Allison Herrera: What does a brighter future for you look like in this town?
Owen Atchison: I think it's hard to think of a future when people haven't really accepted or acknowledged the past. When I was growing up here, I am Osage, and I didn't know about the murders until David Grann's book came out.
Shannon Shaw Duty: They didn't want to talk about it, and we never understood, but we do now.
Damon Waters: Then the people who are non-Osage allotter either didn't know or they were complicit at the time.
Joe Connor: It was a nice-looking little town. There was lots of money. A lot of the money was, of course, siphoned off from Osages and built by white people.
Female Speaker 3: They didn't even really consider us human the way they killed us off and poisoned us. Maybe that movie is the beginning to some healing.
Joe Connor: How can you learn from this and encourage all of us to be better people?
Kai Wright: It's Notes From America, I'm Kai Wright. Welcome to the show. A special shout out to listeners joining us for the first time this week from KMUW in Wichita, Kansas. Great to have you in the community. Martin Scorsese's latest epic film hit theaters this weekend. Killers of the Flower Moon gives the Hollywood treatment to a very real and painful history. The film tells the story of the murder of a huge number of Osage citizens in the early 20th century. During that time, the Osage were among the wealthiest people in the world because of oil underneath their reservation. White people in Oklahoma wanted access to that wealth, and they began to target the Osage in a sprawling conspiracy to steal it through marriage and murder.
The film is based on a book by journalist David Grann, which was itself a sensation when it was published five years ago. It's part true crime, part history, part incredible narrative nonfiction that is now likely an Oscar vehicle for some of Hollywood's biggest names. This week, in partnership with our friends at KOSU in Oklahoma, we're going to ask Osage citizens how they're processing this moment, what it means to have this difficult history excavated and dramatized for the whole country, for the world. What about that feels useful and healing, and what doesn't?
I'm joined first by Damon Waters, who is an Osage and Ponca citizen. He's an actor and filmmaker working on his own documentary about Fairfax, Oklahoma, where much of the story takes place. Damon is one of many Osage citizens who were involved in Killers of the Flower Moon in one way or another, and his own family was touched by the history the film depicts. Damon, thanks for coming on the show.
Damon Waters: Hi. Thanks for having me.
Kai Wright: You had a role in the film, as I said, let's start there. What'd you do?
Damon Waters: Well, originally I was up for-- let me backtrack one quick second. When I was a young kid they came for The Last of the Mohicans to have extras, and I got selected, but I missed the phone call and so I missed out on that movie, and years had gone by and whenever they said we're going to do Killers of Flower Moon, I was like, "Well, that's great, I'm Osage." I went to be an extra for that, and they pulled me out of line and they asked me if I'd read some lines, and I had never really done any acting before. I said, "Sure, let's go," and they said they really liked me and they kept me on this roster, and then COVID hit and the movie got put on hold and it came back and they called me and I was still up for a speaking role for a little bit but I ended up not getting it, but then they had me do background work for Modern Osage Man for about 31 days I filmed on the movie during the summer of 2021.
Kai Wright: Modern Osage Man.
Damon Waters: Yes. I made a few scenes. I'm in the trailer in the black-and-white scene. I'm the golfer.
Kai Wright: [laughs] From what you saw, did it feel like it's really the case that Martin Scorsese engaged meaningfully with Osage people in telling your story? Certainly, as a viewer--
Damon Waters: Oh, absolutely.
Kai Wright: Tell me about that.
Damon Waters: Yes, absolutely. I know that Martin came to Gray Horse and came to some dinners way before production started on the movie to meet with Chief Standing Bear and a lot of my family that lives up in that area. I live down in Oklahoma City, about 2 hours away, but he came and worked very closely with the nation to make sure that the story that he was going to tell was the story that the Osage my tribe would approve of.
Kai Wright: What reaction are you hearing from Osage who have seen the film? I imagine it's a wide range, but any throughlines you're picking up?
Damon Waters: Mostly positive. There are some that have some concerns about it still being told from the perspective of Ernest Burkhart and not necessarily from the Osage viewpoint, and I can certainly understand that and I understand why that came across in Martin's movie, but I still think that it's important that the story itself got out there. I know that there's majority of us are behind the movie and really enjoyed the movie, especially those of us who worked on the movie.
Kai Wright: Tell us about your grandmother Rose. She is actually part of this history, right?
