Here is Rosebud Yellow Robe, a confident, handsome gentlewoman in early middle-age, looking off to her right, apparently indifferent to her portraitist. She wears a loose elk-skin ceremonial dress with beaded figures of cavalrymen and warriors worked in on fine sinew. It is a representation of the Battle of Little Bighorn, in which her grandfather had fought.
If you were a child in New York in the 30s or 40s, there was a not-bad chance you had met Rosebud Yellow Robe, and that she had told you to call her “Rosebud.” For 20 years, she ran the Indian Village, a hands-on educational exhibit located on Jones Beach, on Long Island. She performed ceremonial dances, taught crafts, told stories, and did what she could to disabuse her young audiences of the prejudices they had absorbed from movies and TV. Now, in the summer of 1950, she was on a national tour, hired by Twentieth Century-Fox to do publicity for Broken Arrow, a prestige, technicolor western starring Jimmy Stewart.
Broken Arrow was marketed as a genre break. It told the story of the peace negotiations held by the US scout Tom Jeffords, played by Stewart, and the Apache chief Cochise in the early 1870s. Cochise, played by Jeff Chandler, is the hero of the movie: “a great American,” according to the director Delmer Daves, but even more so a king weighed down with a heavy crown, a pragmatist as well as a warrior. The Apache are capable of brutality—in early scenes they bury their white prisoners up to their necks in the sand and leave them to the ants—but Jeffords puts their cruelty in context. It was the white man, not the Apache, who started the cycle of violence.
“I’m no Hollywood Indian,” Rosebud said, but “for the message this picture has I would be happy to be one.” She was Lakota, not Apache, she reminded reporters, but she vouched for the film’s authenticity. The filmmakers had consulted an anthropological study and hired members of a reservation in Arizona to serve as extras. Her tour, 73 years ago, rhymes with the publicity campaign for Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, another prestige western that seeks authenticity, another that touches on—even if it never fully examines—the genocide of Native people.
Rosebud may have acknowledged some failings in Broken Arrow, but she didn’t note its most significant problems. All but one of the principal Native roles are played by white actors. The story culminates with the sacrifice of Jeffords’s young Apache bride, Cochise’s daughter, a perpetuation of a pernicious genre trope. In the film’s coda, the narration suggests the peace won by Cochise and Jeffords remained permanent. In reality, it ended in 1876, two years after Cochise’s death; the worst atrocities the Apache suffered were yet to come.
Still, there was something crucial about this moment in Rosebud’s life, and for this moment of Hollywood PR. Rosebud didn’t spend much time on the tour talking about Broken Arrow at all. Instead, she seized the moment to talk about her story, her family’s story, the toxic depictions of Indians in entertainment, and the humiliations even she was suffering on reservation land in 1950. For Rosebud, the Indians in Broken Arrow were very much alive, and like her, very much part of the project of American modernity and American democracy.
Rosebud was raised in Rapid City, South Dakota, where her father, Chauncey Yellow Robe, the head disciplinarian of an Indian school, was among the most prominent citizens. He named his eldest daughter for the Lakota reservation located a couple hundred miles away, on which she had been allotted 160 acres soon after her birth in 1907.’
I would be very curious to know what Rosebud would have made of Killers of the Flower Moon, a virtuosic piece of filmmaking, but no masterpiece.
Chauncey was old enough to remember seeing the warriors return from Little Big Horn, and old enough to remember how rare a victory it was for his people. As a teenager, he would be sent to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, where he would be cut off from his family, his language, and his culture. His hair was shorn and he was forced to choose his Anglican name from a list written on a blackboard. In the end, Carlisle made Chauncey into more than it wanted him to be. He later married a woman of German background and taught his students and children to “walk in two worlds.”
As a teacher, Chauncey was comfortable with the rod, and he demanded an adherence to good English and comportment. He also told Lakota stories, and even though Rosebud never learned the Lakota language, he made sure that she heard it spoken. He was an ardent activist for Indian citizenship, which would be won with a law signed by Calvin Coolidge in 1924. In his speeches, he protested the toxic mythologies of the West, sometimes decked out in full Sioux garb, often accompanied by Rosebud and her sister Chauncina. Little Big Horn, he told audiences, was a battle won by Lakota and not a massacre of whites. Wounded Knee was not a battle won by whites, but a massacre of Lakota. Sometimes he would let out a war whoop, an indelible sound of his pre-reservation childhood.
Rosebud was taught to be excellent and to be American, and had she been his son, Chauncey told her, she would have gone to West Point. Instead, she attended the University of South Dakota, making her one of the very few Native women of her time to receive a college education. Classmates admired her intelligence, and she was considered one of the most beautiful women on campus, but she was turned down from a sorority because of her race.Unlike Broken Arrow and Little Big Man, Killers of the Flower Moon acknowledges its imperfections.
