Killers of the Flower Moon, the Martin Scorsese movie about my people, the Osage Nation of Oklahoma, brings to life the reign of terror we lived through a century ago, as if we were back there on those busy 1920s reservation streets, rubbing elbows with our own ancestors and their murderers. It is a powerful film, vividly and heartbreakingly accurate.
Scorsese has rightly been praised for pushing his storytelling past the white-guy-saving-the-day narrative with his important adaptation of the book to film. But the events of the film are only one part of a much richer story. What the film does not fully demonstrate is Osage persistence beyond this traumatic era. If the film is your only source of knowledge, then you would most likely assume that Osages did not survive this assault. The Osage Nation, however, has not just survived—it is thriving.
Any story of the Osage Nation today, of course, must describe the legacy of Osage trauma that arose from a long history of settlers taking our land, tearing apart our families, trying to eliminate our language and culture, overthrowing our government, not fulfilling treaty promises, swindling and murdering Osages, and fighting against our rights to govern our land.
Yet, as Julie O’Keefe, an Osage woman from Pawhuska and wardrobe consultant on the movie told me, “Osages have always tried to take control of the forces that came for us and turn them into something that could work for us.” The Osage Nation has been engaged in an ongoing process of meeting our own unique needs through the adoption of non-Native tools such as federal treaties, a constitutional government, bureaucracy, technology, and capitalism.
While the tools themselves are contemporary, our willingness to adopt new ways to ensure our survival is nothing new. Osage creation stories and other oral traditions are imbued with the concept of movement. These stories frequently discuss “moving to a new country” as a deliberated and deliberate process, discussed and planned by 𐓩𐓪͘𐓡𐓪͘𐓻𐓣͘𐓤𐓘 (Osage leaders). 𐓩𐓪͘𐓡𐓪͘𐓻𐓣͘𐓤𐓘 are said to have observed that the cosmos was constantly changing, and thus embraced change as a fundamental part of Osages own structures and approaches. This movement is never simply a geographical change. Rather, it is an ongoing commitment to enact changes in all realms of life to counter 𐓤𐓘𐓩𐓣𐓵𐓘 (chaos) as it develops, replacing it with a new order.
U.S. colonization of the Osage Nation created intense forms of 𐓤𐓘𐓩𐓣𐓵𐓘 for us. From 1808 until 1839, seven treaties stripped Osage control over 96 million acres of land, representing 75% of the Osage land base. In return, Osages were offered only $166,000 in cash, annuities, livestock, and farming supplies. We used these treaties, however, to also secure promises of ongoing health care, education, support in managing our resources, and protection against our enemies. Too often these promises have not been kept. Even when they have been kept, they have often come well after they were needed, or in harmful and inadequate forms.
Even in the face of such failures, however, the Osage Nation has continually sought to strategically use our relationships with the federal government to meet our needs. Osage officials have used the federal courts, the FBI, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, legislation, and federal grants to hold the U.S. government to its treaty promises and obligations because treaty promises of protection are one of our only tools against the threats we face. Meeting Osage needs has repeatedly meant using the U.S. government to gain leverage against, ward off, and receive compensation for problems the government and its policies created for us, especially with the state of Oklahoma and extractive industries. Perhaps counterintuitively, this uneven relationship is what Osages have used to assert self-governance.
After a century under a limited (and limiting) governing structure imposed on us by the federal government, we created a new constitution in 2006 that has enabled us to govern ourselves and do the work necessary to ensure that our people will have a vibrant future. The creation of the 2006 constitution was possible because of federal law for which the Osage Tribal Council lobbied. Under the 2006 constitution, Osage officials created a three-part government with checks and balances that has enabled the Nation to provide health care, teach Osage language, and restore our land base.
Governing ourselves under the 2006 Osage Constitution enabled the Osage Nation to take over the long-neglected Indian Health Service facility. In doing so, however, the Nation inherited a cumbersome bureaucracy, outdated and inappropriate equipment, and an inadequate, poorly designed bureaucracy. Federal healthcare efforts and the Indian Health Service created spaces of colonial paternalism, neglect, assimilation, and elimination throughout Indian country, even as Native peoples repeatedly tried to intervene on their own behalf.
With the Osage Nation’s 21st-century Indian Health Service transition and accreditation process for the newly minted Wahzhazhi Health Center, Osages are working to bring order this neglected space. Increasing the revenue streams have helped provide improved equipment, services, and even facilities. Designing a robust health bureaucracy, building a new facility, expanding services, and boosting patient satisfaction are all core pieces of ensuring a healthy Osage future.
Twenty-first-century nation building, with its expansive casino-based revenue streams, has allowed the creation of a robust Osage language program. Through policies of assimilation, the U.S. government had almost succeeded in severing the generational flow of the Osage language, creating a moment in 2005 when there were no native speakers. Still, it could not eliminate Osages or our language, which remained a key part of our prayers, songs, and ceremonies. For many Osages, maintaining a relationship with the language is the best means to stay connected with the core values contained within our language and lifeways, especially 𐓷𐓘𐓡𐓫 (relations of respect).
The Osage Nation Language Department is bringing the language back into our daily lives by embracing various technologies. Our linguists have created a writing system and made it available across electronic platforms. Our educators are hosting classes in public schools, for the community, and in our own private accredited school. Our language program has experimented with and achieved innovation with a wide variety of digital platforms, including virtual reality, while always trying to keep 𐓷𐓘𐓡𐓫 centered.
Land is a central component of our nation-building efforts, and Osages are reclaiming reservation land lost to large, non-Osage ranchers during the 1920s and 1930s. The loss of much of our land base had threatened not only our sense of ourselves as a nation but also our ability to feed and care for ourselves. But in 2016 Ted Turner put up for auction his entire 43,000-plus acres Bluestem Ranch in the center of the Osage reservation, and Osage leaders saw a rare opportunity. Our long discussed strategic planning for land acquisition came into focus, but we had to act decisively to outbid non-Native landowners who also wanted the land. This was a $74 million expenditure for the Osage Nation, but its value to us is priceless. It is through this land that we can assert our jurisdiction, reconnect with land-based relationships, and strengthen our cultural practices.
Regaining access to our land has also enabled the Nation to set up a ranching operation under the ownership of our Nation. When federal funds were earmarked to address the global pandemic in 2020, the Nation was able to invest in infrastructure on the ranch to raise cattle and bison, to process meat, and to grow vegetables. As a result, Osage children and elders are no longer dependent on external food chains and can more readily access fresh foods. A former food desert is now providing Osages a measure of food sovereignty.
Telling these Osage stories do not take anything away from the magic of Scorsese. It is vital, though, that we tell stories that highlight Indigenous agency, voices, and complexity. In telling these kinds of stories, we are opening up more possibilities for Indigenous futures.