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Delaney CoyneOctober 26, 2023
Lily Gladstone and Martin Scorsese on the set of "Killers of the Flower Moon" (Apple TV+)

Note: This piece contains spoilers for “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

By 1872, after years of pressure from white settlers and the U.S. federal government, the Osage Nation had completely moved out of Kansas, settling on what the author David Grann describes as a “rocky, presumably worthless reservation in northeastern Oklahoma” in his 2017 reported history Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. Under that rocky soil were undiscovered oil deposits that would make the Osage Nation the richest people in the world per capita by 1921. It was there that white swindlers built boomtowns in the hopes of leeching off the Osage wealth to make their own fortune.

Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” explores this peculiar moment through the eyes of Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio), a witless World War I veteran who moved to the reservation to work for his uncle, William K. Hale (Robert De Niro), a cattleman and community kingmaker. The first part of the film tells the story of Ernest falling in love (at Hale’s urging) with Mollie Kyle (Lily Gladstone), a wealthy Osage woman.

The story of how the Osage became Catholic cannot be extricated from the broader story of the cultural genocide committed against Native Americans.

Osages on the reservation each received inheritable “headrights,” described by Grann as “a share in the tribe’s mineral trust.” Despite objections from the tribe, the U.S. government ordered the Office of Indian Affairs to determine which Osage were too “incompetent” to handle their own money and assign them a local, white guardian to oversee and authorize all of their spending. In this corrupt, white supremacist system, it is not long before two of the United States’ original sins—rapacity and racism—become apparent even in the intimate space of Ernest and Mollie’s marriage, and we learn Ernest and his uncle have been systematically murdering Osage people (even Mollie’s own family) to gain control of their headrights.

Even standing next to film titans DiCaprio and De Niro, Gladstone’s performance shines, and she gives a restrained, knowing performance as Mollie. She is the beating heart of “Killers,” and we see her lean on her Catholic faith in moments throughout the film. Forced by the federal government to attend a Catholic boarding school in her youth, Mollie regularly attended Mass throughout her life, whereas her family, like most Osage, practiced a mix of Catholicism and Osage beliefs.

The story of how the Osage became Catholic cannot be extricated from the broader story of the cultural genocide committed against Native Americans by the U.S. government. Catholics today cannot look away from that history, which “Killers of the Flower Moon” helps to illuminate.

Why the Catholics?

Catholic contact with the Osage through missionaries and fur traders can be traced back to the 17th century, but this contact would not become consistent until the 1820s. In the early 19th century, Chief Sans-Nerf of the northern band of Osage heard that the government was sending help to the southern band. He requested a presence from both Catholic and Protestant missionaries, which historian Willard H. Rollings argues in his book Unaffected by the Gospel: Osage Resistance to the Christian Invasion was a strategic maneuver to receive material aid. Soon, missionaries came to southeast Kansas to baptize the Osage.

Most Protestant missionaries settled with families in white communities around mission stations. They focused on teaching the Osage English, creating a disconnect between the Osage people and the mission, according to the historian John Mack. One minister, the Rev. Benton Pinkley, complained, “In order to learn [the Osage language] advantageously, we are reduced to the disagreeable necessity of living among the Indians.” It is unsurprising, then, that the Osage repeatedly suggested to the missionaries that Christianity had been created for white people and did not apply to them.

“Killers of the Flower Moon” reminds us that, as a church and as a country, we must be willing to ask: Have we told all the truths?

The Jesuits ministering to the Osage had more success than their Protestant counterparts, in part because as single men, the Jesuits did not demand land for their families and could travel and hunt with the Osage. Furthermore, Catholicism was more theologically resonant than Protestant Christianity to many Osage. Rather than the more abstract, intellectual Christianity proclaimed by many New England Protestant missionaries, the Jesuits brought a religious culture that was more ritualistic and rich in its visual and sacramental culture.

“It was in the arena of this mutually shared sacramental worldview that the Osage and Catholics met,” according to Dr. Mack. The Osage “did not believe the adoption of Catholic rituals necessitated the rejection of their own older and more ancient rituals,” and though the Jesuits lamented this intermingling, “they continuously looked for signs and similarities between the Osage religious traditions on their own, and sought to build on these.”

Still, the attitudes of many Jesuit missionaries remained deeply paternalistic and opposed to the preservation of Osage culture—if anything, they were simply more patient in their attempts to convert the Osage. To this end, Dr. Rollings quotes Paul Ponziglione, S.J., who ministered to the Osage for 40 years; in 1877, after over 25 years of ministry, Father Ponziglione wrote: “To bring aborigines from their barbarism to a state of civilization, and then to make of them good Christians, has always been the work of centuries, not of a few years.”

Osage Catholic schools

The Jesuits opened schools soon after they started ministering to the Osage. According to Dr. Rollings, Charles Van Quickenborne, S.J. proposed opening boarding schools “to take Indian boys from their native environment and instruct them in ‘the practice of the true religion and in the ways of civilized life.’” While teaching, missionaries would learn the Osage language, which they could use to convert adult Osage. Father Van Quickenborne’s school, St. Regis Seminary, failed after eight years of operation in 1832.

After a forced migration in the 1830s, Chief Pawhuska and three other Osage leaders wrote a letter to President John Tyler requesting schools and Jesuit missionaries in 1843: “We prefer Catholic missionaries and would not wish to have any other.” A year after this call went unanswered, Chief Pawhuska’s son, Chief George White Hair, wrote to the commissioner of Indian Affairs, “We do not wish anymore such missionaries as we have had during several years; for they never did us any good… If our Great Father desires that we have missionaries, send us Black-gowns, who will teach us to pray to the Great Spirit in the French way.”