Damon Waters: Yes. My grandmother Rose is mentioned in the book Killers of the Flower Moon, and for a time they tried to blame Anna Brown's murder on my grandmother.
Kai Wright: Anna Brown is one of the main characters, not characters, people depicted in the story, and in the nonfiction book, Anna is-- her murder is one of the things that sets in motion the FBI's investigation of the story. So your grandmother was accused of committing that murder?
Damon Waters: Yes. Over jealousy of a boyfriend is what they tried to blame it on for a little while. There's another book that was a precursor to Killers of the Flower Moon, it's called The Osage Murders, and it was written earlier in the '90s. They go into a little bit more detail about it, but my grandmother was accused because of a small child said that they overheard her say this. Like a five-year-old child apparently was the one who said, "Hey, we heard Rose Osage say she killed him." That's how that started, but it's briefly mentioned in the book, but they don't go into the detail in Killers of the Flower Moon.
Kai Wright: It kind of, to me, suggests what you're describing there just truly how much these murders permeated society at that time that it's five-year-old kids were talking about it. Growing up was this history that you talked about? Was this history that your family talked about?
Damon Waters: Well, yes, but not when I was so young. As I got older, my dad would tell me a lot of the stories, especially when the book that I mentioned previously, The Osage Murders was released and we all had a copy and my mom made sure that we read it. My dad was born in 1935, and my grandmother passed away three months after that, and my father was taken out of custody from the tribe and put into the custody of a family in Barnsdall, which is a nearby town on the Osage Reservation, and he didn't grow up in traditional Osage ways. He grew up with a caucasian family.
A lot of my life I grew up same way, I didn't grow up on the reservation, but I've always been wanting to get back to meeting my family that I know I have there, and I haven't spent as much time there as I wanted to, but then through the course of this movie going back, and I was able to step back in time and envision what it must have been like to be able to see my grandma walking around the town of Fairfax or Pawhuska wearing those clothes from the 1920s and seeing all-- A lot of the people that are on the movie are related to me, cousins. I just envisioned being back in time, being able to talk to my grandma. I was very close to my grandma on my mother's side, so I've always missed out on having my grandma on my father's side.
Kai Wright: What was that like for you then to be fictionally walking back? It must be a weird experience to think about this is a real-life thing you have longed for and you're experiencing it in a fictional setting.
Damon Waters: Yes, but when I was on set, there was times where I didn't see any of the camera crew, I didn't see any of the things were around. I just focused on the people that were there, and it was very emotional sometimes. There were sometimes I was overtaken by the emotion. My grandmother actually was deceased from an opiate overdose. This book focuses on one subset of murders, but there's a lot of things that happen that aren't really mentioned in this book, and this goes on to 1935. My grandmother, there was a doctor that just came door to door and would inject Osage people with opiate to get them-- The doctor would get them over their sickness, and so my dad was born addicted to opiate and he had to go. He almost didn't make it as a small child, and then my grandmother passed away shortly after that.
Kai Wright: The official federal investigation says 24 people were murdered, and that's the subject of this film. Many Osage point out that the number is a far undercount. That's what you're talking about here, that this went on in all kinds of different ways.
Damon Waters: Yes.
Kai Wright: How much is that idea discussed even in the present tense? David Grann who wrote the original nonfiction version of Killers of the Flower Moon published an op-ed in The New York Times this weekend, they pointed out, Oklahoma is one of the states that's passed laws restricting what can be taught in classrooms around race and sexuality and has said that teachers have told them that Killers of the Flower Moon is one of the books that people are scared to talk about. Do you hear that? Are you seeing that too in Oklahoma in general, that this is history that people even in present tense can't learn?
Damon Waters: Yes. Whenever I talk to people about the story, people are flabbergasted. They had no idea that this had gone on much like Black Wall Street that happened simultaneously almost. It's a part of our history that--
Kai Wright: In Tulsa.
Damon Waters: Yes, in Tusla, which is about an hour away from Osage Reservation. It is something that the state has always tried to keep under the rug. They don't want this to get out. I cannot believe that the book is banned. There's a lot of books that are banned that I just cannot believe, but especially this one. Addie Roanhorse said, "You can ban the book, but you can't ban Martin Scorsese." The story's going to make it out one way or another.
