Fifth Place Writing – Features

Ashton Slaughter

Fifth Place
Oklahoma State University of Missouri
$1,000 Scholarship

Marty and the Osages: A journey of trust, friendship and making of ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

By Ashton Slaughter

Members of the Osage Tribe didn’t know any better, so they decided to write a letter.

To Martin Scorsese.

With Scorsese, a filmmaking legend, set to direct “Killers of the Flower Moon,” adapting David Grann’s bestselling book under the same title, their community was going to be under an inescapable spotlight. Researchers were coming into Gray Horse (also known as Grayhorse), some 54 miles northeast of Stillwater, on the land where their relatives were murdered in masses during the Reign of Terror — nearly 100 years ago — and beginning to interview members of the tribe. Cameras and movie sets were expected to materialize shortly.

The trauma, the unhealed wounds, the “what if” thoughts of their lineage. These were swirling in the minds of tribal members, and filming hadn’t even begun.

So, unsettled members of the community gathered and discussed, having more questions than answers. How would not only their people, but also their relatives be portrayed? Was Scorsese going to handle the film with care? Is this film going to be like the majority — inaccurate and offensive toward Native Americans?

After great discussion, community members decided to pen a letter to the Oscar-winning director, expressing their concerns for the film and — notably — their interest in meeting with him to better grasp what he was aiming to do when telling this sensitive, horrendous part of history, hoping that he wouldn’t cast them aside or stereotype them like they had been many times prior.

What the Osage Nation didn’t know was “Mr. Scorsese” would become “Marty” and he and the rest of the cast and crew would devote themselves to telling the Osages’ story their way, something the tribe felt had rarely been done.

A business relationship blossomed into an unbreakable bond between the two groups as both leaned on each other to depict how members of the Osage were murdered because of greed.

Their trauma became heard, their pain was felt and their trust was restored.



Most Osage families don’t talk about the era that’s become known as the Reign of Terror, or most of their history, really.

The Osage didn’t choose the oil-guzzling land they eventually lived on; they were forced to move there. Before the oil deposits were discovered on what was considered to be worthless land, the Osage had already moved several times, always leaving at the desire of someone else.

The land that President Thomas Jefferson purchased from the French in 1803, the Territory of Louisiana, was riddled with members of the tribe. They had been there since the 17th century, but were demanded to lose their land which spanned from the Arkansas River to the Missouri River. This led to the tribe planting its roots in Kansas, where it remained until 1870, when it was forcefully removed, leaving the Osages searching for a new homeland.

The Osage purchased and settled on 1.5 million acres in Indian Territory (modern-day Oklahoma), and after the federal government organized the land run of 1893, members of the tribe were allotted 657 acres each.

In 1907, each of the 2,229 Osage members on the tribal rolls was given what was known as a “headright.” A headright contained one’s land and mineral value, which ultimately became a premium. Tribal members knew oil deposits were on their land but couldn’t fathom it would place them as the richest people per capita in the world.

It did, however, and being wealthy became the norm in the Gray Horse, Fairfax, Hominy and surrounding areas in Northeast Oklahoma.

This led to a guardianship system, where non-Osage were tasked with managing the money of full-blooded Osage members who were automatically deemed “incompetent.” Osage who weren’t full-blooded needed a certificate of “competency” or else they’d be assigned a guardian, too.

The headright system led to greed, sparking the string of murders that made up the Reign of Terror, a time when local white people targeted and killed Osage members in search of inheriting their riches.

One Osage who grew up not hearing about the murders until her teenage years was Margo Gray, whose great-grandfather, Henry Roan, was murdered during the Reign of Terror. Roan was close friends with William Hale, who was the mastermind behind the killings — Roan’s included.

“I knew growing up my dad’s parents were not alive, my mom’s parents were not alive. I just thought, ‘Life happens,’” Gray said.

While her friends would go visit their grandparents, she never questioned the absence of her own. Not until her second-oldest brother told her and her younger brother about the murders. She was in shock and questioned her parents, specifically her mother, that night, asking why she had never been told.

What she didn’t know, was that not only had her great-grandfather been murdered, but so too her grandmother (on her mom’s side), Grace Roan, who died in a “car accident” where two cars ran her off the road.

