Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, a three-and-a-half-hour historical film, centers on a wave of brutal murders against members of the Osage Nation, a Native American tribe based in northeast Oklahoma. As depicted in the movie, a great number of these murders were of Osage women, many of whom were married to white settlers, and all of whom were killed in a bid to obtain the rights to their land.
The film is founded upon a real-life investigation by journalist David Grann, who examined dozens of murders of Osage people that took place in the 1910s to 1930s during a time that became known as the Reign of Terror. The Osage were oil-rich, but were barred from using their own money, and Grann concluded that this wave of violence was the result of an expansive conspiracy of the Osage’s white financial “guardians.”
Yet while the focus of the film is historical, the issue it highlights — brutality against Native women — is an enduring one.
Disproportionate rates of violence toward Indigenous women, including murder and sexual assault, continue to persist and remain a significant problem. According to a 2017 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Indian and Alaska Native women, as well as Black women, suffer from higher homicide rates compared to other racial groups, and have been murdered at more than twice the rate of non-Hispanic white women.
Per a 2016 National Institute of Justice report, American Indian and Alaska Native women are also much more likely than non-Hispanic white women to experience intimate partner violence, which accounts for a high proportion of these homicides. And according to a 2022 Amnesty International report, almost one-third of American Indian and Alaska Native women have been raped in their lifetime, a rate that’s more than twice as high as that of non-Hispanic white women.
Much like in the film, there’s been limited accountability for many of these offenses due to conflicts of jurisdiction, inaction by law enforcement, and a lack of resources on Tribal lands. Since Tribal nations are sovereign entities, they have their own courts and law enforcement. Because of a Supreme Court decision in the 1970s, however, tribes are broadly barred from prosecuting crimes committed by non-Native people on Tribal lands. As a result, they’ve had to rely on state or federal governments to step in and pursue these cases, a gap that leaves many of them unresolved.
In recent years, reforms to the Violence Against Women Act have given tribes more power to prosecute non-Native people in instances of domestic violence, but the impact of past policies — and the message they sent — lingers.
“Non-Native men harass and kill Native women because settler colonial governments have created a system in which they can do so with impunity,” Liza Black, a historian at Indiana University and citizen of the Cherokee Nation, told Vox.
Indigenous studies experts say that it’s vital to situate the events depicted in Killers of the Flower Moon in this broader context in order to make clear that this isn’t an isolated historical incident. In reality, the tragedy and horror of the Osage murders are part of a much larger, widespread, and ongoing phenomenon. Acknowledging this is critical for understanding the sources of this violence — and confronting them, experts say.
“What [the film] could have done better is connect the historical story that it focused on to what’s happening today and also to the larger context of missing and murdered Indigenous women,” Elizabeth Rule, an assistant professor of critical race and gender studies at American University and enrolled citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, told Vox, “I think it’s important that we have the story of [film protagonist] Mollie Burkhart be told, but it’s also important to provide really critical context to audiences who may walk away thinking this was a story about greed, or a story about individual corruption, or a story about history — when in fact this is a story about systemic violence, and a story about colonization, and a story just as much about contemporary Indigenous communities today.”
An ongoing crisis of violence against Indigenous women
Violence against Indigenous women is an enduring problem for which there continues to be limited accountability.
In its 2016 report, the National Institute of Justice found that more than 84 percent of American Indian and Alaska Native women have experienced violence during their lifetime, a rate that’s 1.2 times that of non-Hispanic white women, a category the report used as a benchmark for comparison. Additionally, 56 percent have experienced an incident of sexual violence, compared to 50 percent of white women who said the same in the 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey that informed the report.
“On some reservations, Indigenous women say they don’t know even one woman who has not been raped. Consequently, they tell their daughters what to do when—not if—raped,” Columbia University health sciences professor Robin Whyatt says of the crisis.
These figures are in addition to the high number of Native women who’ve been murdered or gone missing. In a 2008 review, criminal justice experts from the University of Delaware and University of North Carolina Wilmington discovered that Native women living on some reservations were murdered at 10 times the national murder rate. And in 2021, 5,203 Indigenous girls and women were reported missing, “disappearing at a rate equal to more than two and a half times their estimated share of the U.S. population,” according to a 2022 USA Today investigation. While data isn’t available in every state, in Montana — which does track this issue — Native people comprise 6.7 percent of the population but 26 percent of missing persons reports, per Vice News.