Kai Wright: Yes. This is the power of Hollywood as it is difficult to contain once unleashed. We need to take a break. I'm Kai Wright and I'm talking with Osage citizen Damon Waters about the new film Killers of the Flower Moon and the real history it dramatizes. Coming up, we will visit Fairfax, Oklahoma to meet Osage citizens who are trying to hold onto this painful history, to insist that the world learn it and through their eyes, but also who are trying to move forward to something new. We'll hear from Fairfax after a break.
Kai Wright: Welcome back. It's Notes from America. I'm Kai Wright. Martin Scorsese's new film, Killers of the Flower Moon opened in theaters this weekend. It tells the story of an early 20th-century plot to murder dozens of Osage citizens in order to steal the wealth drawn from oil on their land. This is an actual thing that happened in actual history in a real place, Fairfax, Oklahoma. We've partnered this week with our friends at KOSU in Oklahoma, and their indigenous affairs reporter Allison Herrera, spent time in Fairfax asking Osage people about the future, and she's going to take us there too. Here's Allison.
Allison Herrera: We're walking down the main street of Fairfax, Oklahoma with Dr. Joe and Carol Conner.
Joe Connor: Probably the center of town.
Allison Herrera: Joe's an Osage citizen who grew up in a small town nearby, called Grainola. His great-grandfather, William Conner, was one of the first lawyers for the Osage Nation when they were resisting the process of allotment in the late 1900s. His family is steeped in Osage history. Today, he and his wife Carol, are giving me a tour of Fairfax.
Joe Connor: Any historic photos taken of this town focus right on this block that we're standing on right now because it's the center. Right up here this--
Allison Herrera: It's a small town with a population of about 1,100.
Carol Conner: There's a lot of ranch trucks that are passing.
Allison Herrera: The cars they usually see are ranch trucks. A few years ago, it really started catching their attention when they would see cars parked in front of the historic Tall Chief Theater.
Carol Conner: I would be driving down our main street, which is mostly vacant of cars, and there would be a Volvo or a Lexus. I would pull up next to them and say, "What are you doing here? Did you read the book?" They would say, "How did you know that?" "Well, duh, there's no one else on the street, and you're in a Lexus from Minnesota." [chuckles] They would say, "I read this book and it was so touching that I just thought, I have to go there and see this." This happened over and over and over. Many of those people have actually returned to our town. Many subscribed to The Fairfax Chief so they can see what's going on. They all came to get some understanding of how these murders could have happened and what's going on now.
Allison Herrera: The book was David Grann's nonfiction account Killers of the Flower Moon, about the brutal murders of Osage citizens for their wealth and land. Joe and Carol realized they couldn't stop and talk to everyone. With money from the nonprofit they run called the Fairfax Community Foundation, they decided to do something about it.
Joe Connor: I basically created this exhibit giving people a background of who the Osage people were, how we got here, what led up to the murders.
Allison Herrera: He didn't want to create an exhibit about the murders. People coming here already knew about that because they read the book. He wanted to tell people the why.
Joe Connor: Also importantly, what was the impact of those murders on this community afterwards.
Allison Herrera: To understand the impact, people have to know what exactly happened to so many Osages. The official death toll is around 24, but many Osages suspect it's higher. Even though the murders began over 100 years ago, they are still not widely discussed in Fairfax. When David Grann published Killers of the Flower Moon, more people got interested in this dark period of Osage history, but some people in Fairfax didn't know, and they didn't want to talk about it. Carol realized this after putting an item in The Fairfax Chief, a newspaper she and Joe publish that's been around since the 1920s.
Carol Conner: Small-town newspapers, no one ever unsubscribed. They die, but they don't unsubscribe. The week that we had David Grann at the Tall Chief Theater to sign books, I had 12 people unsubscribe from the newspaper.
Allison Herrera: A few years later, attitudes began to change. Martin Scorsese signed on to direct the movie, and that was exciting. More importantly, his film crew actually listened to Osages about their concerns for the movie.
Joe Connor: I was part of that 150 or so Osages that met with Scorsese and talked to him personally about making sure that we weren't stereotyped, that it was a challenge for him because he doesn't know anything about our culture, and he doesn't know about this particular time in our culture, which was a transition period between very traditional people who were living pretty simple lives to suddenly millionaires in the '20s, the Roaring '20s. We were a part of that as a blending those cultures. Getting that right in a movie is going to be difficult.
