To the Teacher:
In this lesson, students will examine a small portion of the history of the Wahzhazhe people, known for centuries as the Osage, by delving into two recent news stories related to this tribe.
The Wahzhazhe, like Indigenous Americans from across the continent, were forcibly removed from the lands they had occupied before Europeans came to North America.
On September 14, 2021, a sacred cave containing centuries-old Wahzhazhe art – and surrounding land that was taken from the tribal nation in the 1800s – was sold at auction for $2.2 million.
The sacred cave, located in what is now Missouri, is referred to as “Picture Cave” by historians. But it is far more than a cave with pictures. For the Osage, the cave is a sacred site where their ancestors performed spiritual and tribal ceremonies; documented their beliefs, traditions, and ways of living with intricate artwork on the cave’s walls; and buried their dead.
The Osage are in the news for another reason that reminds tribal members of a painful period in American history.
Oscar-award-winning director Martin Scorsese is now filming a movie about the murder of Osage tribal members that took place in Oklahoma during the 1920s. The film is based on the book Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann. The filming is taking place on the Osage reservation in the city of Pawhuska.
The Osage were forced to move to Oklahoma in the 1870s, to land that was thought to have little value. But oil was found there in the early 20th century. Because tribal members had claim to the land’s mineral rights, the tribe briefly became the richest people in the world, per capita. Then, tribal members began to disappear in a series of murders. Investigators found that some of the murders were committed by whites wanting to take over the land and wealth of Osage members. Most of the murders were never prosecuted.
In this lesson, students explore these two news stories, including their impact on the Wahzhazhe people and what they tell us about American history.
Whole Class Study: The Auction
Print out a few color copies of the Osage cave art and place it on the classroom walls. (Some of the art is pictured here.)
Be prepared to display on the smart board or whiteboard the tribal name “Wahzhazhe,” as well as the tribe’s name in their own language, as pictured on the Wahzhazhe Cultural Center’s website, and shown below.
Also see this pdf document containing the tribe's name in Wahzhazhe, as well as the headlines and article excerpts below.
Begin by asking students:
- Has anyone heard of the Wahzhazhe, an American Indian tribe?
- Has anyone heard of the Osage tribe?
Then explain the history of the tribal names and show students the spelling of Wahzhazhe. (Also see this pdf.)
The Osage were originally known as the Ni-U-Kon-Ska, which means "children of the middle waters." The Osage inhabited a vast territory that formerly included Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Kansas as well as the area between the Missouri and Red rivers, thus the name, “children of the middle waters.”
Today they call themselves Wah-Zha-Zhi or Wahzhazhe, which was translated by French explorers and fur traders as Ouazhigi, which later became the English name Osage. Their original language was a Dhegiha Siouan language spoken by several tribes including the Omaha, Ponca, Kaw, and Quapaw, as well as the Wahzhazhe.
Project the image of the name Wahzhazhe in the tribe’s language. (Also see this pdf.)
Explain to students that on September 14, 2021, a sacred Osage site and burial ground was sold at auction for $2.2 million.
Tell them they’ll now listen to a five-minute radio interview with Dr. Andrea Hunter, a member of the Osage nation and the Director and Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Osage nation.
Begin the audio at the 7:51 mark and end it at 13:20:
Give students a few minutes to share any thoughts they have about the auction of the sacred site in Warrenton, Missouri.
Next, tell students you’re now going to show them several headlines about the auction from different media outlets (below and in this pdf handout).
Ask: What similarities or differences do you notice in these headlines?
Cave Featuring Native American Wall Art Is Sold to Anonymous Bidder
Missouri Cave Containing Ancient Pictographs Sold To Private Bidder
A cave full of ancient Indigenous paintings sold for more than $2 million. The Osage Nation says it belongs to them
Missouri Cave Filled With Ancient Artwork Sold Against Osage Nation’s Wishes
‘Like Auctioning Off the Sistine Chapel’: An Auction House Sold an Osage Cave Containing Important Prehistoric Art for $2.2 Million
A Missouri cave filled with 1,000-year-old indigenous paintings sold at auction and the Osage Nation want it back
“Truly Heartbreaking”: Osage Nation Decries Sale of Cave Containing Indigenous Art
Small Group Work
Once students have reflected on the headlines, ask them to break into groups of three. In their groups, they will take five minutes or so to write a headline they think best reflects the sale and its impact.
After about six minutes, have students reconvene and ask a few groups to share their headlines.
Whole Class Study: Osage Murders
Tell students that the Oscar-award-winning film director Martin Scorsese is currently shooting a film about the murders of Osage men and women.
Next, play the first part of the same audio, this time beginning the clip at :16 and ending it at 7:50:
Then show excerpts from an IndieWire article about the production. Begin by showing the article’s headline (or see this pdf):
‘Killers of the Flower Moon’: 18 Things to Know About Scorsese’s $200 Million Western Epic
Next, read two of Scorsese’s quotes from the article, or project the quote and ask student volunteers to read it:
“To be able to tell this story on the land where these events took place is incredibly important and critical to allowing us to portray an accurate depiction of the time and people. We’re grateful to Apple, the Oklahoma Film and Music Office and The Osage Nation, especially all our Osage consultants and cultural advisors, as we prepare for this shoot. We’re excited to start working with our local cast and crew to bring this story to life on screen and immortalize a time in American history that should not be forgotten.”
“We think it’s a Western,” Scorsese told Premiere of the film. “It happened in 1921-1922 in Oklahoma. There are certainly cowboys, but they have cars and also horses. The film is mainly about the Osage, an Indian tribe that was given horrible territory, which they loved because they said to themselves that Whites would never be interested in it. Then we discovered oil there and, for about 10 years, the Osage became the richest people in the world, per capita. Then, as with the Yukon and the Colorado mining regions, the vultures disembark, the White man, the European arrives, and all was lost. There, the underworld had such control over everything that you were more likely to go to jail for killing a dog than for killing an Indian.”
Then read a quote from a tribal member reacting to the production.
The Osage Nation Reaction
With production on “Killers of the Flower Moon” now underway, several Osage Nation members spoke to The Oklahoman about what it means for such a huge production to be resurrecting painful memories from the past. The production has taken over entire streets in Pawhuska, Oklahoma and transformed them into 1920s Fairfax.
"I think about it both ways. It was a bad time — a real bad time — for the Osage…and I think this movie is going to bring back a lot of old, bad memories,” Osage Nation member Harrison Shackelford said. “But it’s going to bring back some stuff that needed to be talked about, that needs to be said, that some people know and some people don’t know. And I think it’s going to be good.
Brandy Lemon, a longtime member of the Osage Nation Congress who is working as a liaison on the movie, added, “It’s definitely something that is delicate…It’s a delicate balance that, no matter what, it’s going to hurt some. And others are going to cheer it on. If anybody knows anything about Martin Scorsese, they’re going to get everything in this film. They’re going to get drama, they’re going to get violence in some form, they’re going to get anguish, they’re going to get happiness, all the big feelings.
- Do you think a movie should be made about the Osage murders?
- If so, who should make the film?
- What is similar about the two stories about the Osage that we have explored today?
- What is different about the two stories?
Invite students to share one wish that they have for the Wahzhazhe people.