Martin Scorcese’s most recent film, Killers of the Flower Moon, has been met with positive reviews on many fronts, from the directing to the acting. The story is adapted from the 2017 novel of the same name by David Grann and stars Lily Gladstone, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Robert De Niro. The crime drama and true story follows the murders committed against the Osage Nation by white invaders in the 1920s after a vast amount of oil was found to be present within the land belonging to the Osage people. So, how is the plot represented by the title, Killers of the Flower Moon? It is not yet clear how in-depth the film will go in explaining its meaning, but Grann’s novel gives clarity behind the name that describes one of the most horrific events in American history.

The events outlined in Killers of the Flower Moon are also known as the Reign of Terror, which is a more straightforward description of what happened in what is now Osage County, Oklahoma. The phrase was created by newspapers at the time of the atrocities. The title Killers of the Flower Moon, however, was coined much later. A “flower moon” was a term from the Old Farmer’s Almanac, a calendar or handbook that predicts events in nature, such as tides and astronomical events. The Old Farmer’s Almanac gives each monthly full moon a different name according to what is occurring in the natural landscape at that time. Commonly, January’s full moon is called the Wolf Moon, February’s is the Snow Moon, March’s is the Worm Moon, and so on. Additionally, traditions of Native American tribes contributed to the naming of the full moons. Full moons may be referred to by different names depending on the group or tribe.

The Flower Moon takes place in the month of May, which is when the Reign of Terror started in 1921 with the discovery of the body of an Osage Native American woman. The month of May also sees the blooming of flowers in North America. Grann’s nonfiction book goes more into specifics with the analogy, referencing small flowers that bloom in April, but wilt in May due to the shifting of the seasons. Once bigger plants begin to grow, they take over and use up all the water and light. This occurrence in nature mirrors what happened under the Flower Moons in the 1920, with the people of the Osage Nation having their lives and resources taken from them by white interlopers. The book explains the reasoning behind the title further:

The “flower-killing moon” refers to the time of the season contributing to the deaths of the small flowers, while the wording of “killers of the flower moon” describes murders that took place during that period of time. It also refers to white colonizers minimizing Native American culture, destroying nature-related traditions pointed out by the title.

The Flower Moon and the Reign of Terror have been referenced in other media. Writer John Joseph Matthews, whose work is referenced multiple times in Grann’s book, wrote a novel that takes place during the Reign of Terror. He also wrote about his homeland and the environmental aspects of Osage culture in Talking to the Moon. His words on nature in the area are included in Killers of the Flower Moon.

Another Osage writer referenced in the book is Elise Paschen, who wrote a poem, titled “Wi’-gi-e,” from the perspective of Mollie Burkhart (played by Gladstone in the film) during the murders. The poem is about the discovery of the first body, who was Burkhart’s sister, and the negligence and cover-up by the police. Similar to the title of the book and the film, as well as its background, the poem is grounded in words about nature. Paschen even uses the title in the poem, before the publication of Grann’s book. After being contacted by Grann, an excerpt of Paschen’s poem was featured in the book.

Killers of the Flower Moon is now playing in theaters.

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