On Being Seen: Killers of the Flower Moon in the Bay and Beyond

Dianna Baldwin Vidales (pictured in the center) at the Grand Avenue Oakland premiere of Killers of the Flower Moon

Written by Dianna Baldwin Vidales, AIS Class of 2010

Pictured from left to right: name (Landa Lakes (left), Dianna Baldwin Vidales (center), and Charlie Ballard (right)

Native American people and issues are being increasingly shared through the media and in Hollywood. Indigenous actors are now playing indigenous roles which was just a dream of generations prior. While many Native people would prefer positive and relatable modern depictions as a focus of indigenous-centered entertainment, there are still stories from the past being uncovered. One such historic account is the “Osage Reign of Terror”, which began in the 1920s and is the focus of the recent Martin Scorsese film “Killers of the Flower Moon” starring Lily Gladstone (and some other guy). You might know him as Leonardo DiCaprio. The movie is based on the book by David Grann, whose research was built on works by Native authors such as Charles Redcorn who wrote “A Pipe for February” and Dennis Mcauliffe Jr who wrote “The Deaths of Sybil Bolton”. These stories explore the lives and deaths of Osages who were taken advantage of and murdered for access to their oil money, termed “headrights”, as a result to oil being found on the Osage reservation.

I am an Osage (Wahzhazhe) working mother, born in Oklahoma yet living and working in the Bay Area. I was unsure when and where I would see the movie. The Northern California Osage (NCO) group that I have been a part of since high school had been talking about the movie with other tribal members back home since rumors started in 2020 and filming began soon after. Our Northern California Osage group was approached by Bay Area entertainers Charlie Ballard (Anishinaabe) and Landa Lakes (Chickasaw) who wished to host a Bay Area community viewing and hoped that at least one of us could attend. Being the closest in proximity and on the NCO steering committee, I volunteered after confirming a babysitter could watch my small children for the entire day. As an SFSU Student Kouncil of Intertribal Nations alumni I was excited to reconnect with the Bay Area Native community for such an important event.

Charlie Ballard shared complicated feelings about the movie, “Originally, I didn’t want to see the movie because I knew it was going to bring up hard feelings, as a reminder of what our ancestors had to go through for all of us to be here. I did a little research and found out the Osage wanted this story to be told, as it’s been omitted from American history”. While I was not one of the Osages that worked on the film, I can confirm that as a community, we were ready for this story to be told but knew that we needed the story to be told in a respectful way. Osages are thankful for Scorsese to have provided a platform for community language specialists, artists, and cultural advisors to direct the portrayal of Osage people in the movie. It was important for the Wahzhazhe people to have some control of the narrative of the film.

In true Bay Area Native Community fashion, when Charlie created the Killers of the Flower Moon event just for close friends and family, the indigenous community responded in a big way and the crowd grew quickly to over 650 people. “In the course of the planning, I found other tribal communities began planning their own indigenous screenings and suddenly, our event became a part of a movement within Indian Country. In the truest of our old ways, it was beautiful to watch our tribal community members come together to provide support and solidarity for the Osage people”, shared Charlie. I had also realized I truly needed support from the intertribal community while living in another state away from my Oklahoma people. Landa Lakes shared similar reflections about the event; “Coming together as a community seemed appropriate to us many of us know what it is like to live in a system of complicity which the movie explores. The Osage are survivors, we in turn are the descendants of survivors in our own various tribal communities from the Trail of Tears to the Long Walk. We knew there would be tears but were comforted by the fact we were together.”

I introduced the film and spoke a bit about historical atrocities against Osage women where journalists would spread stories and photos of Osage women, enticing men to come searching for a rich wife with headrights. I grew up with these stories. Osage women were not given the opportunity to represent themselves. This is why Wahzhazhe people are grateful to have the opportunity to direct the portrayal of our people. It is still not known how many Osages lost their lives over manipulations of insurance money and headrights by “wolves” living among the people and presenting as spouses, custodians, lawyers, and doctors. Since many Native people at the time were deemed legally incompetent to manage their own money, the federal government entrusted others to manage on their behalf as financial custodians. This left room for abuse and many death certificates were fabricated. While I knew my own great grandfather served on the tribal council at the time and my great uncle was a tribal police officer, I still asked a lot of questions about the deaths of the women in my family because of these stories. And I carry a paranoia with me about who to trust.

Terry Mason-Moore and her daughters were also involved in the making of the film. She played an Osage woman extra. “I wore a plain wraparound skirt, wool or cotton depending on the scene, a cotton shirt with 3 brooches, a black choker, silver cone earrings, and plain moccasins. On the first day of filming back in April 2021, I met Martin Scorsese, Leonardo DeCaprio, Robert DeNiro, and Tantoo Cardinal. They were all very nice, very personable. Many scenes were filmed with extras but not all the scenes made it in the movie. Members of the tribe who were involved in the making of the film signed non-disclosure agreements and could not speak openly about the film until after the premiere, which I know was very hard for everyone involved!"

After viewing the movie, I had trouble forming sentences. It brought back up a lot of family and personal trauma. I had lingering anger and sadness for days. However, I saw my people on the big screen, heard my ancestral language, and got to see such beautiful Osage artistry. The movie has brought the Osage community closer together and started a collective healing that I hope continues. Language revitalization has increased enrollment in Wahzhazhe language classes and Osages are experiencing more solidarity as a community than ever. I am proud of the film and proud to be Wahzhazhe.

This momentum carried through Lily Gladstone’s Golden Globe with her Oscar nomination. The entire Osage community celebrated the 10 Oscar nominations for Killers of the Flower Moon. The competition was steep with Oppenheimer having 13 nominations and Poor Things having 11. However, surely, the community thought we would walk with something. That was not the case and critics have expressed disappointment in the academy for their choices to completely snub one of the darker stories of US history. So much went into the film and yet the competition swept. It left many feeling that while Hollywood is ready to engage with indigenous artists, they may not be ready to contend with the complexities of an indigenous history and world view. One thing is for sure: every Osage and indigenous artist involved with the KOTFM film and the Oscars music performance are winners in the eyes of their people.