Her story hits closer to home, yes, but this is a sentiment many Osage families share. It’s not something they talk about freely.

But with Scorsese coming to their backyard, it became something they couldn’t escape.


Wilson Pipestem, a lawyer and Osage who remains close to the tribe, rallied his community together for a meeting.

Pipestem consumed all the chatter. Some excitement, some displeasure for the film’s arrival.

With informal conversations happening among the Osage, he knew getting everyone together in one setting would be the most beneficial for figuring out what their next step could be. Despite not having a leadership position in the tribe, Pipestem stepped up because someone needed to take the lead.

When the group met at the Fairfax Senior Citizens Center in October 2019 and Pipestem started the meeting.

“We got a tornado coming right at us,” Pipestem said. “And we can see it; it’s coming right at us. The question is: What are we going to do about it? Are we going to just let it come? Are we going to just try to talk about what it is and what we can do about it? It’s coming whether we like it or not.”

Soon, a positive, thought-provoking conversation broke out with members of the community, leading to the decision to write a letter to Scorsese.

Pipestem was given the responsibility of drafting it, writing:

“To Martin Scorsese and the makers of The Killers of the Flower Moon: we are the Gray Horse Osage people, and we descend from five bans that moved here from our former reservation in Kansas to the Gray Horse area, and we’re concerned about the depiction of our relatives in the film you’re going to make, and we’re concerned about stereotypes like drunk Indians and rich Osages. We want to put food on the table and talk about it,” he said.

More than 100 tribal members from Gray Horse signed the letter and it was passed off to Mary Ann Bauer, a woman who had been doing research in the community, who told Pipestem she would get it to “Marty.”

She did, and a couple weeks later, Emma Koskoff, a producer for “Killers of the Flower Moon,” delivered the good news to Pipestem. Scorsese wanted to accept their invitation.

This led to another meeting, where members of the Gray Horse community outlined what they wanted to emerge from the dinner.

Someone asked during the meeting what would happen if an uninvited someone — a non-Gray Horse resident or non-Osage — came to the dinner. Jerry Shaw, a highly involved Osage man who died this past November, said he was taught to put food on the table when something important needed to be discussed.

“If somebody comes and they’re hungry, we need to feed them,” he said.

The group listened and prepared food for whoever came. No unexpected visitors appeared, yet if they did, a plate was waiting for them. That’s the Osage way.


A line of luxury cars pulled up to Wakon Iron Hall on a 2019 November night, on the same land where the Osage drove luxury vehicles of their own nearly a century ago.

Before multiple black SUVs drove up, a lively, excited Osage crowd awaited Scorsese’s arrival. They were joking about how, knowing them, one of them would be likely to mob the filmmaker and ask for a picture.

Backing off this joke, they decided to break the barrier right away and line up single-file to shake hands with him as a way to introduce themselves.

So, when Scorsese and nine other people, including producers and other executives of the film, were taking in their first impressions of the tribe, they were met with a line of people awaiting their arrival. A line that wasn’t moving quickly.

“Mr. Scorsese was trying to have a conversation with everyone in line,” Pipestem said with a laugh. “So he got there and was shaking hands with everybody, but he was having a conversation with each one of ‘em, and it was taking too long, and we had to say (to those who came with Scorsese), ‘Hey, can you tell Mr. Scorsese just to keep it moving?’”

Once Scorsese found his seat — appropriately at the head of the table — he couldn’t help but admit his feelings about the welcome he received.

“I’m overwhelmed; I wish my wife could be here,” Scorsese told the group. “They told me we were gonna have this dinner, but I didn’t understand what this was gonna be.”

As the cooks began to place Native food on the table, Scorsese placed “little tiny dabs” from three different bowls on his plate. After taking a bite of each, he began to heap spoonfuls onto his plate, fully immersing himself in the Osage dinner.

Some uncomfortable conversations were coming afterward, sure, but for now, this was a time for everyone to embrace each other’s company, which is what the Osage strive for when they place food on the table.

Shaw sat next to Scorsese, and the two found immediate common ground. When Scorsese cited how he wished his wife could be there, he mentioned how she had Parkinson’s disease. Shaw, too, had Parkinson’s, and the two talked about the challenges of living with the disease.

