the Flower Moon, Scorsese’ overly long (3 hrs 26 min) movie offers a somber tale of romance and murder that connects two star-crossed lovers: a greedy World War I vet named Ernest (Leonardo DiCaprio,) who craves money and lots of it; and Molly, a proud  and dignified woman who belongs to the Osage nation, becomes Ernest’s wife and the mother of their children. 

She loves him and he loves her, though under the thumb of an uncle he sets about trying to poison her and inherit her property.

 Lily Gladstone, who is of Piegan Blackfeet, Nez Piece and European heritage, reprises to perfection the role of the Native American beauty once played by white actors in movies like The Searchers (1956) which stars John Wayne, Natalie Wood, and Henry Brandon as Chief Cicatriz. 

Grann’s book—a bestseller translated into Spanish, French and more, is subtitled “The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.” It has enough material for several movies. In Scorsese’s telling, the clean shaved G-Men—who work for a young J. Edgar Hoover and the Bureau of Investigation, a forerunner of the FBI—are heroic, though they aren’t glamorized. The G-Men solve the mystery of the brutal murders and help send the guilty parties to prison. That, too, is part of the historical record.

Given his long fascination with crime and criminals (Goodfellas, Casino, Gangs of New York and The Irishman) it’s not hard to understand why Scorsese was drawn to the story of gangland style multiple murders on the oil-rich prairies along with the bonus of good guys in law enforcement. 

Perhaps Scorsese wanted to show that he has a social conscience and wanted to do right by the Indians. But if that were true, he might have placed the Indians, not the white men or the G-men from Washington, at the center of his drama. Molly, not Ernest, could have been the star of the show. 

At a press conference to publicize the movie, Scorsese presented himself as a friend of the Osage who has had their support all through the project. But an Osage who served as a consultant on the film noted that the story is told from the perspective of the white man who marries Molly and tries to kill her. “That's not love,” he said. “That’s beyond abuse.” He added that “it would take an Osage” to tell the story.

The title for the book and the movie comes from the Osage observation and saying that the first brightly colored flowers of Spring perished with the arrival, under a full moon, of taller and hardier plants that stold their light and water and so they perished until they were reborn the next year. Perhaps it’s a parable about the cycles of nature and human history. 

I watched Scorsese’s movie in a Cineplex in November, “Native American  Heritage Month,” though no sign, leaflet or poster identified it as such. I also attended in November a talk at Book Passage in San Francisco by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, the author of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, just reissued in a tenth anniversary edition. (Alas, there’s no mention of the Reign of Terror against the Osage in the new edition.) 

Dunbar-Ortiz has identified herself from time to time as part Cherokee and part Cheyenne, though not long ago in an interview in The Progressive she noted that her father was a “foot soldier of empire,” and one of the “Scots Irish border settlers that were basically the main people on the front line of invading Indian villages and killing people and taking their crops and appropriating their land.” She added that her mother “never claimed to be Indian,” and that she (Dunbar) didn’t “grow up really with any native heritage.” From my point of view she’s a bit of a cypher: an ex self-defined revolutionary who now says that the American Left devolved into factions.

Somewhere in her political evolution, Dunbar-Ortiz seems to have carved out a Native American identity for herself, perhaps to justify her role as an historian of Indian life. At times, she seems hell bent on denouncing white settlers who invaded Indian villages, killed the inhabitants, took their crops and their land. They did participate in the expansion of the American Empire, but the real foot soldiers it seeems to me were the soldiers in the uniforms of the U.S. 

Dee Brown, the author of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, didn’t present himself as an Indian, though some of his readers assumed he was. After all, why would a white man write sympathetically about red men and women? David Grann has never claimed to be an Osage or a member of any tribe, nor has Martin Scorsese, who’s as Italian as Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, the Italian born anarchists who died in the electric chair for a crime they didn't commit, or Vittorio De Sica, the famed director of Bicycle Thieves, Marriage Italian-Style and more. 

After her somber presentation, a member of the audience who had not read her book, asked Dunbar-Ortiz, “Where did you get your information?” She never answered him, though she replied, “I’m an historian by training,” and “I have accumulated knowledge.” In fact, no original research went into her history. I know. I read the book when it was first published. 

Dunbar-Ortiz also explained that she tried to back out of her contract with Beacon to write an indigenous peoples’ history. No go. She carried on for seven years, though she also tried to hand the project over to Susan Miller, a Native American historian and the author of Native Historians Write Back: Decolonizing American History. That didn’t fly either.

“I can imagine white nationalists appearing on the streets of San Francisco where I live,” Dunbar-Ortiz told the crowd that had assembled at Book Passage in the Ferry Building where the Ramaytush Ohlone once made their home. “The news doesn't make me cheerful,” she said. “In fact, I’m scared a lot.” When she wrote her history, she said she was hopeful. Not anymore. 

Usually, at a public event in SF, someone on stage tells the audience, “We occupy the unceded Ancestral homeland of the Ramaytush Ohlone peoples, who are the original inhabitants of the San Francisco Peninsula.” That didn’t happen at Book Passage. Maybe someone just forgot.

Years ago, when I protested against the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the FBI, I wrote a fictionalized account of the life of Dennis Banks, a leader of the American Indian Movement  (AIM), along with Russell Means and Leonard Peltier, who is still in prison after more than nearly 50 years behind bars. I gave my illustrated book to an AIM member hoping for an honest opinion. “Your story is awfully grim,” he said, “There’s no laughter. You know, Indians have a terrific sense of humor.” 

Martin Scorsese doesn’t seem to know about Indian comedy, nor does Roxanne Dunbar–Ortiz. She seems to believe that oppressed and exploited peope cant afford to laugh. Sherman Alexis, a member of the Spokane, does. Two of his books, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, have entertained readers for decades. His titles alone might provoke laughter.  

Now, during Indigenous Peoples’ Month, we might remember that Indians laugh as well as cry, that they can be as wily as coyotes and as wonderful story tellers as the land, the sky, the rivers and the lakes themselves. Scorsese’s movie doesn’t conclude with laughter, but rather with a lyrical view from up above the earth, and with an accompanying soundtrack, of an Indian drumming circle. It’s a sweet, spiritual end to a grim film about the Reign of Terror waged by white men against the Osage who still live and follow tribal ways in Oklahoma.   

(Jonah Raskin is the author of The Thief of Yellow Roses, 36 New Poems, available from Barnes and Noble, Amazon and elsewhere.)

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