Killers of the Flower Moon

IN THE ILLUSTRIOUS, star-studded history of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, only four people of Indigenous descent have been awarded an Oscar. Since the 1929 inception of Hollywood’s night of nights, 3,140 models of the iconic gilded statuettes have been doled out. Only five of those have gone to Indigenous people (Hammond Peek, a Māori sound engineer, has won two). And we’re not just talking about the big awards. We’re taking into account the writers, sound engineers, costume designers, hairstylists and everyone else who can, technically, win an Oscar.

In addition to Peek, who won Best Sound for Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and for King Kong—he has the honour of being the only Indigenous person to win multiple Oscars—the very brief list of Indigenous Oscars winners also includes: Sean Connery, who won Best Supporting Actor and is of Irish Traveller descent by way of his great grandfather. Russell Crowe, who won Best Actor for his role in Gladiator and can trace his Māori lineage back to his great-great-grandmother. And actor/director Taika Waititi, who is Māori-Jewish, and the most recent Indigenous Oscar winner. He claimed Best Adapted Screenplay for Jojo Rabbit in 2019.

Perhaps what’s most glaring, though, is that despite the Academy being an ostensibly American organisation headquartered in Beverly Hills, no Native American has ever won an Oscar, neither has any Indigenous woman.

Given how few Indigenous people have been nominated in the past—and that none of those nominated were women or Native American—it wasn’t surprising that Lily Gladstone’s nomination for Best Actress was met with heightened interest and excitement, especially because she was widely expected to win the award.

Killers of the Flower Moon

Gladstone’s role as Mollie Burkhart in Killers of the Flower Moon had all the markings of Oscar-darling status. The film, which focuses on a series of mysterious deaths among members of the Osage nation in 1920s Oklahoma, was directed by Martin Scorsese (Oscar winner), with Gladstone starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio (Oscar winner) and Robert De Niro (another Oscar winner). Gladstone does more than hold her own opposite such an illustrious cast; in many ways she out-acts her co-stars. The fact DiCaprio was not rewarded with a nomination for his role in the film, while Gladstone was, speaks volumes of her performance.

Killers of the Flower Moon received ten total Oscar nominations, the third most of any film this year. A wholesale Oscars romp was doubtful, but a Gladstone win seemed increasingly likely. Media outlets prematurely heralded it a landmark moment in Oscars history. The impending win (or so pundits thoughts) was framed as a chance for reflection on the USA’s deeply troubled past, and some said it would be the most impactful Oscar in recent memory. But Gladstone didn’t win. The honour went to Emma Stone instead. In fact, despite its pedigree, Killers of the Flower Moon was shut out in all ten categories it was nominated for.

Gladstone and Stone shared the spoils of the precursor awards this year, and the Best Actress race at the Oscars was always going to be close. Stone was anything but undeserving of the ultimate victory, having also won a Golden Globe and a BAFTA—for which Gladstone was, inexplicably, not even nominated. But Gladstone would’ve been equally deserving of the win, having also claimed a Golden Globe, a Satellite Award, recognition from the National Board of Review, and an all-important SAG Award—which, as an award voted on by some members of the Academy, is often seen as a golden indicator of how the Oscars might play out.

In addition, the Academy are suckers for a feel-good narrative, and all the factors outside of performance tipped the scales further towards Gladstone. A win for Gladstone would have set a precedent and likely delivered one of those teary-eyed speeches the Academy (also) loves so much. Meanwhile, Stone’s past success could have worked against her in some respects. She has already won Best Actress, and quite recently at that, for La La Land in 2017, which removes any sentimental advantage. Evidently, all signs pointed to a Gladstone win, and the majority of insiders predicted as much.

Of course, Oscars predictions don’t always go to plan. Stone beating out Gladstone for Best Actress will hardly be remembered in the annals of Oscars history as a surprise of Will Smith slapping Chris Rock calibre. But it was the most unpredictable outcome of a highly predictable Oscars year, and it does raise a number of talking points.

It would be foolish to decry the Academy and suggest racism was the deciding factor in Stone beating out Gladstone (not that it has a great track record for celebrating artists of colour—#OscarsSoWhite in 2015 raised awareness of this). Snubs have happened before and we know all too well that they will happen again. But Hollywood and the Academy have a turbulent history with Indigenous people. While that history may have begun to fade from the public eye, Gladstone’s snub has brought that troubled relationship back to the forefront and reminded us of why a win for her would’ve mattered.