It was as a college student that she first came to national attention. In 1927, as a thank you to Coolidge and a means of solidifying the Lakota as part of American society, Chauncey helped arrange a ceremony in Deadwood to induct the president as a High Chief of the tribe, to be named Leading Eagle, and he arranged for his daughter to take a central role in the pageantry. Rosebud was the one to place a magnificent double-trail eagle war bonnet on Coolidge’s head. More than one report called her a princess, and photographs and newsreels suggested as much. She would be offered a lead in a Hollywood film, but Chauncey stopped her from taking the career turn.
In the end, it was Chauncey, a longtime foe of the film industry, who would become a film star. He appears in the 1930 docudrama The Silent Enemy, a stunningly shot, authenticity-seeking pre-Columbian tale about the Ojibwe. It’s mostly silent, but it opens with a spoken address from Chauncey who, then in his sixties, plays a chief in the film. He wears Native clothes, speaks in a slow, methodical Lakota-accented voice, and presents himself as an elder statesman. “Soon we will be gone,” he says. “Your civilization will have destroyed us. But by your magic, we will live forever. We thank the white men who helped us to make this picture.”
Native people, as Chauncey knew, were not gone in 1930, and the speech flatters not just the filmmakers but all those who believed white people had a monopoly on cinema and storytelling. But Chauncey delivers the monologue with striking authority, undercutting the obsequious message of the text. At the time, just before his death, he was planning a run for Congress, and this speech may have been a preview of his campaign.
The next 20 years of Rosebud’s life can be seen as an extension of this final act of her father’s life. A couple of years before his death, she married a theater agent, decades her senior, and moved to New York. For some years, she was booked as an Indian dancer at clubs. Later, she appeared on a local children’s radio show where she told Native stories. (Orson Welles worked at the same station, and there’s a possibility that her name was the source for the most famous word in American film history.)
The Long Island Parks Commission drafted Rosebud to give lectures on Indian culture, which over the years led to her position at the Indian Village. A star she was not to be, but something better. Chauncey dedicated his life to educating Lakota and asserting the dignity of his people. Rosebud, like her father a born performer, educated white people.
Even when she didn’t wear her elk-skin dress, Rosebud was treated as a novelty on her tour. “Her high cheek bones, slightly hooked nose, soft brown eyes, perfect teeth and glossy black braids, marked her as an Indian; but in other respects she was more like a sophisticated New Yorker,” wrote the Baltimore Sun. “She wore a plain black dress, set off with a necklace of dull gold leaves and a white turban; and she declares she will ‘scalp at sunrise’ anybody who calls her a princess.” There was no such thing as an Indian princess, she told reporters again and again, no matter how many of them wanted to believe this relation of Sitting Bull was royalty.Scorsese understands that authenticity is itself a performance.
She often began by discussing her own challenges as an educator in New York. When she met children in public schools, they were terrified when they saw her in Sioux garb, assuming, given the influences of early television, that she was there to attack them. She talked about her father’s life story, of the humiliations of his childhood and of his dedication to education. With not a little pride, she mentioned Chauncey’s youngest daughter, Evelyn, whom Rosebud had raised, a Mt. Holyoke graduate who was pursuing a career in speech pathology.
Decolonization was no metaphor in 1950, and she noted the indignities she faced concerning the 160 acres of land she owned on the reservation in South Dakota. For years she had been struggling with a trespasser. “Indians are children in the eyes of the law,” she said. “I can’t protect my holdings in court because an Indian agent has to middleman any legal dealing for me.”
One could see a little bit of Chauncey in the film’s depiction of Cochise. But Cochise’s daughter in the film has nothing of Rosebud’s grace and intelligence. If she was troubled with the depiction of women in Broken Arrow, she kept her qualms to herself. Knowing when and when not to speak up against a slight is the art of walking in two worlds.
I would be very curious to know what Rosebud would have made of Killers of the Flower Moon, a virtuosic piece of filmmaking, but no masterpiece.
The early scenes set up the film I wanted to see, a film Rosebud and Chauncey would have understood. Black-and-white silent films depict the Osage people’s entrance into high society. Those images appear in sharp, contrapuntal contrast with a wide-screen color vista of a train pulling into a station. Set against Robbie Robertson’s rock-indigenous score, it’s an exuberant take on Native people in the early 20th century, thoroughly modern and precariously American.