Because there’s significant underreporting of instances of violence, and there’s no federal database to which all tribes can submit crimes and missing persons cases, much of this data is also likely an undercount. While some of these offenses are happening on reservations, roughly 70 percent of Native women live in urban areas, and victims’ ethnicities are often incorrectly reported by local law enforcement, masking the number of cases of violence that may be specifically affecting the group.
In the past few decades, organizations including the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women and the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center are among those that have sought to draw attention to these issues and lobby for policy changes as part of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women movement (MMIW). Originally a hashtag coined by former Canadian journalist Sheila North Wilson in 2012, the MMIW movement builds on years of efforts to raise awareness about the scale of this crisis and give tribes more legal power and resources to respond. As more activists and artists have coalesced around it, many have used red dresses and red handprints to symbolize Indigenous women who are missing and whose voices aren’t heard.
Disproportionate rates of violence are tied to the longstanding legacy of colonization and how it promoted abuse of Indigenous women, experts say.
“This crisis is both cultural and legal in nature,” Mary Kathryn Nagle, a lawyer who focuses on Indigenous rights, told Al Jazeera.
Violence against Indigenous women was central to colonization, writes Whyatt. From the 1400s through the 1800s, groups ranging from Spanish colonists to Gold Rush settlers normalized the rape and sexual abuse of Native women. Additionally, the murder of Indigenous women was key to colonization efforts focused on reducing the population and political power of Native peoples. Native women were targeted due to “their ability to sustain the tribes through childbearing,” Whyatt notes. Their killings were part of “the colonial focus on tribal extermination, including the relentless massacre of Native women,” according to a Columbia write-up.
Later on, American political policies would continue to enshrine gender disparities into law. Under the Burke Act of 1906, many Native women were declared “incompetent,” or unable to manage their own lands without the supervision of a white guardian, a policy that diluted the power they had over their own assets. “For Native women, the one way to be deemed competent was to marry a white man,” according to Project 1492, a website dedicated to sharing US history from an Indigenous perspective. This dynamic is evident in Killers of the Flower Moon, which shows Mollie, an Osage woman, forced to have regular meetings with a white guardian who oversees her and her family’s spending until she marries her white husband.
In the 1970s, Native women were also subject to coercive sterilization campaigns, which led to at least 25 percent of women of childbearing age getting sterilized. These campaigns were driven by physicians in the Indian Health Services who were wary of high birthrates by Native women, and who believed they were “not capable” of making decisions about birth control. Many Native women were pressured into these procedures, while others weren’t even informed that they were happening.
Over time, these policies have established a culture in which violence against Native women has both been encouraged and condoned. Collectively, they’ve also fueled stereotypes that continue to exoticize and dehumanize Native women, and which take the form of everything from revealing Halloween costumes to ugly tropes that portray people as “savages” and “drunk Indians.” There is “a larger ideological framework that has constructed Native women as everything from less than human to less than civilized to overtly sexualized,” Shannon Speed, director of the American Indian Studies Center at UCLA and a Tribal member of the Chickasaw Nation, told Vox.
These cultural attitudes are compounded by the lack of legal consequences that perpetrators face. Confusion about who has jurisdiction over a case — Tribal authorities, the state government, or the federal government — has long been a major obstacle to addressing violence and seeking accountability. That’s especially been at issue when the perpetrator is a non-Native person, which is the case in 86 to 96 percent of cases of sexual abuse of Native women.
In 1978, the Supreme Court eliminated Tribal criminal jurisdiction over non-Native people in the Oliphant vs. Suquamish decision, which meant that Tribal courts weren’t able to pursue cases against non-Native people who killed or assaulted women on their lands, forcing them to rely on state and federal authorities who often ignored cases.
Perpetrators have been able to exploit these legal gaps, as well as institutional racism against Native people, to evade consequences.
One 2021 study published in the Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine found that violence toward Native women spiked in places near fracking sites due to an influx of white men working in these areas. “When predominantly indigenous communities are infiltrated by masses of white males, indigenous women tend to face more violence, and the pervasive culture of structural violence tends towards protecting the perpetrators (who are often white) through the biased law enforcement system,” writes Binghampton human rights researcher A. Skylar Joseph.