Killers of the Flower Moon

Despite its fraught relationship with First Nations people, Hollywood’s history with Indigenous people began a long time ago, well before the idea of an all-powerful, quality-determining Academy was conceived. Depictions of Indigenous people in early films consistently teetered on offensive, often playing into stereotypes that portrayed them as savage figures, cold-hearted antagonists to the noble white man’s hero, and helpless inferiors at the mercy of Europeans.

It was around this time that the Oscars produced their first ever Indigenous nominee, albeit unknowingly. Merle Oberon was nominated for Best Supporting Actress in 1935. She was born in British India to a Welsh father, but her mother was a member of the Burgher peoples, a small ethnic group native to Sri Lanka. She didn’t win, but nonetheless, Oberon kept her heritage hidden because she feared it would negatively impact her acting career and lead to racial discrimination. Her secret was kept until after her death, almost 50 years after her Oscar nomination.

Of course, Indigenous representation in film has always been scant. From the 1930s-60s, non-Indigenous actors would commonly play Indigenous roles. While it’s no longer as common, the practice has continued into the 21st century. Indigenous people haven’t just struggled to land Hollywood’s biggest roles—including playing characters of their own descent—they have struggled to simply get a foot in the door. Once we take the lack of Indigenous representation on-screen into consideration, it’s no wonder so few have managed to secure Oscars, and why even fewer have been actors.

In 1973, Marlon Brando won Best Actor for his role in The Godfather. Instead of accepting the award himself, he sent Sacheen Littlefeather, an Apache activist and president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee, to decline the honour. “He very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award, and the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry,” Littlefeather said on Brando’s behalf.

Littlefeather was relentlessly booed while on stage, and the jeers continued long after she left it. Infamously, the face of the Hollywood film industry at the time, John Wayne, had to be restrained by security to prevent him from rushing the stage and forcefully removing Littlefeather from the podium. It took 49 years for Littlefeather to receive an official apology from the Academy for how she was treated.

1982 was the year that the Oscars found their first Indigenous winner, Buffy Saint-Marie. She was one of three musicians to receive the award for Best Original Song, and while she was a singer rather than an actress, she was supposedly Native American. Retrospectively, she likely no longer qualifies for the honour of being the first Indigenous Oscar winner as her claims to that title are under review; in 2023, it was revealed that Saint-Marie had lied about her Indigenous ancestry. Saint-Marie had claimed she was born on a Cree Indian reservation before being adopted at the age of three. An investigation from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation later proved that she had actually been born in Massachusetts, and that her non-Indigenous adoptive parents were actually her birth parents.

What a stark contrast that bizarre case presents. Less than 50 years earlier, an actress hid her Indigenous identity to protect her career, whereas Saint-Marie obfuscated her white ancestry to benefit her professional endeavours. Needless to say, the Academy initially patted itself on the back for giving an award to Saint-Marie, celebrated how far they’d come, and moved on. Which brings us to today, where there still hasn’t been a Native American Oscar winner.

Killers of the Flower Moon

The Oscars have undergone a dramatic transformation in recent years, opening up membership to hundreds of additional international industry contributors. This shift was sparked by the #OscarsSoWhite movement, which gained traction on social media in 2015 when viewers took issue with the lack of diversity amongst nominees.

The Oscars efforts to improve diversity seem to have worked, to some extent. This year, we saw Japanese film The Boy and the Heron win Best Animated Feature over an American rival, while another Japanese film, Godzilla Minus One, won Best Visual Effects, French film Anatomy of a fall won Best Original Screenplay, and a Polish-filmed, German-language British film, The Zone of Interest, won Best Sound.

Some have remarked that the beauty of this year’s ceremony was that these overseas Oscar winners earned their honours on their merit, not because the Academy wanted to appear outwardly altruistic and appeal to their audience through tokenism. So, why does it matter that Gladstone didn’t win? To use her own words, it doesn’t. But it is necessary that her contributions, and that of other Indigenous performers, be seen.

“I just hope people realise that we should be everywhere,” Gladstone said before the Oscars. Addressing the groundbreaking nature of her nomination, she was unapologetically blunt. “It shows that we’ve been told for so long that our stories are too myopic or too culturally specific, and they’re not going to appeal to a broad audience. It’s just, pardon my language, bullshit.”

In years to come, we can hope the Academy will take this on board, and more Indigenous people will be in contention for Oscars, and those rightfully deserving will win. If the Oscars wasn’t ready for a Native American winner this year, it will only be a matter of time before this changes. And the first breakthrough of an inaugural Native American winner could plausibly be as impactful as anticipated. It may even be Gladstone who does it.


The best dressed men at the 2024 Oscars

The most memorable Oscars moments of all time