On screen, a gray-haired tribal elder leads a mournful chant, raising a pipe toward the open chimney of a dome-shaped Osage lodge. “The children outside listening, they will learn another language,” he says, via subtitles. “They will learn new ways and will not know our ways.” Others sob as a woman cradles the pipe, now bundled, as if it was a dead child. They follow her outside to bury the bundle in a green field, but the ritual is interrupted by rumbling from the earth. A black spout erupts. Oil speckles the chests of young men who start to dance. A guitar riff flags “Killers of the Flower Moon” as a modern and original film, but these characters seem quite aware of their place in history.

The discovery of oil in 1894 made the Osage the “richest people per capita on Earth,” after seven decades of hardship on reservations in Kansas and Oklahoma. A newsreel-style montage shows them playing golf in tailored clothes, attending stately schools and riding in Pierce Arrow limousines. A black steam engine huffs into the frame, stopping at a frontier railway station. Well-heeled Osage families spill from the train beside rough-hewn white men wearing Stetson hats and bandanas around their necks. These images signal that this is a Western, a tale of cowboys and Indians, but not like the viewer is used to.

The film follows an outlier clad in olive drab. Ernest Burkhart, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, is a World War I veteran coming to work on his uncle’s cattle ranch. Viewers watch him develop ties on both sides of a growing conflict, raising a family and navigating a grisly caper. Director Martin Scorsese, a mafia movie virtuoso, purports to illuminate a dark corner of American history by faithfully portraying these events as documented in the eponymous book by journalist David Grann, citing an assist from members of the Osage Nation. But he also aims to upend the way Americans view their own history.

People love historical epics. Just browse this year’s Academy Awards nominations. “The Zone of Interest” follows an Auschwitz commandant home during the Holocaust. “Oppenheimer” explores the moral implications of the atom bomb through the man who ushered it into existence. “Maestro” studies the life of Leonard Bernstein, the great 20th century composer. “Golda” portrays Israeli prime minister Golda Meir through the Yom Kippur War. And “Napoleon” gives the French emperor the blockbuster treatment, centered on his imagined romantic life. Each has been nominated in at least one category and has enjoyed varying degrees of commercial success.

Scorsese, whose best director nod is one of the film’s 10 nominations, has grander ambitions for “Killers of the Flower Moon.” He intends to “correct” the historical record — especially Hollywood’s demeaning portrayals of Native Americans — and ask viewers to reimagine America’s westward expansion through the lens of a true crime saga, the dispossession of one last tribe amid the Old West’s dying embers. He largely does this with one simple maneuver: choosing a story where cowboys are not the good guys. This essay is not an endorsement of that film, but an exploration of his project and what it means to argue about the past.

“Frontier histories can be told as triumphant American westward expansion or as foreign invasion. Perspective matters.”

This isn’t exactly new. We’ve been fascinated with history for longer than we can remember.

New research shows that native Tasmanians still share oral histories that originated at least 12,000 years ago. Once writing systems developed in early Egypt, Mesopotamia and Sumeria, around 3,500 B.C.E., those civilizations started keeping chronological annals. Sanskrit tales of wars and deities arose in the Indus River valley by the late Bronze Age, roughly concurrent with the biblical conquest of Jericho and the Trojan War depicted in Homer’s epic poems. “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” were probably written during the eighth century B.C.E., about 400 years after the fact, but their narratives still resonate today, although the details are largely fictitious.

We still devour historical fiction in any form, from Shakespeare’s plays to the Vietnam War novels of Tim O’Brien and Broadway’s “Hamilton,” created by Lin-Manuel Miranda. “Historical fiction comes out of greed for experience,” observed historical novelist Hilary Mantel. “Violent curiosity drives us on, takes us far from our time, far from our shore, and often beyond our compass.”

On the other hand, our modern conception of the historian likely dates to the fifth century B.C.E., when Herodotus undertook the field’s first systematic investigation. In researching “The Histories” — from the Greek for “inquiries” — he set out to chronicle the Greco-Persian Wars, and the geographic and cultural reasons they were fought. In his own words, he wrote “so the memory of the past may not be blotted out from among men by time, and that great and marvelous deeds done by Greeks and foreigners and especially the reason why they warred against each other may not lack renown.” Critics later accused him of publishing poetic “fables,” but that only cements his place as the father of history.

