National News

Educators say they fear Oklahoma law restricts teaching ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ book

todayMarch 10, 2024


ABC News

Some teachers in Oklahoma say they are afraid to teach a book that is the foundation of “Killers of the Flower Moon,” one the most talked about films of the year.

Nominated for 10 Oscars, the movie depicts the true story of white settlers who systematically murdered wealthy members of the Osage tribe in Oklahoma in the 1920s. The Native Americans became rich after oil was discovered on their land.

In northern Oklahoma, just minutes from the Osage Nation, high school English teacher Debra Thoreson says because of new laws in the state she is too nervous to teach the popular book on which the movie is based.

“If I were teaching that book, we’d get to what in society allowed that story to happen.” Thoreson told ABC News’ MaryAlice Parks on “This Week.” “What were the laws at the time? What were the social dynamics between races and genders? And you cannot get into that without people being uncomfortable.”

She says she’s worried having an in-depth conversation about that chapter in Oklahoma state history could put her teaching licenses and school at risk.

In 2021, the state’s Republican-led legislature passed House Bill 1775 which bans diversity training and limits discussions around race and sex in schools. Among other concepts it bans teaching that “any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress on account of his or her race or sex,” according to the Oklahoma state Legislature.

Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, signed HB 1775 into law in May 2021.

“We can and should teach this history without labeling a young child as an oppressor or requiring he or she feel guilt or shame based on their race or sex,” Stitt told ABC News in a statement at the time. “I refuse to tolerate otherwise during a time when we are already so polarized.”

Some of the penalties for running afoul of this law include teachers losing their license and accreditation for schools being revoked, according to the law.

State educators and leaders of the Osage Nation are worried the law silences teachers and halts progress toward teaching a fuller, more accurate version of state history.

“Feel good history doesn’t help anybody,” Jim Gray, former chief of the Osage Nation, told Parks. “They don’t want to feel bad about what happened in the past. Well, I’m sorry to say that to my great grandfather who was taken out in the country and shot in the head. I owe it to him to tell that story.”

Gray and the author of the book “Killers of the Flower Moon,” David Grann, wrote in a New York Times op-ed that “at stake in these fights is not only factual accuracy. It is also how new generations will be taught to record and remember the past.”

Grann and Gray point out that in the 1920s members of the Osage tribe were forced to have white guardians to watch their money, calling the system abhorrently racist and part of a history that needs to be revealed.

“HB 1775 threatens to derail the progress tribes have made in recent years to provide an accurate history of our country and our state’s complex relationship with Native Americans in schools,” the inter-tribal council of five tribes in Oklahoma said in a joint statement when HB 1775 first passed.

Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters insists the Osage murders can and should be taught in schools.

“We have had a major misinformation campaign from the radical left and the teachers union on this issue,” Walters told Parks. “What we have said is very specifically, you can’t tell somebody that they should be ashamed or feel that way about their skin color or their background.”

Oklahoma’s law curtailing discussions around race and sex is part of a national trend, according to Education Week. A total of 18 Republican-led states around the country have passed similar new legislation or bans.

The Oklahoma Board of Education has already punished Tulsa Public Schools for what it says were violations of the law by demoting its accreditation status back in 2022 because it said a training session for teachers included the concept of implicit bias — that people can carry prejudices sometimes without recognizing them.

Regan Killackey, a high school English teacher outside of Oklahoma City, is a plaintiff in an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit targeting the state law.

“To understand someone else’s experience, they have to be able to see things from their perspective and if we do not allow students to actually step into someone else’s shoes … and understand the pain that they actually suffered, we’re doing them a disservice,” Killackey said.

Thoreson said she encourages any parent worried about how topics are taught to get involved and get to know their kids’ teachers. But until she feels less of a threat around potentially losing her license, she won’t teach “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

“It feels like we are regressing. It feels like we’ve had progress and some people are uncomfortable,” Thoreson said. “I’m not sure what they hope to gain from that. Except those who don’t know history are bound to repeat it. So — so, it’s terrifying.”

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