Allison Herrera: After that conversation, the production hired hundreds of osages to be extras in the movie and work behind the scenes. The people I've talked to felt committed. This wasn't going to be made about them but with them. Cultural and language consultants were hired and excitement was palpable. Joe and Carol Conner wanted to take that momentum of the film and run with it. At the same time though, Joe wondered if it was history repeating itself. He wanted to make sure Osages were going to get something out of it.
Joe Connor: Okay. Is this another example of us being exploited? In this case, what's being taken is our history, and it's going to be used by other people for their own wealth and their own personal gain. Will they take that money and build houses on the French Riviera and Hollywood and leave us this derelict, abandoned wreck of a town here where they got the money? Will that happen again? We hope not. We hope that they will have an epiphany and say, "Oh, yes, we probably ought to leave this place a little better than we found it."
Allison Herrera: Joe and Carol seized the moment. They had a vision of where to start if they wanted to improve the community and make it so much more than a place only associated with tragedy.
Joe Connor: We're standing right in front of the Tall Chief Theater built by Alex Tallchief that was--
Allison Herrera: Right after the murders in the late 1920s, Osage citizen Alex Tallchief built one of the most recognizable structures in town, the Tall Chief Theater. He built it in honor of his two daughters, Osage ballerinas, Marjorie and Maria Tallchief. Its red and gold marquee pops out among this small main street that has a number of buildings that are vacant or are falling in. The Tall Chief Theater also needs some love. Its roof was damaged after a recent tornado. The theater was built to improve the mood of the community after the murders, and saving it is a passion project for Joe Connor.
Joe Connor: We see this as an investment in the future of not only just Osages but also the entire community. That's why it's important to us is to make sure that legacy not just the murder legacy but the resilience and the response to try to uplift us.
Allison Herrera: Osage citizen Danette Daniels is also trying to uplift the community. She was raised here. She's opening a museum gift and coffee shop in a building she bought and renovated.
Danette Daniels: I want to be part of bringing Fairfax back, revitalizing Fairfax.
Allison Herrera: Daniels will be selling books about Osage culture, Osage broadcloth blankets that can be seen in the movie, and eventually, she wants to give tours of the building's second floor.
Danette Daniels: This is real in the movie. This is real [crosstalk].
Allison Herrera: That's where the two doctors, the Shoun brothers, allegedly poisoned Osages. I asked Danette how she felt about offering tours to people about this terrible subject.
Danette Daniels: Well, it's history. It's just the truth, and people need to understand the truth.
Allison Herrera: What does it feel like to own part of this history?
Danette Daniels: It feels good, especially as an Osage person. Yes, taking it back. This was built with Osage money. It's pretty sweet.
Allison Herrera: A lot of Fairfax was built with Osage money, and some of those families, they still live in this community. For Danette Daniels and the Connors, they want to be part of making a memorial to the victims of this tragedy but also revitalize this town so people can heal and move forward. They want the Tall Chief Theater to again, hold plays and movie screenings and maybe turn part of the building into studios for artists. It's all part of a plan to uplift Fairfax and have residents here tell their own story.
Kai Wright: That was Allison Herrera, Indigenous affairs reporter for our partners at KOSU. She was reporting from Fairfax, Oklahoma. Joe Connor has passed since Allison spoke to him for this story. He survived by his wife, Carol, and many family members and friends. There are also many people still in Fairfax who share Joe's vision for the community, one of revitalization, investment, and growth. Damon Waters is one of those people, and he joins me again now to continue our conversation.
Damon, at the end of the story there that Allison was telling us, we heard from Danette, who was-- I hear her and Allison wrestling with this question of how do you take ownership of this history, but not let it dominate the future of this place? I wonder how much you're thinking about that general question.
Damon Waters: Yes. I will say that we know by time on the film, there was a day that we were on a break and we were actually filming in Fairfax. A lot of the movie was filmed in Pawhuska because Fairfax wasn't really capable of having the look that it had just because it's been run down in the state it's in. I looked around, and I saw all the different movie stars that were there around me, and all the money that was right here in front of me, how much these people were worth. I looked back down the street, and I can see abandoned houses, burned-down houses, empty houses, empty grocery stores. Now, we were on set. Everything looks really good in the vicinity, but all around there, and I thought how unfair it was going to be whenever Hollywood leaves this town again.
