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This Osage family's story has long been in the public eye. Here's how they're handling it being portrayed on the silver screen

Tickets were sold out Thursday night to the showing of Killers of the Flower Moon.
Anna Pope
/
OPMX
Tickets were sold out Thursday night to the showing of Killers of the Flower Moon.

Killers of the Flower Moon is already generating Oscar buzz. But in Oklahoma, the story behind it is deeply personal. Jim Gray, the former principal chief of the Osage Nation, and his family met with OPMX’s Anna Pope to watch the film at the Circle Cinema in Tulsa for its public debut. The film is not only a story about the history of their community, but of the Gray family.

This is Jim Gray’s fourth time seeing Martin Scorsese’s epic film about the Osage Reign of Terror.

But as he steps back into the quiet theater after getting movie snacks, he is aware this is the first time for most people seeing the film. But Jim has a different relationship than most with this movie: the killing of his great-grandfather is depicted in it.

When the movie ends, scattered applause breaks out, but people fall silent watching the credits roll. When the lights came on and people walked into the lobby, a few audience members were comforting others. At this viewing, the scenes showing Osage culture moved Jim.

“That it’s real and that's what makes this movie so, you know, painful to watch in a way,” Jim said. “But it's authentic. It's consistent with who we are, you know? He wouldn't have known all that if he just built this movie around a book that didn't even touch any of these things. You only learn that by just listening to us.” 

Jim's stepdaughter Olivia Ramirez was seeing the film for the first time. Ramirez said she heard the history of the murders, but she said seeing it on a screen was jarring.

Ramirez said it's hard to watch, but it's important for people, especially people who are not Osage or Indigenous, to see the film to grasp what happened, and the generational trauma and distrust it bred. For viewers, she said it's important to see who gained land and wealth, and who has them now.

“And there's so many people in Oklahoma who you wouldn't expect to benefit from the tragedy that happened to us,” Ramirez said. “But if you just look around, and you do your research, there's quite a few people who walk around in our communities today who ignore that.”

Naomi Gray, Jim’s daughter, also watched the film with her family at Circle Cinema. She said it's meaningful that filmmakers involved Osage citizens in the movie's making.

“I think the representation being as authekntic as they could, having our Tribe involved was satisfying,” Gray said. “You know, to have a Hollywood film to do something in a step forward towards righting a wrong through Hollywood’s history. That was what’s satisfying for me.”

This was not the first viewing for Jim’s son, Henry Roanhorse Gray. He works for the Osage Nation’s communications department, and said the story is not a story of the past, but a continuation of history involving relevant problems today.

Henry Roanhorse Gray holds a Wahzhazhe Always sign.
Allison Herrera
/
OPMX
Henry Roanhorse Gray holds a Wahzhazhe Always sign.

“We still have to fight these struggles,” Henry Roanhorse said. “We still struggle for recognition. We still struggle to get help from the federal government. We still struggle to be seen as equals.”

Henry Roanhorse is named after his great-great-grandfather Henry Roan, whose murder kicked off a federal investigation and is depicted in the film.

When the movie was in production, Henry Roanhorse met William Belleau — the actor portraying his ancestor — at a fake cafe on the movie set.

“And he's a great guy,” Henry Roanhorse said. “But we walked away from that, dad and I, just sort of thinking like, ‘It's real. It's happening. He's already wrapped up his scenes. There's nothing we can do at this point except hope and pray.’”

Henry Roanhorse remembers when he learned about his namesake from his father. He said it was back when Jim ran the Native American Times newspaper.

“So, what we would do is we'd load up his little Mazda truck full of newspapers, and we would go out and distribute them to all the gas stations and different community buildings that asked for them,” Henry Roanhorse said.

They spent most of their time driving through Osage County and sometimes went as far as Tahlequah, roughly 100 miles southwest of Osage Nation’s capital Pawhuska.

“He presented it as very much a, you know, not in a defeatist way, but in a sort of like, don't-let-this-scare-you sort of way, but let this empower you,” Henry Roanhorse said. “And there's all these good stories that come from that era, too. It was like he wanted me to understand that as well.

Before the books, movie and media coverage, Jim talked about his great-grandfather’s story. Jim said because most people knew about Henry Roan’s case from articles, books or a 1950s film about the FBI, being anonymous was not an option.

“I didn't have the luxury to be quiet and so my take on it's a little different than probably most people's because they didn't have that happen to their ancestor,” Jim said. “But it did mine and I think it was important that, as a tribe, that we put it in its proper place in our history.”

For Jim, Ramirez and Henry Roanhorse, Killers of the Flower Moon is not only the history of their community, but also of their family.

As Henry Roanhorse grew older, he began to realize the importance of and the weight of history behind his name.

“But it did give me a place in history, sort of,” Henry said. “It just - it sort of placed me in history. It's just like I come from, you know, this sort of strange story in Oklahoma history and American history, just like I'm a piece of this. I'm the living remnant of that story.”

This report was produced by the Oklahoma Public Media Exchange, a collaboration of public media organizations. Help support collaborative journalism by donating at the link at the top of this webpage.

Allison Herrera is a radio and print journalist who's worked for PRX's The World, Colorado Public Radio as the climate and environment editor and as a freelance reporter for High Country News’ Indigenous Affairs desk.
Oklahoma Public Media Exchange
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