Because as long as we’ve cared about history, we’ve been fighting about it. And that’s OK.

What we learn in school is history for children, often presented as an undisputed sequence of events tracking the march of progress through the accomplishments of great men and women. But the practice of history — more specifically, historiography, which is the writing of history — is one of exploration, making sense of what happened using the best available evidence, but also searching for better data and questioning underlying assumptions. Sometimes, this can make us uncomfortable, or undermine a deeply held narrative, eliciting accusations of “political revisionism.”

Certainly, history can be a powerful political tool. As George Orwell wrote in “1984,” the classic dystopian novel: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” But some revisions stem from societal change. Demographic shifts have encouraged historians to explore the historical perspectives of women and diverse ethnic and socio-economic groups. Rather than study monarchs, wars and plagues, historians today often focus on the lives of the poor, oppressed and vanquished, searching for untold stories and surprising points of view.

These evolutions may feel refreshing to some, even empowering; to others, they can feel like a threat. History is essential context, forming the intellectual landscape we navigate. For much of our history, “mainstream” Americans shared a common understanding of both the factual record and what it meant. In today’s fractured world, that kind of surety sounds like a distant dream, or perhaps a limited experience that not all could share. Still, when narratives that have shaped our inner lives are torn down, it can feel as disorienting as walking around a city where familiar and emblematic buildings have been replaced with stucco apartments.

“No one goes to a movie expecting a history lecture.”

Burkhart drives an early automobile, flirting over his shoulder with his passenger, Mollie Kyle. Played by Lily Gladstone, the first Native American actress nominated for an Oscar, she seems skeptical as he playfully probes her defenses. When she lashes out in her mother tongue, he charmingly assumes it was “Indian for handsome devil.” She doesn’t see him out at night with his friends, robbing “rich Indians” at gunpoint and gambling away the take, but she distrusts his uncle — who calls himself “king of the Osage hills” — and senses ulterior motives. “Coyote wants money,” she tells him.

This sequence overturns an old Hollywood trope that was not based in fact. The “squaw” (now deemed an ethnic and sexual slur) was a wife-like figure, but powerless, submissive, typically silent and often treated as property. In reality, women had different roles from tribe to tribe. Some were focused on domestic life; some became spiritual leaders; and in some matriarchal cultures, they made the decisions. These nuances were not available to the makers of early Westerns. But here, Kyle wields her own power as an heir to oil money, while her Catholic school education far outstrips Burkhart’s limited literacy. More importantly, she is a three-dimensional character, which is sadly still a novelty in the genre.

It’s unclear whether the flattening of Native American characters was driven more by lack of information or the market of viewers, but it’s interesting to note that some early films took a different approach. “The Squaw Man,” from 1914, tells a tragic tale of star-crossed love between the daughter of a Ute chief and an upper-class English rogue. In 1930’s “The Silent Enemy,” members of the Ojibwe tribe — played by Native American actors — struggle to survive a famine. But that changed in 1939, when a film set in southern Utah invented the Western as we’ve known it.

That’s when John Wayne first rode across Monument Valley in “Stagecoach,” directed by John Ford. As the Ringo Kid, an outlaw with a heart of gold, Wayne helps a group of naive travelers to survive a trek across dangerous Apache country, with comic relief from Andy Devine. The Apaches appear as little more than a natural menace, about as thoughtful as wolves or a tornado. The movie holds up as a work of cinematic art, but its success spawned or advanced harmful cliches that persist today. Ojibwe critic Jesse Wente has called it “the most damaging movie for native people in history.”

The “Hollywood Indian” became a staple on movie sets, wearing feathers, beads, warpaint and leather britches. Personas varied, from muted stoics like Tonto in “The Lone Ranger” to nihilistic brutes hell-bent on violence, represented by hundreds of nameless characters shot dead in the attempt. A few sympathetic or respectable exceptions were played by Mexican actors, like Anthony Quinn and Ricardo Montalbán, or white actors in redface, from Burt Lancaster to Burt Reynolds and Elvis Presley. As if real-live Native Americans had ceased to exist, leaving only “Stagecoach” as a record of their passing.