What a strange, almost a hundred years later, coincidence that we're still having this money here, and it's going away. I thought to myself that day, "I wish there was something I could do." I thought, "Well, if I could win the lottery, I'd come back here and buy some of these buildings and renovate them." That night, I had my picture taken by Carol Connor. I started to talk to her and get to know her. Then, after the movie wrapped, a few months later, I started a part-time career in acting and making movies that just opened up for me. I got a call that said, "Hey, Damon, will you direct a movie about the Tall Chief Theater in Fairfax? Would you be up for that?" If there's one thing I've learned, it's just to say yes to everything from this point on.
Kai Wright: That's right, Damon.
Damon Waters: Yes. I started my own production company called Billy George Productions, named after my dad, Billy George. I'm a software developer by trade for the last 20 years. I dipped into a little bit of my retirement money and started a production company, bought a lot of lights and microphones, and a nice camera. My documentary is almost done. It should be coming out this week. It's going to debut at the Circle Cinema, hopefully, there in Tulsa. I was trying to get it done before the Killers release, but there's just been some challenges, some personal challenges I've been going through.
Kai Wright: Wow. That's a lot.
Damon Waters: Yes. Since Joe passed away, a little bit of the tone of the film has changed. Joe, he was a real good friend to me, and it was very tough to hear of his passing.
Kai Wright: We're going to talk a little more about that here in a second. But listeners, we also want to hear from you for the rest of the hour, particularly if you're Osage. I think a lot of indigenous communities can probably relate to this question that folks are wrestling with. How are you holding on to the history, taking ownership of it in the way that Joe and Carol, and Damon are trying to do without letting it define the future? What's the balance there for you?
You can call or text us either way and if you're Osage, we'd also really love to hear your reaction to the film after seeing it, whatever it left you feeling or thinking. Your documentary that you're working on, it's also about the Tall Chief Theater. Who is Alex Tallchief? We heard him mentioned in the piece that Allison Herrera just brought us from Fairfax, but introduce us to Alex Tallchief
Damon Waters: Alex was one of the original allottee members of the Osage Nation. He was allottee, meaning that he was allotted a section of land from the government. My grandmother was one of those as well. After the murders had ceased, Bill Hale was put to prison. All the Osage, if they hadn't fled to either Colorado, they stayed inside their houses. They stayed inside their homes, and they didn't go anywhere. That still happens today, actually. There's a lot of Osage that just stay in their home. They don't want to be anywhere around the town. Alex built the--
Kai Wright: I'm sorry, just to make sure I'm understanding what you're saying, because of the trauma from it, they were like, "I'm just not going out here anymore. I'm going to hide."
Damon Waters: Exactly. Yes. Osages would keep some of their family just at home all the time. Alex built a theater as a place for us to have a place to get back together. Let's come back out and into the city, and let's come back out and get into the streets. Joe would always say, of course, he also built it to make some money, but he also built it just for us to all have a place to go in town. The theater was a great place for everyone. I think, in my movie, I have a cousin that talks about when he was a kid, that was the thing to do on Saturdays is to go to the Tall Chief Theater and see a matinee. I think that it's awesome now that here we are again, we're trying to get the theater back together to get everybody back out to support this town.
Kai Wright: What happened to the theater? Why does it need to be renovated, I guess, or why does it need to be revitalized? Why didn't it stay this vital thing that Alex was trying to create?
Damon Waters: I think there's quite a few reasons. I think, if I remember correctly, the last day that was opened was early '72, and the town had really dropped off. I heard when Halliburton left town, a lot of the employees and things had left the town just-- aside from all the murders that had happened, and aside from all the history that's happened there in Fairfax, I think the town just dwindled away.
Joe almost had the theater back up to a state where they were going to be able to renovate the inside. In 2016, a tornado comes through town, comes through the front door of the theater, goes right through, and blows the top of the roof up, and the roof is just all over the stage. It's completely missing, basically. That was a real setback for the plan to get it open.
Kai Wright: When you say that Osage just started staying in the house, how long did that go on, or is that still the case?
Damon Waters: There might be a few cases that still going on today. Yes, it happened a lot. Especially in the '80s, '90s, I think it was still happening. Not to say that all the Osages are like that or are doing that, but I think there was something that's really come to my knowledge lately as I'm an adult and wrestle with some of my own things was this generational trauma that's just happened and it still affects everybody's still there in our three cities Pawhuska, Hominy, and Gray Horse.
Kai Wright: You just keep carrying it. This is sadly familiar for a lot of communities of color that generational trauma that you're talking about. It's a too-common conversation. We need to take a break. I'm Kai Wright and I'm talking with Osage Citizen and filmmaker Damon Waters about the history that's dramatized in the new film Killers of the Flower Moon. It hit theaters this weekend and has already stirred a lot of conversation about how and why and for whom this history gets told.
