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GREENWOOD Dist.–Hollywood is shining a renewed spotlight on the violent tragedy that plagued the Osage Nation with the October 6 release of “Killers of the Flower Moon.” A former Osage Nation Principal Chief who was instrumental in the direction of the film says stories about the Osage people and the Black residents of Historic Greenwood District should be taught vigorously in schools.

“I just think that there’s a shared history there, and I think it’s our time to do a reset and put this in perspective and get this back in our school books,” Former Osage Nation Principal Chief Jim Gray told The Black Wall Street Times.

As Oklahoma’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction Ryan Walters continues a campaign of attacks on teaching history that makes White students uncomfortable, with plans to possibly disband Tulsa Public Schools District, Chief Gray believes now is the time to speak up.

“Knowing those two events were literally happening at the same time and only 40 minutes apart as the crow flies,” Chief Gray told The Black Wall Street Times. “The way I look at it now, with the movie coming out and the 100-plus-year anniversary, all of these events getting in the news right now, it’s important that those two stories connect in some kind of way that makes sense to describe the times.”

Ernest and Mollie Burkhart married in 1917. Unbeknownst to Mollie, a member of the Osage tribe, the marriage was part of a larger plot to steal her family’s oil wealth.
Oklahoma Historical Society, Oklahoman Collection/Courtesy of Doubleday

Killers of the Flower Moon

In the 1920s, the Osage Nation boasted some of the richest people in the world per-capita after discovering oil on their lands. But then began the ‘reign of terror,’ when the Osage leaders were targeted in a series of mysterious murders. It involved White men marrying into the tribe then killing off adults in an attempt to take ownership of the land.

One of those killed was Chief Jim Gray’s great grandfather, Henry Roan. The case led to the creation of the FBI, and decades later, the story caught the attention of Hollywood with plans to turn it into a film, “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

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Former Osage Nation Chief Jim Gray served from 2002 to 2010. His role as Chief led to the literal resurgence of the tribal nation. Over a decade later, his influence inspired director Martin Scorsese to make major changes to the script for “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

“Historically, Hollywood has never really taken the time to get the accuracy of the Indigenous perspective,” Chief Gray said.

Scorsese moves Leonardo DiCaprio from good guy to bad guy after Osage meeting

Along with the fiction film “Predator,” which showcases Comanche people as lead actors, “Killers of the Flower Moon” went through a process to consult with tribal leaders to provide the most culturally appropriate retelling of the events as possible. But the consultation with Osage Nation didn’t materialize out of thin air. And before the last few years, Indigenous people were hardly ever consulted, if at all.

“The Indigenous people were kind of secondary characters in their own stories. It was very difficult to have confidence because the book focuses on the birth of the FBI. There was reason to believe the FBI would be the dominant character,” Chief Gray explained.

Instead of films like “Last of the Mohicans,” “Dances with Wolves,” and “Little Big Man,” Chief Gray wanted Scorsese’s film to avoid the “White savior” archetype.

Leonardo DiCaprio in “Killers of the Flower Moon.” (Screenshot / trailer)

So, in the fall of 2019, a group of Osage people gathered together to express their concerns with Scorsese himself. Thanks to an Osage lawyer who sent a carefully crafted letter to Scorsese asking for a meeting, “he listened,” Chief Gray said.

Following the rewrite, Leonardo DiCaprio’s lead character role was moved from being an FBI agent to being a man who infiltrated an Osage family in order to kill, steal and destroy.

“By moving the main character to that role, it brought the Osage side of the story close to the heart of the film, where before it was just from the FBI’s point of view,” Chief Gray said.

The roaring and racist ’20s

The period directly before the “reign of terror” against the Osage people in Fairfax, Oklahoma, and the city-sanctioned racist attack on Black Wall Street just a few dozen miles south in Tulsa, exploded with a series of racist attacks against Black communities across the country.

While Black Americans were experiencing a Harlem Renaissance with a boom in music, art and intellectualism, White mobs were foaming at the mouth for violence.

Dubbed by historians as the “Red Summer,” White mobs attacked mostly Black communities in over two dozen cities across the U.S.

“Many Whites feared that the return of tens of thousands of Black veterans, with experience living abroad and, more significantly, having received military training, would be unwilling to resubmit to traditional political and social subjugation in the U.S.”

according to the National World War II Museum.

Parallels between Osage murders and Tulsa Race Massacre

For Chief Gray, the parallels between the two deadly events are clear as water.

When it comes to his own great grandfather, “They just took him out into the country, got him drunk and shot him. The only reason they got caught was because it was on allotment land, where the federal government had jurisdiction to prosecute.”

Similarly, scores of Black men, women and children, including famous surgeon Dr. A.C. Jackson, were shot at point-blank range by angry White jealous of their freedom and limited prosperity.

“I will never forget the violence of the White mob when we left our home,” Tulsa Race Massacre survivor Viola Ford Fletcher testified to Congress in 2021. “I still see Black men being shot, Black bodies lying in the street, I still smell smoke and see fire.”

The oldest known living survivor of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, “mother” Viola Ford Fletcher, left, speaks with Vice President Kamala Harris. (Courtesy of: Dr. Tiffany Crutcher )

And for decades, despite some Massacre survivors seeking justice from the beginning, many survivors were fearful to speak out. Chief Gray said it was the same for his own family regarding the Osage murders.

“It was common to try to put it out of your minds and move on with your life because as mom once said, ‘I don’t know what good will come from bringing it up again’,” Chief Gray told The Black Wall St. Times.

Jim Gray’s impact on the Osage Nation

Serving as Chief of the Osage Nation from 2002 to 2010, Chief Gray expressed gratitude and pride for the accomplishments he made during his time in office.

One of his major accomplishments included ensuring the Osage Nation would remain whole for the next generations to come. When the U.S. government divided up Osage land in 1906, they took a roll of Osage people and gave them each parcels of land with rights to the minerals underneath. That is how the Osage became so rich once oil was discovered.

Yet when Chief Gray took office in 2002, only 9 original members from that list were still alive.

“That was a blessing and a curse for our people in a way because it set a deadline for when we weren’t gonna exist anymore. Those were the only Osages they recognized,” Chief Gray said.

His administration petitioned Congress, and in 2004, President Bush signed a new law allowing the Osage Nation to rewrite its constitution and determine their own membership. Thanks to Chief Gray’s efforts, the number of Osage members rose from 4,000 to 24,000.

Perhaps most significantly, his administration led the majority of a legal battle over mineral rights revenue. The U.S. government settled with the Osage Nation for nearly $400 million after they were able to prove the U.S. had been underpricing their oil for a century.

Since then, the tribal nation has devoted millions to higher education, healthcare and cultural and language preservation for its people.

Pushing back against the anti-history crusade

Ultimately, Chief Gray isn’t asking for much. He just wants people to be inspired to learn more about his people and about the history from which we all spring.

“Let’s do the cathartic effort to make peace with it in a way that brings honor to those that lost their lives in those days and build a stronger community with the knowledge of that past and a dedication not to repeat it,” he said.

As Oklahoma Supt. Ryan Walters prepares for a potential state takeover of TPS, and as other states like Texas, Florida and Arkansas continue to attack public education and access to history, Chief Gray wants us all to keep fighting for truth and reconciliation.

“There’s an effort to push that back, and we just have to keep going forward and use the attention we’re getting on a national level to achieve the local goals that we know are possible. We have allies. We just need for everyone to step forward and do the right thing.”

Deon Osborne was born in Minneapolis, MN and raised in Lawton, OK before moving to Norman where he attended the University of Oklahoma. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Strategic Media and has...

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