“They didn’t talk about “Raging Bull” or “Casino,” they talked about living with Parkinson’s and just generally visited, which is what you’re supposed to do when you put food on the table,” Pipestem said.

As the meal began to wind down, Pipestem stood and said a few words about why they felt like inviting Scorsese to dinner, expressing the concerns they had about the film.

One after another, Gray Horse community members began to stand up and talk about their lost relatives, some showing pictures and the regrets of missed relationships of a grandparent or another family member who was taken from their lives due to the Reign of Terror.

They wanted their relatives to be depicted as people, something they were often not seen as in film, and they wanted to avoid the “stereotypical Hollywood way” when portraying them.

All they were asking for was engagement. They simply wanted to have upfront conversations with Scorsese and know what he was planning to create.

At the end of the dinner, Scorsese asked to say a few words, stood, and reassured the tribal members that he would be there for them.

“If you want engagement, you’re going to get tired of seeing me,” he said. “And the answer is, yes, I will be here, and I will listen to you. And I promise you, I’m going to make you a film that you’re proud of.”


Osage Nation Congress Assistant Clerk Jordan Davis had no interest in being in the cast.

Davis’ friends encouraged her to audition, but it wasn’t her thing, so she passed. Then, a casting call for children came out for background roles, and once again, her friends were throwing their hats in the ring, submitting their children.

So she decided to send some pictures of her son, Raith, who’s 4 now but was 2 at the time. She went out to their front yard, snapped a couple of photos of him running around, and called it good. However, she heard parents were taking their kids to get professional headshots taken.

“Well, god, my kid ain’t gonna get it,” Davis said, remembering the moment.

A second casting call came out. This time, for a part.

The casting crew wanted the child to be light-skinned, and have light hair and blue eyes. Immediately, everyone knew this was perfect for Cowboy Burkhart — the son of Ernest and Mollie Burkhart (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone) — because he was known for having the lightest skin of his siblings.

Raith didn’t fit these guidelines. He had long, dark hair and dark skin, but he fit the age range, and she had already taken the pictures, so she submitted him for that, too.

A few months passed, and after listening to the voicemail left from a California phone number, which turned out to be Rene Haynes, one of the casting directors of the film, Davis was informed that they were interested in Raith despite him not fitting the description.

With COVID surging during casting, Haynes sent Davis a four-page packet describing videos that she had to take of her son.

Again, others who got similar packets went the professional route, but Davis was working with the resources she had.

“I’m just over here with my iPhone, making these videos,” she said.

She sent them in and received positive feedback. The casting department was all in. It wanted him, asking too if he had any siblings, which he did, a younger brother, Roanin, who also fit the age description it needed.

More videos, another packet and a submission followed with a few weeks of silence. But eventually, Haynes called Davis, saying she was going to submit the videos to Adam Somner, an executive producer, who could then pass them along to Scorsese.

Ten days later, she got a call from Haynes saying they wanted her younger son, Roanin, now 3, and not the older son in a part.

Once filming began, her son was primarily in scenes with Gladstone, DiCaprio or both. When on the set, the “very respectful” cast and crew would ask questions and Davis’ opinion on certain things.

“Are you Osage? How do you feel about this? How do you feel about that? Does this blanket look right,’” they asked Davis. “I thought that they carried themselves real well for not knowing, which means they did their research and obviously consulted with other Osages.”

For Roanin to be comfortable with DiCaprio and Gladstone, in particular, they had to interact before they ever shot a scene together. Gladstone bought toys for Roanin and always reminded him of her ring.

“I remember her always saying, ‘When you see me, I will look different, but I want you to remember me. I’ll have different clothes on, my hair will be different, and my voice will sound different.’ And of course, he’s a baby; he doesn’t know, but she would still try to tell him those things,” Davis said. “She had a ring, and she would hold it on her chest like this, and she would say, ‘This is my ring. I may look different. I may sound different, but I will always have this ring on.’”

For Davis, someone whose great-great-grandfather was one of the original 2,229 Osage allottees, having her son be a part of “history” is special.

She, like everyone else, had concerns. She didn’t pick up the book originally. She had doubts about how the film would be carried out. Now, though, she’s hoping her son appreciates broadcasting their history to millions of people one day.