Our phones are open for indigenous listeners in particular if you're Osage. What's your reaction to the film? More generally, how are you holding onto sometimes painful history, getting ownership of it without letting it define your future? What's your balance on that for you? We'll be right back.
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Kai Wright: Welcome back. It's Notes from America, I'm Kai Wright and we're talking about the painful history that's been dramatized in the new film Killers of the Flower Moon and about the future of the Oklahoma town where it is set. I'm joined by Damon Waters. He's an Osage citizen, an actor, and filmmaker who's part of a broader effort to invest in Fairfax and whose family the story touched.
Damon, can I ask you about the true crime sensation of it all? Certainly, in audio and podcasting true crime is the hot commodity. We heard Carol earlier in the show in Fairfax talking about the people driving up in their luxury automobiles. I don't know, how do you feel about the way people entering this history through a true crime lens?
Damon Waters: Well, I think it's great.
Kai Wright: All right. Oh, yes.
Damon Waters: I think it brings people to the town and that's one of the goals as to why we want to open the theater to capitalize on some of the revenue from tourism that's coming through the town. When you come through Fairfax, there's not really much to go there. There's streets the coffee shop, there's a barbecue joint and a grocery store and then the Tall Chief Theater, and then a gas station, of course. Just to see all those people come through. When I would come to town, there's always someone talking to Joe, and Joe was so good at telling stories and then meeting people. I would think when I first would ran into him with this group of people that these were his cousins or a friend. He's like, "Oh, no, those people just showed up and I just started talking to them", and they would follow Joe around all day. He would love to tell all the stories about everything.
Those are the people that are invested in this true crime and they want to know. Most people can't believe that this has happened and they've had people come from all over the world to this town so far and we're really hoping that based on the movie after the movie is released, that that is only going to further the tourism that comes to town.
Kai Wright: Tourism however they got there. I guess the theory is whatever was on your heart that brought you here, now you're here, and can we use that in some way to develop this place, I guess.
Damon Waters: Absolutely.
Kai Wright: One of the Osage language consultants on the film, on Killer and the Flower Moon was asked during the film premiere about how he felt about it. I want to play something he said because I thought it was just really interesting. He said he had some conflicted feelings and when he was asked by the Hollywood Reporter, he said, "Oh, I liked it." Also, the point of view was a little off. This is Christopher Cote.
Christopher Cote: As an Osage, I really wanted this to be from the perspective of Mollie and what her family experienced, but I think it would take an Osage to do that. Martin Scorsese not being Osage, I think he did a great job representing our people. This history is being told almost from the perspective of Ernest Burkhart and they give him this conscience and they depict that there's love but when somebody conspires to murder your entire family, that's not love. That's not love. That's just beyond abuse.
Kai Wright: That was Christopher Cote, I believe that's how you pronounce his last name who was one of the language consultants on the film. He is Osage. Damon, you mentioned this earlier that you had thoughts about the point of view it was shot from. What do you think about what he's saying? Does it matter to you whose point of view the movie came from?
Damon Waters: Well, I got to say I'm conflicted as well. I like the fact that the story is getting out there. I will say that my first day of filming, we went to the Drummond Ranch to film and I thought, "Well, why would we go to the Drummond Ranch to film? We have all this other Osage land everywhere else. Granted, the Drummonds do own a lot of land and I think you can hear a lot about how that came to be in the In Trust podcast by Bloomberg.
It is conflicting. It's great that the story is getting out there. The story is a story that needs to be told. It needs to be told so that these kinds of things don't get repeated. I think I mentioned a little bit earlier, I have the same viewpoint as Chris is that they gave Leonardo, the love of his character. When I always read the story, I just thought of him as a sinister guy and now he's coming across as maybe a little bit lovable. I took my daughter to watch the movie, the premiere with me the other day, and she leaned over and she goes, "Is he a good guy or a bad guy?"
Kai Wright: Oh, wow. That's so interesting.
Damon Water: I go, "Why don't you keep watching and tell me what you think it is? What you view him being."