But despite Martin Scorsese’s attempt to recenter the Osage, the film is most concerned with the white killers of the title. Leonardo DiCaprio’s Ernest Burkhart is a deromanticized version of Scorsese’s most famous characters; unlike the charismatic mobsters in Goodfellas, he is not given one quotable line. Robert De Niro’s William Hale telegraphs that his gentility is a façade. He lacks the genius of Burt Lancaster’s Elmer Gantry and Giancarlo Esposito’s Gus Fring, the ability to convince the audience of his own obvious lies. From his entrance, Hale is nothing more than a rapacious capitalist and remains one to the end, and as a result, the viewers enjoy a privileged position over the film’s naïve Osage.
There is another, better version of Killers of the Flower Moon that needs to be told, even if Scorsese is not the man to tell it, just as there is a better version of Broken Arrow that could still be made.
Mollie Burkhart, played by Lily Gladstone, is given to long, studied silences, suggesting pride and humiliation, love and trepidation. She, like every Osage character in the film, is worth their own movie. But most of the Native cast never appear as more than victims, many no more than corpses. Devery Jacobs, a Canadian Mohawk actress and Gladstone’s co-star in the FX show Reservation Dogs, tweeted a few weeks ago, “Imagine the worst atrocities committed against yr ancestors, then having to sit thru a movie explicitly filled w/ them, w/ the only respite being 30min long scenes of murderous white guys talking about/planning the killings.” For myself, I couldn’t shake the miserable thought that Scorsese was murdering these men and women all over again, a full century later.
And yet, Scorsese attempts to redeem himself in the final minutes, to make an argument for his film. Killers of the Flower Moon is not the first movie to depict Native persecution, or to suggest that the killings of Native people amounted to a genocide. But unlike Broken Arrow and Little Big Man, it acknowledges its imperfections. Killers of the Flower Moon may pursue authenticity in its use of the Osage language and in its careful depictions of Osage traditions, but Scorsese understands that authenticity is itself a performance.
The film’s coda is staged as a hokey true crime radio play. The re-enactment is funny, but it is heartbreaking to see Scorsese appearing as himself on stage as he delivers the closing narration. As a few writers have argued, the scene functions as an apology: for true crime’s tendency to decenter victims in favor of criminals, for the western’s tendency to decenter Native people in favor of white people, and for Scorsese’s own career, which has focused on Dostoevskyan anti-heroes, often missing the equally difficult, equally important Tolstoyan figures hiding in plain sight. He is making an argument for his reworking of DiCaprio and De Niro’s personas; their anti-charisma is the point. And he is making an argument for making the movie at all, even if he knew he couldn’t get it right.
The publicity campaign for Killers of the Flower Moon buttresses an interpretation of this scene as an apology. Scorsese has noted that he had to overhaul the script, which originally focused on the white lawmen, towards the relationship between the murderers and their victims. But even that decision presented problems. Christopher Côté, one of the language consultants, was disturbed that the film’s depiction of Ernest’s plans to murder Mollie was treated as a love story. “[T]his film isn’t made for an Osage audience, it was made for everybody, not Osage,” he told the Hollywood Reporter. Gladstone, who grew up on a Blackfeet reservation in Montana, did not directly answer Jacobs’s criticisms, but she recently posted trigger warnings for Native audiences who may experience “generational grief.”
There is another, better version of Killers of the Flower Moon that needs to be told, even if Scorsese is not the man to tell it, just as there is a better version of Broken Arrow that could still be made. I keep thinking of a scene that takes up only a minute of screentime in the film, Mollie’s most extraordinary act of heroism, her death-risking journey from Oklahoma to Washington, DC, to lobby Calvin Coolidge to send law enforcement to Osage country. I imagine Rosebud watching this scene, considering all the things she could have said to Coolidge during her own meeting in 1927 but didn’t, of all the things she wanted to say about Hollywood in 1950 but couldn’t, of everything her erudite father said throughout his life, and of what he could never fully articulate to her or to himself.
The son of a Lakota warrior, speaking English while letting out a war whoop, befriending a president while simultaneously demanding that the white man acknowledge his sins. The New Yorker whose ties to reservation land over a thousand miles away in the Upper Midwest reminds her of the limits of American citizenship. These are the unresolved and unresolvable problems of great drama. These are the stories I want to see.
Luke Yellow Robe shared with me his perspective on Rosebud, his grandmother, and Chauncey. Doris Peterson, of the I.D. Weeks Library at the University of South Dakota, shared archival material. I consulted David W. Messer’s Chauncey Yellow Robe: A Biography of the American Indian Educator, ca. 1870-1930 and Marjorie Weinberg’s The Real Rosebud: The Triumph of a Lakota Woman.