“Maybe just the strength to talk about it. I don’t know; I haven’t really thought about it,” Davis said, beginning to cry. “Maybe just the courage to say, ‘Hey, I was in this movie, and this is what it’s about, and this is what happened to our people.’”


DiCaprio went straight to the source; there was nobody better to ask.

When trying to uncover who got Roan’s land after his murder, he found Gray, whom he had gotten to know in prior interactions on set, and asked if she knew who took his land over, since the researchers for the film couldn’t figure it out.

Gray obliged, and after a couple of weeks of research and requesting documents, she got the “trove” of records and went back to “Leo.”

After doing the research, Gray put all the information on a flash drive for DiCaprio. He thanked her and said she could be compensated for her work. Gray turned it down, to his surprise.

“Why?” he asked.

“I want one favor,” Gray said, “I want to be in the courtroom scene. I want to be in there when I know that these people are going to jail. Even though I know that in real life, I want to be in there.”

DiCaprio made it happen.

“He’s a man of his word,” Gray said.

She made the courtroom scene to witness those behind the Reign of Terror are getting tried for their crimes.

DiCaprio and Gray formed a friendship. In June, the two saw each other and exchanged congratulatory remarks on the film.

“I said, ‘You did it, this movie,’ and he said, ‘We did it.’”

Scorsese and Gray became close, too. Gray joined a 20-person screening in New York City, where she was flown with her siblings to view a private showing of the film with the acclaimed director.

He’s close to her family. But he’s close with many Osage families because he treats them as such, too.

“A lot of people will come say an Osage word for grandfather or uncle and address Martin like that, and he knows what it means, and he just smiles, and he’ll clutch his heart when he hears that,” Gray said.


Things aren’t all that different, even a near-century later.

The Osage aren’t being murdered in masses for their land. Money-hungry white people aren’t lingering around their tribe. But the non-Osage own an estimated 26% of headrights today.

In 1978, Congress passed a law regarding inheriting headrights, prohibiting an Osage from transferring a headright to a non-Osage.

Until then, headrights were passed around and ripped away from Osage families. The Osage Minerals Council is striving to get these headrights back to rightful tribal families.

Those who have a headright, though, aren’t treated all that differently than their relatives.

“My headright money that I get, I’m (categorized) as an incompetent Indian. They have to handle my money for me,” John Shaw, Jerry’s son, said. “It’s put into an account for all of this, and we have to go to the agency — kind of like a bank — and get our money.

“Still, to this day, that’s still kinda going on to a certain extent.”

The guardianship system is no more, but the federal government still considers members of the Osage incompetent. The Osage say heavy federal overreach on their minerals is keeping the tribe away from the estimated 13 billion barrels of oil in the ground on their land, too.

Many Osages are unhealed. Some hated the book and wished the film had never been made.

Others are healing through this process, for the world is going to see their story, hear their language, and see their people in a film about them.

“This is definitely going to a moment in history that’s associated with our people, probably forever, a movie of this magnitude, so many people all over the world will see the Osage language being spoken in such an elaborate recreation of that time period, so much heightened emotion within complex relationships, I think that’s pretty powerful,” said Braxton Redeagle, the Osage Nation Language Department Director, who also served as a language consultant for the film.

“It’s powerful, the way that the movie unfolds, but it’s powerful for our language to reach that many ears. It’s the kind opportunity that you don’t ever really get. It’s kind of hard to really put it into words. I think most people are going to have that feeling, unable to put this experience into words.”

“History” is a word the Osage continued to mention. Being a part of “history.” Their history, in the public eye, has been tainted through what they believe have been poor depictions of their people.

Now the outside perspective will change, they hope, thanks to Scorsese. And a project the magnitude of “Killers of the Flower Moon.”

The film has also changed people inside the tribe for the better. Although the lost lives of relatives, the money and land stolen, the generational trauma the Reign of Terror created cannot be undone, this is a stepping stone for the tribe, whose healing process can accelerate because of a letter, Osage food and a fellowship between their people and Scorsese, which will be everlasting.

“I couldn’t go to Gray Horse without feeling weight on my chest,” Gray said. “…I have this trauma that now is going to be told, and I’ve been actually healed by knowing that this has happened.

“Because now I don’t have this heaviness; now I know that people are gonna know.”


This article, in its original form, can be found here: View Story