The movie, which has just been released, tells the story of a 1920s investigation by the newly formed and ethically challenged FBI of a series of suspicious, unsolved murders of dozens of oil-wealthy Osage tribe members. The tribe first met with Scorsese in July 2019, hoping he would hear them out and try to ensure an accurate depiction of their culture. They got more than they expected.
“There are elements in this film that just scream Osage,” said Chief Jim Gray, former principal chief and one of the tribe members who will participate in a behind-the-scenes conversation about the tribe’s role in the making of the movie at a Harvard Kennedy School event on Monday. “Even though 99 percent of the audience will be non-Osage and are not going to know as much about this story as we do, Osage people sitting in the audience are going to get a lot of the observances that Scorsese incorporated into the film that could only have come from collaboration with the tribe.”
The discussion, sponsored by the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, and the HKS Project on Indigenous Governance and Development, will also include Hepsi Barnett, M.P.A. ’00, former chief of staff of the Osage Nation, and Wilson Pipestem, Osage headright owner, Honoring Nations Board of Governors. It will be moderated by Project Director Joe Kalt, Ford Foundation Professor of International Political Economy.
“There’s a pride that’s coming back that has allowed Osages to free themselves of that dark chapter without forgetting it, but just incorporate it as a way we go forward.”Chief Jim Gray
Characterized as an epic Western crime drama, the film was inspired by journalist David Grann’s book of the same name, which was a 2017 National Book Award finalist in nonfiction. The tribe advised producers on matters of language, traditional clothing, and ceremonies such as weddings and funerals. But, members say, their close participation also led to weighty changes in the script.
After meeting with the tribe, Scorsese and his team decided to center the story on the relationship between an Osage woman, played by Lily Gladstone, and a white man, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. During a press conference in Cannes after the movie’s screening in May, Scorsese said he wasn’t interested in a “whodunit” movie and instead wanted to tell the story of a “tragedy of love, trust, and betrayal of Indigenous people.”
The film also stars Robert De Niro as the mastermind behind a scheme to trick and kill many tribe members to get their money. It was filmed during the pandemic in Oklahoma, including in Osage County and the places where the crimes took place more than a century ago.
The historical backdrop for the murders reflects a dark chapter in American history and its treatment of Native people. The Osage Nation ended up in Oklahoma in the 19th century after having been forced to relocate from their ancestral home in modern-day Kansas. The tribe managed to retain mineral rights to their reservation land and became wealthy after oil was discovered there in the early 20th century.
Each tribal member had headrights, which guaranteed them a share of royalties from oil companies, and that is how the Osage, who numbered 2,000 back then, became the richest people in the world per capita.
The killings, which took place between the 1910s and 1930s, were ultimately proved to be part of a conspiracy of corruption and greed, leaving behind a legacy of trauma. Many in the community were gripped by fear and did not want to talk about it for years. “We know that story in our bones,” Barnett said. “While the larger society forgot about it and moved on, of course, us Osages never moved on from that.”
Pipestem recalled how his grandmother used to tell him they should not discuss the issue. “There’s a lot of trauma from that era,” he said. “Our people were doing the best they could to heal from that, and one of the ways they dealt with it was not to talk about it. But it was also the absolute whitewashing of both Osage and American history. There seemed to be a concerted effort by people who knew the history of Oklahoma and the Osage Nation to try to forget that this happened.”
Gray, a descendant of murder victim Henry Roan, said he only learned about it in his teenage years after watching a movie about the FBI. “The reason people didn’t talk about it was because of fear,” he said. “I don’t think that is a stretch. You just have to put yourself in the shoes of somebody who lived through that time and saw what was going on to keep quiet.”
The book and now the film have not only lifted the veil of silence within the Osage Nation but also put the tribe in the spotlight. After a century of living under federally imposed land-ownership and citizenship rules, the Osage adopted a new constitution in 2006 that has allowed the tribe to grow to 27,000 members.
“There’s a pride that’s coming back that has allowed Osages to free themselves of that dark chapter without forgetting it, but just incorporate it as a way we go forward,” said Gray. “We’re already seeing signs where we’re flourishing … It feels like a renaissance of all things Osage happening right now.”
“This is our shared history, and we all have something to learn from it, and we all have some healing to do as a result,” he said. “I feel strongly that the story needs to be told. I am greatly relieved that it is getting out into mainstream society, and that people are going to hear this story and are going to ask questions, and they are going to say, ‘How could this have ever happened?’”