Oklahomans concerned contentious law impacts teaching of ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ history

By: - October 23, 2023 3:01 pm
The book "Killers of the Flower Moon" sitting on a shelf.

The 2017 nonfiction book “Killers of the Flower Moon” by David Grann details the Osage Reign of Terror in 1920s Oklahoma. The book has been adapted into a 2023 film of the same title directed by Martin Scorsese. ( Nuria Martinez-Keel/Oklahoma Voice)

OKLAHOMA CITY — With the release of the film “Killers of the Flower Moon,” questions still persist about Oklahoma schools’ ability to teach the historical events depicted in the film.

The source of the uncertainty is House Bill 1775, a 2021 state law regulating classroom discussions on race and gender.

Tribal leaders have called on the state Legislature to repeal the law, citing widespread confusion and fear among educators who worry teaching unvarnished American and Indigenous history could put them at risk. Educators could lose their teaching license and schools face an accreditation penalty if found in violation of HB 1775.

Former Osage Nation Principal Chief Jim Gray pointed to a Dewey High School teacher who said last year she chose not to assign the book “Killers of the Flower Moon” to her students because she feared discussing the racial dynamics of the Osage murders could prompt an HB 1775 complaint.

“We’re in a very interesting political dynamic where on one side you see the state of Oklahoma promoting this film because they gave tax credits to the filmmaker while at the same time the content of the story isn’t fit to be taught in public schools,” Gray said.

A still from the film Killers of the Flower Moon, featuring Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio seated at a table.
The 2023 film “Killers of the Flower Moon” starring Lily Gladstone, left, and Leonardo DiCaprio depicts the true events of the Osage Reign of Terror in 1920s Oklahoma. (Photo provided)

“Killers of the Flower Moon” describes true events in 1920s Oklahoma when wealthy members of the Osage Nation were systematically killed by non-Native residents seeking the tribe’s oil rights. The book, by author David Grann, became a New York Times bestseller, and its film adaptation directed by Martin Scorsese stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Lily Gladstone and Robert De Niro.

In northeastern Oklahoma, worries over HB 1775 haven’t stopped Bartlesville High School from covering Osage history in the school’s Native American studies, Oklahoma history and Osage language classes. The school’s principal, Michael Harp, an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, said his teachers focus on the state academic standards that require them to educate about the experiences of Indigenous people.

“I’m not sure it has deterred anyone from teaching what they want to teach, but I think there is definitely a heightened concern due to that House bill,” Harp said.

Concerned that education of the Osage murders and other Native history could be in jeopardy, the Osage Nation Congress and an inter-tribal council of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee and Seminole nations passed resolutions urging state lawmakers to repeal HB 1775.

Many have complained the law is overly vague, particularly a section that prohibits schools from instructing students to feel guilt or discomfort on account of their race or sex.

The Oklahoma State Board of Education downgraded Mustang Public Schools’ accreditation last year after a student reported feeling uncomfortable during a leadership exercise, though the complaint did not state that a teacher had told the student to feel that way. The activity involved asking students whether any of them had experienced discrimination.

A man in a gray jacket and blue shirt seated in front of a large photo and memorabilia, including a foam yellow claw hand.
Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell talks during an interview on Oct. 2 in his office in the Oklahoma state Capitol. (Carmen Forman/Oklahoma Voice)

Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell suggested lawmakers define the law more clearly. He said he told the author of HB 1775, Rep. Kevin West, R-Moore, that a one-page explanation could clarify that it’s safe for teachers to cover the Osage Reign of Terror, the Tulsa Race Massacre and other difficult events in Oklahoma history.

“That story should be taught; the race massacre should be taught,” Pinnell said. “They need to define (that) somewhere on paper so that something can be sent to our school districts so they can know those guidelines.”

West said the law already is clear on what concepts schools can’t teach. It doesn’t prohibit students from feeling uncomfortable, but rather it bars teachers from telling students “that they should feel a certain way,” he said.

Discussions of challenging history, he said, still can and should take place in classrooms.

“You can have these conversations and some of them do get very difficult, but it’s all in how it’s presented and how it’s applied,” West said.

A lawsuit in Oklahoma City federal court aims to overturn the law.

Two men in suits standing in front of dark leather chairs with seals on them.
Rep. Kevin West, R-Moore, left, and Rep. Jay Steagall, R-Yukon, attend a special session of the state House at the Oklahoma Capitol on Oct. 3, 2023. West was an author of House Bill 1775. (Kyle Phillips/ Oklahoma Voice)

A group of students, local advocates and college professors filed the case two years ago with the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma. They contend HB 1775 creates a chilling effect on teachers and students and encourages schools to exclude books that depict diverse identities and experiences.

The lawsuit has had little movement over the past two years. The judge assigned to the case has yet to enter even a preliminary ruling. ACLU attorneys filed a motion for expedited consideration, basically prodding the judge to make a decision.

The law’s harms will continue the longer the delay goes on, said Adam Hines, a legal fellow with the ACLU of Oklahoma.

“Students are losing the opportunity to understand their history, and in Oklahoma that history involves the Tulsa Race Massacre, the theft of tribal land (and) a long history of missing and murdered Indigenous women,” Hines said. “The longer this delay goes on the more our students and, as a consequence, our state will suffer.”

Staff writer Carmen Forman contributed to this report.

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Nuria Martinez-Keel
Nuria Martinez-Keel

Nuria Martinez-Keel covers education for Oklahoma Voice. She worked in newspapers for six years, more than four of which she spent at The Oklahoman covering education and courts. Nuria is an Oklahoma State University graduate.