The Osage had these events seared in their memories. Yet most Americans had excised even the bureau’s sanitized account from their consciences. Like the Tulsa Race Massacre, which occurred during the same period, the Osage Reign of Terror was generally not taught in schools, even in Oklahoma. Mary Jo Webb, an Osage schoolteacher, once placed in her public library in Fairfax, Okla., a paper she’d written on the murders, but someone, she said, quietly removed it. The victims’ history, along with their lives, had been rubbed out. And even now, as their stories are being dramatized in a movie and shown in theaters across the country, there is a campaign in Oklahoma — this time with legislation — to deter the history from being taught in schools.
Last year the Osage Nation Congress unanimously passed a resolution calling for repealing the Oklahoma law that bars teaching the concept that students should feel psychological distress on account of their race. “Teachers are scared to speak the truth about what’s happened,” said Eli Potts, who was elected to the Osage Nation Congress in 2018. “I personally have had schools and I know of others who had Osage individuals who were scheduled to speak on ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ rescind those offers because of this bill. We owe it to those before us to speak the truth,” he continued, “regardless of how uncomfortable it makes you feel, because it’s the truth.”
It’s not just Osage history that is being threatened. Other tribal nations in Oklahoma have joined the Osage in seeking the law’s repeal, warning that it undermines accurate learning about their own pasts. And in Bixby, Okla., a public school canceled a lesson plan that focused on “Dreamland Burning,” a young adult novel about the Tulsa Race Massacre.
The movement to suppress elements of American history extends well beyond Oklahoma. According to an analysis by The Washington Post, more than two dozen states have adopted laws that make it easier to remove books from school libraries and to prevent certain teaching on race, gender and sexuality. In 2023, PEN America, which defends freedom of speech, reported that book bans in U.S. public school classrooms and libraries had surged 33 percent over the previous school year, with more than 3,000 recorded removals; among them are classics by the Nobel laureate Toni Morrison (banned in 30 school districts) and Margaret Atwood (banned in 34). School curriculums are being revised to mask discomfiting truths — so much so that in Florida students will now be taught that some African Americans benefited from slavery because it gave them “skills.”
After the world premiere of “Killers of the Flower Moon” at the Cannes Film Festival, Matt Pinnell, Oklahoma’s lieutenant governor and a Republican, encouraged audiences to see the movie. (His state had even provided financial incentives for the production.) A reporter asked him why, if people from around the world should watch the film, the subject can’t be taught without fear in Oklahoma’s public schools. Though he acknowledged a need to clarify the law, in the five months since the festival, the state legislature has not done so.