The name, Sewanee, comes from the Shawnee word for “Southern.” It was used as a descriptor by Native American tribes west of the smokies, according to Elizabeth N. Chitty of the Sewanee Messenger in 1985. Before the mountain territory was sold in 1825, it was a passageway for native tribes.
For almost 8,000 years, carefully crafted trails inundated the mountain soil for traveling natives. Now, only one trail remains from Native American history, the Trail of Tears. This portion of Native American history looms over the rest casting a blood-stained shadow that presides upon their cultural roots. Tragedy has become the prominent theme in retellings and representations of indigenous tribes. That tragedy becomes no more clear than in the 2023 film, Killers of the Flower Moon.
Martin Scorcese’s 26th feature film, Killers of the Flower Moon, details the true events of the Osage murders. Based on a book with the same title as the film, the story revolves around the Osage tribe as members become targeted due to the tribe’s recent discovery of oil on their reservation. Set in the 1920s, the newly established FBI arrives in Osage County, Oklahoma to investigate the grisly murders. The story is centered around the intersection of American greed and systemic racism with a haunting ending that has been echoed throughout much of Native American history specifically, how much of it has been forgotten.
Scorsese parades through genres, skillfully transitioning between a crime thriller to a dark comedy to a romance to a horror. This almost 4hr spectacle displays the violence of American greed. The exploitative nature of the violence positioned the audience to be uncomfortable at display, forcing the white audience members to confront their connection to these crimes. In fact, the violence seeps into every aspect of the story, like how it infected the lives of the Osage.
Lily Gladstone gave a powerhouse of performance, able to flip through the many tones and genres with ease. Her character remains at the emotional center of the story and her performance grounded the film. Gladstone was able to shine in scenes with acting legends such as Robert DeNiro and Leonardo DiCaprio. Each of whom gave nuance and an almost vulnerability to complex characters. However, the same intimate viewing cannot be said for Gladstone as the film does not allow the same nuance for her character. Rather, the film focuses on how Molly (Gladstone’s character) is affected by the tragedies that surround her in relation to her husband, Ernest (DiCaprio’s character).
There is an awareness throughout the film of the limited lens in which the story of the Osage murders are told. The screenplay was written by Eric Roth, a white man, and adapted from a book also written by a white man. Although the film critiques American greed and the grotesque way it becomes manifest in this story, it is ultimately unable to fully represent the perspective of the Osage.
That is the film’s only failure, the inability to incorporate the downfall of a rich, historic culture from the perspective of that culture. Like mentioned earlier, there is a self-awareness in the film of the storyteller’s inability to capture that perspective. Nevertheless, self-awareness does not excuse the exclusion, and it remains open for critique.
History is usually told from the perspective with the loudest voice, or the one with the more interesting story. In the case of Native stories, they are usually told through the perspective of the oppressors albeit as an apologetic retrospective on their actions. The story is spun to emphasize the violence done upon these groups and the way their cultures disappeared after. These stories are loud, and they drown out all other stories that might have a less climatic end. These stories are from Native American cultures that describe the ways in which they adapted to their newly industrialized surroundings, and secretly kept alive their traditions.
This story is the one that is the most important to listen to, the one that peeks past the shadow of tragedy. Seeking out Native voices allows for a more full-bodied understanding of the issues they face today. Tennessee has many tribes that still practice their culture today. Listening to those tribes can prevent tragedy from becoming the only Native American story.