Killers of the Flower Moon and Indigenous language in cinema

Killers of the Flower Moon and Indigenous language in cinema

Through Killers of the Flower Moon and Lily Gladstone’s historic wins, Annabelle Pelster explores the preservation of Indigenous languages in Hollywood. 

Earlier this year, a tweet depicting Lily Gladstone accepting her first Golden Globe award went viral. Gladstone, in the middle of her speech, is somewhat nebulously subtitled “[SPEAKIN IN A GLOBAL LANGUAGE]”. The “GLOBAL LANGUAGE” Gladstone was speaking in was not Esperanto, or some other lingua franca. Despite CBS’s choice of subtitles, Gladstone clarified that she spoke in Blackfeet for the beginning of her speech, a nod to the nation that raised her after winning for her role as Mollie Kyle in Killers of the Flower Moon

Because much of Gladstone’s speech focused on the place of Indigenous American Language in Hollywood, the caption was particularly unfortunate. As Gladstone said, “In this business, Native actors used to speak their lines in English and then sound mixers would run them backwards to accomplish Native languages on camera.” The subtitle inadvertently proved Gladstone’s argument: the film industry is all too unfamiliar with Indigenous languages, even if spoken by an Oscar nominee and Golden Globe winner like Gladstone.

The first recorded Hollywood release featuring an Indigenous language was Elliot Silverstein’s 1970 film A Man Called Horse, about the capture of fictional English aristocrat Lord Morgan by Sioux people in the early 1800s. The film capitalised on a growing fascination with Native American culture, that Sioux historian Vine Deloria connects to New Age Spirituality. Speaking in an Indigenous language in the 1970s, Deloria reminisces in their 1999 book Spirit and Reason, could captivate any New Age Eclectic. Silverstein used authenticity as a selling point to this crowd — as a New York Times review of the film declared: “80 per cent of the dialogue is in Sioux, and Old Sioux at that!”.

In a plot seemingly lifted from Victorian age adventure fiction, Morgan proves his strength and is made leader of the tribe. Despite its purported authenticity, the film’s story, cast and representation of the Sioux garnered criticism and A Man Called Horse was labelled an inaccurate portrayal. 50 years since the film’s release, mainstream releases featuring Indigenous American languages have been few and far between. Dan Trachtenberg’s Prey in 2022 marked the first Hollywood film to use Comanche, in both the English-language release and the subsequent dubbed version. A year later, Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon marks the first time Hollywood has featured the Osage language.

Unlike A Man Called Horse, Killers of the Flower Moon’s use of Indigenous language does not claim to reflect an indigenous perspective. The film’s penultimate scene reveals this story to be narrated by a group of radio performers, including Scorsese himself. Further differences arise: Killers of the Flower Moon’s representation of the Osage received none of the criticism levied at Silverstein’s flimsy self-proclaimed authenticity. (Members of the Indigenous community, however, including actor Devery Jacobs, took issue with the film’s portrayal of violence). Different as they are, both films use English subtitles for Indigenous language sparingly.

In Killers of the Flower Moon, audiences who do not understand the Osage language are not privy to certain conversations. Some Osage-language scenes, like when the Kyle sisters gossip together, are translated. But those concerning Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his Uncle William “King” Hale (Robert De Niro) are left untranslated. At the beginning of the film, an exasperated Mollie chastises Ernest in Osage as he flirts with her. To an Anglophone audience, her words are only revealed when Ernest, who is learning the language, replies: “Oh, you just called me a coyote, didn’t you?”. 

As Mollie and Ernest’s relationship develops, the lack of subtitles could initially suggest intimacy. Their flirtatious conversations, and later their marriage vows, remain untranslated – an unsuspecting audience might assume Scorsese grants the newlyweds some privacy on their special day. But any notion of romance or intimacy soon sours with the appearance of Hale, whose knowledge of the language allows him to curry favour with the Kyle family: “[Mollie’s father] always used to tell the white man just to call him Jimmy,” Hale boasts at his nephew’s wedding, “but I always called him by his proper name, Nah-kah-e-say-y.” For the self proclaimed “King of the Osage Hills”, language is a tool to set himself apart from other white Americans. The familiarity he garners allows him to infiltrate the Osage community, spurred by his hunger for Osage headrights: to take their place as legal beneficiaries of the land. 

Like his uncle, Ernest learns the language as a means to exploit Mollie, his wife and the heir to the Kyle family headrights. Mollie attempts to address her anxieties about her medical treatment to Ernest, assuming that doing so in Osage will prevent her doctors (bankrolled by Hale) from hearing. At her lowest, she is unaware that despite her husband’s tongue, he stands on the side of the doctors, and is poisoning her through her insulin injections.

William and Ernest’s use of the Osage language mirrors Silverstein’s earlier use of old Sioux. Under the guise of love for the culture and purported authenticity, Indigenous languages are used for financial gain, either through headrights or audiences. This misuse does somewhat result in preservation, either through audio recordings, or by creating new speakers. But by acting as an authority on the language or culture, William, Ernest and Silverstein eclipse it. Either through misrepresentation, or murder.

In an analysis of Technology and Indigenous Language revitalisation in Hawai'i, Professor Mark Warschauer expresses his anxieties surrounding technology as a method of preserving Indigenous language: “Can Indigenous peoples appropriate new network technologies for their own purposes, or in attempting to do so will they see their own cultures and languages swallowed up in a homogenous whole?” Warschauer’s concerns eerily reflect CBS’s nebulous choice of subtitles when referring to Blackfeet as a “GLOBAL LANGUAGE”. To optimise technology in language preservation, Warschauer writes, an emphasis should be placed on human aims. In other words, preservation depends not only on the presence of a language, but also who is speaking it, and what exactly they are saying.

Killers of the Flower Moon expertly portrays the exploitation and manipulation that allowed Ernest and William to carry out the horrifying series of murders of the Osage. The film is no doubt highly deserving of this awards season’s plaudits. But Osage voices have highlighted the limitations of the film’s perspective. In an article for New Lines, Professor Robert Warrior praises the film for its direction, soundtrack and performances, yet laments that the film does not focus on the role of federal Indian policy. As the film’s language consultant, Christopher Cote, stated in a recent interview,  “This is, um, not made for us. It is made about us. It is made for the world to view.”

Cote and Warrior’s arguments are less critical of Scorsese (who is aware of his place and responsibility as a white storyteller) rather, imagining an outcome where the film’s penultimate radio show scene featured Osage hosts. Scorsese himself highlights his limitations. But perhaps, as Gladstone suggests in their Golden Globes Award acceptance speech, things are changing. As Indigenous languages finally receive the Hollywood spotlight, so too will the speakers who keep them alive. 

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