These tropes appealed to many Americans and it’s worth understanding why, beyond blaming racism. The prototypical Western plot follows an everyman type who struggles against forces of savagery or greed to find a home, a sanctuary in a violent wilderness that is slowly being civilized through the perseverance of his people. Versions of that tale exist in many of our family histories, told from a familiar viewpoint. The archetype argues that westward expansion was benevolent and just, so any violence perpetrated in its service was justified. It allows us to see ourselves as would-be heroes, even if our ancestors were simple dirt farmers.

It’s less comforting to watch Burkhart plot with his uncle, “King” William Hale, played by Robert De Niro, to steal Osage land and the petroleum beneath it through a scheme of marriage and murder.

“There’s nothing wrong with pop culture that simply entertains, but if it sneaks distorted historical narratives into our collective consciousness — like a Trojan horse — then it can actually cause damage.”

Gathered in a large wooden lodge worthy of the tribe’s wealth, Osage leaders discuss a spate of murders, unaware that the man directing them sits in their circle. One blames white opportunists who are “like buzzards circling our people” who “wanna pick us body clean, leave nothing.” A reward has been posted and Mollie — now married to Ernest — confirms that she has hired a private investigator. Hale volunteers a $1,000 donation to help the effort. He doesn’t mention that the killers are working for him, following his orders. “Your friendship has always been greatly appreciated,” the chief tells him.

This ongoing deceit and violent chicanery offer a microcosm of our national myth from a different point of view, standing in for the broken treaties, smallpox blankets and bloody massacres that made Manifest Destiny a reality on the ground. “It’s like lifting up the lid and saying, ‘This is your American history. This is what you didn’t learn in school,’” said film critic Richard Brody during a New Yorker Q&A. “‘This is what our society now is built on and doesn’t dare look in the face.’” Scorsese answered: “Exactly.”

Scorsese is one of the great directors, but he is not a historian. He has made a litany of classic films, but how much credence should we put into his effort to change history? Is he right? Brenden Rensink, associate director of the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies at BYU, suggests a different way to think about it. “Frontier histories can be told as triumphant American westward expansion or as foreign invasion,” he says. “Perspective matters.”

Rensink reminds us that “most art reflects contemporary concerns.” To understand a film like this, we should think about the context in which it was made, rather than the events it depicts. In politics today, competing historical narratives are used to justify opposing sides in the Russia-Ukraine war and the conflict between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. American politicians on the campaign trail still debate what led to the United States Civil War. If your head is spinning now, maybe it should be. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth visiting another point of view, even if it’s not particularly scholarly.

One reason narratives are so powerful is they allow us to experience something through the eyes of another. Even when that character is fictitious, this phenomenon can help us to practice or develop empathy. That said, Rensink cautions that entertainment is best as an entry point to any given topic. The next step requires effort on our part, engaging the material with critical thinking and historical context. “There’s nothing wrong with pop culture that simply entertains, but if it sneaks distorted historical narratives into our collective consciousness — like a Trojan horse — then it can actually cause damage.”

Steven Mintz, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin, thinks most people understand the distinction. “No one goes to a movie expecting a history lecture,” he says, referencing invented dialogue, composite characters, contrived episodes and the projection of current sensibilities onto past events. Still, an engaging narrative can help us to learn. “At their best, these films generate interest in the past and raise profound questions about morality, inevitability and the influence of character upon history, and prompt viewers to read more.”

Without giving away the plot, the Federal Bureau of Investigation eventually takes an interest in the Osage killings. Cases are brought to trial, hard questions are asked and answered to varying levels of satisfaction and certain characters are sentenced to lengthy prison terms. Then, abruptly, the camera cuts to Scorsese himself. In the role of an old-time radio narrator, he concludes by reading Mollie Kyle’s brief, real-life obituary, noting pointedly that “there was no mention of the murders.”

This story appears in the March 2024 issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.