Martin Scorsese’s most recent cinematic masterpiece, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” has garnered widespread acclaim, praised for its exceptional direction and stellar performances. Adapted from David Grann’s 2017 novel of the same title, the film boasts a formidable cast including Lily Gladstone, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Robert De Niro. This crime drama, based on true events, delves into the heinous murders committed against the Osage Nation by encroaching white settlers in the 1920s, a dark chapter in American history spurred by the discovery of substantial oil reserves on Osage land.
The enigmatic title, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” hints at a deeper layer of meaning. While the extent of its exploration in the film remains uncertain, Grann’s source material sheds light on this evocative phrase, which encapsulates one of the most harrowing episodes in American history.
The historical events chronicled in “Killers of the Flower Moon” are also known as the Reign of Terror, a name coined by contemporary newspapers to encapsulate the horrifying events that unfolded in what is now Osage County, Oklahoma. In contrast, the title “Killers of the Flower Moon” emerged much later. A “flower moon” finds its origin in the pages of the Old Farmer’s Almanac, a compendium that forecasts natural occurrences like tides and celestial phenomena. Each monthly full moon is bestowed with a distinct appellation, reflecting the seasonal happenings in the natural world. For instance, January is known as the Wolf Moon, February as the Snow Moon, and March as the Worm Moon, and so forth. Moreover, Native American traditions also contributed to the lunar nomenclature, resulting in diverse names for full moons across different tribes and groups.
The Flower Moon graces the skies in the month of May, coinciding with the onset of the Reign of Terror in 1921, marked by the tragic discovery of an Osage Native American woman’s body. This same month witnesses the blossoming of flowers across North America. Grann’s nonfiction work provides further insight into this metaphor, alluding to the small blooms that flourish in April but wither in May due to seasonal shifts. As larger plants take over, monopolizing water and sunlight, the diminutive flowers’ stems snap, and their petals are carried away by the wind, ultimately succumbing beneath the earth. This natural phenomenon mirrors the events under the Flower Moons in the 1920s, where the Osage Nation saw their lives and resources stripped away by intruding white settlers. The book expounds on the title’s significance:
“In April, millions of tiny flowers spread over the blackjack hills and vast prairies in the Osage territory of Oklahoma… In May, when coyotes howl beneath an unnervingly large moon, taller plants, such as spiderworts and black-eyed Susans, begin to creep over the tinier blooms… The necks of the smaller flowers break and their petals flutter away, and before long they are buried underground. This is why the Osage… refer to May as the time of the flower-killing moon.”
The “flower-killing moon” denotes the seasonal phenomenon causing the demise of the small flowers, while the phrase “killers of the flower moon” encapsulates the acts of violence perpetrated during this specific period. It also conveys the erasure of Native American culture and the devastation of nature-centric traditions, a poignant reflection of the events depicted.
Additionally, the Flower Moon and the Reign of Terror have found resonance in other creative works. John Joseph Matthews, a writer whose insights are cited multiple times in Grann’s book, penned a novel set against the backdrop of the Reign of Terror. He also explored his homeland and the ecological facets of Osage culture in “Talking to the Moon,” enriching the narrative of “Killers of the Flower Moon” with his observations of nature in the region. Elise Paschen, another Osage writer referenced in the book, crafted a poignant poem titled “Wi’-gi-e,” narrated from the perspective of Mollie Burkhart (portrayed by Gladstone in the film) during the period of the murders. The poem chronicles the discovery of the first victim, Burkhart’s sister, and the subsequent negligence and cover-up by the authorities. Like the book and the film, Paschen’s poem is deeply rooted in the natural world. Notably, she even employs the title within the poem, predating the publication of Grann’s work. Following contact from Grann, an excerpt of Paschen’s verse was featured in the book, further enriching the tapestry of this poignant tale.