The Jesuits eventually agreed and opened the Osage Manual Laboring School under the supervision of John Schoenmakers, S.J., in May 1847. He recruited the Sisters of Loretto, who opened a companion school for Osage girls in the fall. Enrollment at the schools steadily increased until the 1860s.

Osage people were forced to send their children to boarding schools (whether Catholic or federally-run) because of compulsory education laws.

During the Civil War, federal agents pressured the Osage tribe several times to cede their Kansas lands to white settlers. The Osage sold parts of the land, bit by bit, in desperate need of the annuity payments and strained by encroaching squatters. In September 1865, the U.S. government and the Osage established a treaty that left a section of land for Father Schoenmakers to run the Osage Mission School, surrendered the $300,000 they made off the sale to a common fund for all U.S. tribes, and agreed that they might later sell their remaining lands in Kansas and move to Indian Territory in northern Oklahoma. In the following years, Dr. Rollings writes, white settlers invaded the remaining Osage lands—by 1872, the Osage Nation had been forced out of Kansas entirely, leaving the Jesuits behind.

This coincided with the implementation of the “Peace Policy”: In 1869, U.S. President Ulysses S. Grant announced he would delegate control of all U.S. Indian agencies to Christian denominations. Protestant churches and organizations soon took over the supervision of approximately 90 percent of agencies. Under a policy of forced assimilation, this gave churches enormous power over tribal affairs and the so-called “civilizing” of Native peoples. The Osage were placed under the authority of a Quaker “agent,” but appealed for Catholic schools to reassert their sovereignty, relying on the provisions for Father Schoenmakers’ school in the 1865 nation-to-nation treaty to argue a precedent for Catholic education among the Osage.

The historian Kathleen Holscher explains that for some Osage, “Catholic institutions and actors carried embedded possibilities—real and substantial, even as they were also flawed and limited—for self-rule amid the dispossessing trajectory the Peace Policy represented,” especially in light of Catholic resistance against the Peace Policy. Therefore, “Historians have described the tribe’s embrace of Catholicism, as it occurred on these terms, as strategic rather than sincere; as the Osage ‘wrapping themselves in the Catholic flag’ as a means of protesting U.S. interference upon tribal life and governance.” To the Osage, establishing Catholic schools on the reservation was not a matter of individual rights to religious expression—it was a way of asserting their status as a nation and demanding self-rule.

The Osage won this fight: In 1887, the St. Louis School for Girls opened in Pawhuska, Okla. under the supervision of the Sisters of St. Francis (the Sisters of Loretto took over in 1915). In 1888, St. John’s School for Osage Boys opened in Hominy, Okla. under the Apostolic Prefecture of Indian Territory.

According to educational materials sourced from the Osage Nation, these schools isolated Osage children from their families and sought to eliminate Native culture. Osage people were forced to send their children to boarding schools (whether Catholic or federally-run) because of compulsory education laws, passed first in 1884 by the Osage council at the behest of their Quaker agent, L.J. Miles, then federalized in 1891. If a child attempted to run away, police officers chased them on horseback and roped them, leading them back to the school like animals. These schools wrought unspeakable destruction on Native communities: the culture lost and diluted through violent means, the spiritual impact of being taught that one’s culture is inferior and the childhoods spent away from home. It is a stain on the Catholic Church’s history and a tragedy for the Osage people.

To the Osage, establishing Catholic schools on the reservation was a way of asserting their status as a nation and demanding self-rule.

The church and the Osage nation today

Currently, 26 percent of Osage oil headrights are owned by non-Osage people. The means by which these non-Osage people and organizations acquired these headrights are obscure, and owners are able to pass them on to whomever they like. Unlike those owned by Osage people, headrights owned by non-Osage are virtually unrestricted—except the legal barriers to returning those headrights to Osage control created by federal legislation in 1984. Many of these non-Osage-owned headrights are owned by the Catholic Church and Catholic institutions. There is an ongoing movement to return these headrights to Osage control, and in particular, Catholic Osage people have called upon the church to return the headrights it owns.

The American project was built upon a genocide committed against Native peoples and cultures—a genocide in which the country and the Catholic church must continue to face up to. “Killers of the Flower Moon” tells this American story on a terrifying, intimate level—we see the wealth of the Native peoples, the corruption and white supremacy in the headright system that encouraged theft and violence, and the swindlers clever enough to know how much easier it is to commit violence by telling the victim that you’re doing it because you love them.

Near the end of “Killers of the Flower Moon,” the F.B.I. convinces Ernest to testify against Hale. In the wake of his admissions, he and Mollie sit in a holding room, and he tells her he’s a changed man. “Have you told all the truths?” Mollie asks quietly. This is a story we are all implicated in: as a country, as a church. We tell ourselves stories about the formation of our country and Christianity’s role in it, and the truth lies just beneath the fragile surface. We cannot claim we have changed unless we repent, which demands an examination of conscience. Afraid as we may be to look, “Killers of the Flower Moon” reminds us that, as a church and as a country, we must be willing to ask: Have we told all the truths?

Correction: A previous version of this article referred to Charles Quickenborne, S.J.; the Jesuit's name is Charles Van Quickenborne, S.J.

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