In May 2022, the much-anticipated film adaptation of Killers of the Flower Moon shot one final scene at the Osage Nation campus in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. This scene, involving only Osage cast, crew and extras, aims to close out the film with a depiction the Osage people today — still here and still thriving.
CPN Housing Director and Osage Nation tribal member Scott George composed one of the songs used in the shoot.
History in pop culture
Killers of the Flower Moon brings to the screen David Grann’s 2017 book by the same title, which tells of a series of murders that white settlers systematically carried out against the Osage people in the 1920s for their land, oil and wealth.
The murders caught the attention of some federal investigators, whose involvement in the case laid the foundation for the Federal Bureau of Investigation as it exists today. Versions of this history that have made their way into popular media (such as The FBI Story, 1959) routinely erase Osage points of view, noted George in a recent interview with the Hownikan.
With countless instances of similar systematic violence perpetrated across Indian Territory and against people of many Native nations receiving even less attention in the public eye, George believes it is important to tell the whole story and “talk about all of it.”
George hopes that the film sparks conversation and increases awareness in Oklahoma and around the world.
“I’m hoping that there will be an interest in the movie … and that people will come to understand how we were treated during that period of time,” he said. “I do think it’s important that you take the stance not to ever see it happen that way again, that you treat people better.”
A composer’s dilemma
George began singing when he was just 16 years old and has sung for Osage ceremonial dances since 1983. He has held the position of head singer for the Grey Horse War Dance Committee for the past decade.
“There’s probably not a day that goes by that some tune doesn’t come into my head,” he said.
Nevertheless, composing new songs generally goes against George’s philosophy, which is rooted in the Osage people’s history and experiences with removal and assimilation strategies by the U.S. government.
“When we moved from Kansas, we put away a lot of our traditions and ways,” he said. “The elders at that time were telling the younger people, ‘You’re going to have to learn how to be in this world which is being created around us.’ So, they put a lot of that away.”
The Ponca and Kaw tribes, George said, “knowing that we’d put all of that away,” brought their drums and songs and dances to the Osage to try to help them remain connected. As a result, many of the Osages’ dances and songs used today come from Ponca and Kaw traditions instead of drawing on Osage history and heroes.
As powwows grew in popularity and scale, some Oklahoma Native American singers began making new songs to fit in the categories of competitions, George said. He recounts how his mentor during this time said, “I don’t know why you’d want to make songs. We’ve got 400 of them here that we’ll never sing all of them. We’ve probably lost more songs than we’ll be able to sing in a lifetime.”
Today, discussion is ongoing within the Osage Nation about ways to recover histories, traditions and songs, whether through the restoration of old songs or through the composition of new songs to tell those stories. George remains hesitant to make new songs, at least when it comes to ceremonial songs.
Writing for film
The circumstances of composing for the Killers of the Flower Moon film proved complex and unique, however, and the composition of new songs offered the Osage and the film alike the most advantageous solutions to those circumstances.
The film production team brought concerns about copyright infringement before the Osage Nation, and the Osages themselves considered many factors when it came to using Osage songs in the film.
“We had several discussions in regard to our music — how to use our songs and what’s appropriate to use and what isn’t appropriate to use,” George said. “If you look at our music, which some of it dates back 300 or 400 years, there are individuals named in those songs. We became concerned, and so did the movie company, that descendants of those individuals would have an issue with that song being used.”
George worked with his good friend and Osage Language Department director Vann Bighorse to compose songs that would bring all of the considerations of the Nation, Osage history and the film together into an effective storytelling vehicle. Each composed one song and presented it to the film team. Both songs were sung and filmed at the shoot in May 2022, though only one is anticipated to make the final cut of the film.
George’s song focused on the message of the scene, which he said is “trying to show the public that we still exist, we’re still thriving and holding on to our culture.”
“The words that I put in that song refer to that. I’m asking our people to stand up and get up and dance,” he said.
The importance of dancing
Advocating for the continuance and celebration of Osage culture runs deep in George’s family. They come from the Grey Horse area, where many of the events of Killers of the Flower Moon took place.
George’s great-grandfather was a World War I veteran and represented Native American veterans in the original Delegation for the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Paris.
“He was also instrumental in the one word that is in Haskell Indian Nations College,” George said. “He wrote a letter to Congress asking for permission to have a dance to celebrate that archway and the return of Native American soldiers.”
At the time, ceremonial dances, among other ceremonial and religious traditions, were restricted by U.S. federal law in an attempt to enforce assimilation of Natives into white and, often, Christian culture. The freedom to practice these sacred traditions would not be restored by U.S. law until 1978 and the passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. However, ignorance and discrimination continued and does to this day.
“From what I was told, the dance was huge,” George said. “Tribal people from all over the United States came and camped there. That was the first time they’d been allowed to dance in public during that time.”
Above all, George hopes that the forthcoming film will be effective in conveying the message that despite centuries of violence enacted against them, and despite the whitewashed histories that continue to erase them, the Osage — and Native nations across Turtle Island — are still here.
“Because that’s all we really want is for people to understand that we’re still here. We’re not impoverished, not diminished in any capacity,” George said. “Some of those families (who lost loved ones in the murders of the Reign of Terror) are still intact even with the difficult times that they had to go through.”
Looking ahead, George hopes to see drum, song and dance tell histories lost and suppressed, and build futures of Indigenous thriving.
He joked that “singing’s kind of a young man’s game” but took the opportunity to express his hopes for future generations of singers. George now mentors younger singers himself and seeks to instill in them the importance of their role in the continuing and reclaiming of their traditions and culture, something he learned from the generations of relatives and mentors that came before him.
“We try to get them to understand not only the words in a song, but when to use them, how to use them, and how to put together a dance that moves our people in the right way,” he said.