That trend also has parallels with the film, which saw the killings of Native women increase as a direct result of white settlers attempting to steal their land, knowing that regional law enforcement would do little to stop them.
It wasn’t until 2022 that Tribal nations welcomed a reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which enables tribes to prosecute non-Native people for sexual violence, sex trafficking, and stalking. This policy is expected to improve Tribal nations’ ability to charge perpetrators of these crimes, though experts note that more resources and jurisdictional authority is still required to fully implement these changes.
And it’s little comfort for what happened in between, an entrenched culture that will be difficult to walk back.
A crisis of inaction
Indifference and invisibility are two major barriers that Native communities have also cited as they’ve sought justice.
“Invisibility is the modern form of racism against Native Americans,” Crystal Echo Hawk, a founder of the social justice organization Illuminative and member of the Pawnee Nation, said at a 2020 conference focused on Native representation. Per Echo Hawk and the Great Falls Tribune, a two-year effort called the Reclaiming Native Truth Project conducted from 2016 to 2018 found that 78 percent of people knew little to nothing about Native Americans, and 40 percent didn’t know Native people existed in contemporary society.
“The complete lack of representation in the media, in pop culture, in K-12 education not only erases us from the American consciousness, it inadvertently creates a bias,” Echo Hawk, who consulted on surveys for the project, told the Women’s Media Center in 2018.
Law enforcement’s treatment of cases is just one of myriad areas in which this bias manifests. When crimes against Native women are reported, state and federal authorities often take them less seriously, and excuse missing reports by suggesting that they may have run away from home or are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In 2016, 5,712 cases of missing Native women were reported across the US, but just 116 were logged by the Justice Department in their federal database. And in 2019, the federal government declined to pursue 35 percent of violent and nonviolent crimes that a non-Native person had committed against a Native person.
Relatedly, a chief challenge in missing persons cases is the lack of media attention and social pressure. This phenomenon was previously dubbed “Missing White Woman Syndrome” by the late journalist Gwen Ifill, who called out the disproportionate amount of coverage that missing white women receive compared to women of color. “I think the overarching thing is that they just don’t care and they know there’s not going to be an outcry,” says Speed regarding the subpar response from authorities in certain cases.
The Guardian called the summer of 2022 a “watershed moment for Indigenous representation in US pop culture” with the success of shows including the comedy series Reservation Dogs and the dramatic action film Prey. Those projects have provided more diverse depictions of Indigenous people onscreen that move beyond stereotypes some viewers may have previously held. Killers of the Flower Moon’s high-profile nature — and Scorsese’s reach as a director — also offered an important opportunity to raise awareness both about the specific attacks on the Osage people and about the connection these killings have to contemporary problems of violence.
“I certainly think that, viscerally, the film can make people aware,” Robert Warrior, a professor of American literature and culture at the University of Kansas and member of the Osage Nation, told Vox. “The roots of the current crisis do go back to that time.”
As multiple Indigenous studies experts note, however, establishing this broader context — and the pervasive nature of the ongoing problem — is one of the areas in which the film fell short.
“I think it failed to show that this is a systemic issue,” says Black. “The film depicts the violence against Mollie as isolated, and they refuse to challenge the idea that Ernest [Mollie’s husband] loved [her.]”
“The film makes it seem like the violence against Native women is something that happened in the 1920s and that it doesn’t happen today,” adds Speed.
Adding information at the end of the film or including a comment in the personal introduction that Scorsese gives at its start, when he speaks directly to the audience, were options that experts suggested as straightforward ways to convey this connection. Putting a greater emphasis on the role that federal policy played in making Osage people, and Native women, longstanding targets of violence, was another potential opportunity, Warrior says.
Using this film to make these points would have been valuable because of how large a platform the movie has, because of the limited attention violence against Native women has received in the media more generally, and because of the power that attention has in driving public perception and action. Due to the gaps that currently exist in awareness about this issue, Killers of the Flower Moon was a chance to continue calling it out, and to make clear that it’s not confined to the history books. What’s more, it would have meant telling a more complete story about the systemic sources of the violence in the film.
“It’s an important point to make that the violence has always been there and this is one manifestation of it,” says Speed. “It happened long before, and it’s certainly continued.”