Oklahomans concerned contentious law impacts teaching of ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ history
The Controversial HB 1775
Concerns have been raised in Oklahoma over the potential impact of House Bill 1775 on the teaching of Indigenous history, particularly in relation to the upcoming film “Killers of the Flower Moon.” This 2021 state law regulates classroom discussions on race and gender and has caused widespread confusion and fear among educators. Tribal leaders have called for the repeal of the law, highlighting the risks it poses to teachers and the inhibitions it places on teaching unvarnished American and Indigenous history.
The Osage Murders and the Film “Killers of the Flower Moon”
“Killers of the Flower Moon” is a film adaptation of the book by David Grann, which tells the true story of the Osage Reign of Terror in 1920s Oklahoma. Wealthy members of the Osage Nation were systematically killed by non-Native residents who sought to gain control over the tribe’s valuable oil rights. The book became a New York Times bestseller, and the film adaptation, directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Lily Gladstone, and Robert De Niro, is highly anticipated.
Impact on Teaching
One teacher from Dewey High School even admitted to avoiding assigning “Killers of the Flower Moon” due to fears of potential complaints under HB 1775. This highlights the difficult position educators find themselves in, caught between the state’s promotion of the film through tax credits and the limited freedom to teach the historical realities it portrays.
Bartlesville High School Continues Native American Studies
Despite the concerns surrounding HB 1775, Bartlesville High School has maintained its commitment to teaching Osage history. The school’s principal, Michael Harp, who is a member of the Cherokee Nation, emphasizes the importance of focusing on state academic standards that require the education of Indigenous experiences. While there is a heightened concern due to HB 1775, it has not deterred teachers from teaching what they believe is essential.
Vagueness of the Law
Many critics argue that HB 1775 is overly vague, particularly a section that prohibits schools from instructing students to feel guilt or discomfort based on their race or sex. The lack of clarity on what is permissible and what is not has created a chilling effect on teachers and encouraged schools to exclude books that depict diverse identities and experiences. The Oklahoma State Board of Education downgraded the accreditation of Mustang Public Schools after a student reported feeling uncomfortable during a leadership exercise, even though no teacher explicitly instructed the student to feel that way. This case underscores the potential repercussions of the law‘s vagueness in stifling open and honest discussions on sensitive topics.
Lieutenant Governor Matt Pinnell has suggested that lawmakers need to define the law more clearly to ensure that crucial historical events, such as the Osage Reign of Terror and the Tulsa Race Massacre, can be taught in schools. Rep. Kevin West, the author of HB 1775, maintains that the law already allows for discussions of challenging history, as long as it is presented and applied appropriately. However, the ongoing lawsuit challenging the law‘s constitutionality indicates that there is still significant debate over its implementation and potential limitations on academic freedom and historical understanding.
The Lawsuit and Academic Consequences
A lawsuit filed two years ago in Oklahoma City federal court seeks to overturn HB 1775. The case, brought by a group of students, local advocates, and college professors with the support of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, argues that the law creates a chilling effect on teachers and students and hampers the inclusion of books that depict diverse identities and experiences. The prolonged delay in the resolution of the lawsuit deprives students of the opportunity to learn about important aspects of their history, including the Tulsa Race Massacre and the mistreatment of Indigenous communities.
The controversy surrounding HB 1775 and its potential impact on the teaching of Indigenous history in Oklahoma highlights the delicate balance between promoting historical understanding and the concerns over discomfort and guilt. While the state has actively supported the film adaptation of “Killers of the Flower Moon,” educators remain uncertain about their ability to discuss the true events depicted in the movie. Legislative clarity and an open, honest dialogue surrounding challenging historical events are crucial in ensuring that students are not deprived of a comprehensive understanding of the past. The ongoing lawsuit is an opportunity to reevaluate the law‘s potential limitations on academic freedom and find a balanced approach that encourages the exploration of our complex history while respecting the sensibilities of students and teachers.
<< photo by Sara Cottle >>
The image is for illustrative purposes only and does not depict the actual situation.
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