Kai Wright: That's really fascinating. I struggled throughout with this when I watched it, I have to say. You have to expect this is going to be the case. It's Leonardo DiCaprio. He's the star of the film. He's going to have to have some complicated character and who knows? I don't know the history. Maybe this white man was in love with Mollie. I did appreciate the fact that it was just like an unflinching portrayal of the ways in which in our history, humans of all sorts but certainly white communities have rationalized horrific violence that you were able to see the way that the lead white characters and those people in real life rationalized what they were doing. That somehow was satisfying to me, but the interior lives of the Osage did feel a little flat, I have to say. How much do you feel like you got the interior lives of the Osage people in the movie?
Damon Waters: Well, I think Mollie could have got a little bit more screen time. I wish that maybe my grandma got a little screen time on there. She's mentioned in the book, I was always looking forward to maybe having a portrayal where she gets-- They talked to her about the murder a little bit. I certainly understand it and it's a great movie. Scorcese is one of my favorite filmmakers of all time. There's the part of me that just loves this as a Scorcese movie and there's a part of me as Osage citizen that says, "Well, it's good. It's good. I wish it could have been a little bit more of our viewpoint."
I think that's going to happen still. I think there's still talks of there's a book by Charles Red Corn called A Pipe for February that's mentioned a little bit in this movie and certainly referenced in the credits as some of the design that Martin took from but there's talk of that becoming either a series or a movie and Scorcese is going to produce it. It's a fictionalized account, but it's from the Osage viewpoint. It's basically, one foot in the past, one foot in the future how do we as a tribe go through this?
Kai Wright: We've mentioned Mollie a few times. She spurred the investigation in some way when two of her sisters were killed and she is in this history a bit of the heroine and that she went and demanded an investigation from the federal government. How is she remembered in Fairfax? Is she thought of as a heroic person in history or do people know about her?
Damon Waters: Well, a lot of them do now. My cousin, Owen, who we heard talking in the Allison's interview earlier, he's like, "I grew up in this town. I didn't even know any of this story until I was a teenager. Just growing up in Fairfax." I think mostly she's looked at as a sad figure. It's certainly heroic, certainly to make it through all that she did, but I think a lot of people just sympathize with her and her story. She watched her whole family get murdered all around her and the fact that she made it out through there is certainly something to be said about the will to survive of Mollie. I don't know if she's necessarily looked at as a heroic figure, but maybe after this movie, she will be.
Kai Wright: How much of this did you know before you went to work on this film and before you read the book? I know you had the story of your own grandmother, but how much of this history did you even know?
Damon Waters: There's lots of it that I didn't know. I certainly knew about the sisters, but I didn't know the detail. Part of that was just me being younger and not paying attention to things as a teenager or a young adult. As I got older, I really wanted to learn more about the history of my tribe and then some of these things that had happened. I was fascinated with the fact that my grandmother was in these stories. I did learn a lot about the sisters through the book but prior to that, I just knew of them. I didn't know a lot of the detail.
Kai Wright: Did you know about the wealth? I guess, because part of it is, we keep hearing this description in the course of our conversation of Fairfax now as this place I think Joe Connor in the earlier referred to the derelict and abandoned, words like that growing up, I guess you would've seen that. Did you know about the wealth that used to exist?
Damon Waters: Oh, yes. Well, stories from my dad, he would talk about how he always heard stories about his mom. The big car at the time was the Arrow Pacer, and they would buy the Arrow Pacer. They said that my grandma would fill the ashtray up and just leave it on the side of the road and buy another one. A little bit of that's depicted. They talk about that in the movie briefly, that apparently that was a thing. They didn't really care to upkeep the cars. The cars were so new to us. The money was so new to us. We just didn't really have, I think a real value of how some of us--
Not to say that that was the case for everyone but I think that that was just a hard thing to navigate as people coming into Oklahoma, we've been through some terrible times, and all of a sudden we have all this money. Okay, what do we do with it? Buy a car.
Kai Wright: I have to imagine the rage for the loss of that wealth thinking about where the town is today and what that wealth could be used for. Listeners, we can hear from you if you want to join this conversation, particularly if you are Osage or an indigenous listener. 844745Talk. That's 844-745-8255. Let's go to Alan in Westchester, who is not Osage but wants to chime in. Alan, welcome to the show.
Alan: Hello. How are you doing?
Kai Wright: Very well. What did you want to add?
Alan: I just found it to be great to hear new factual information about history, and hopefully, we could do more of this and no one has to feel stereotyped or feel like they're being depicted in a bad way because it's just the truth about what's taking place in history.
Kai Wright: Had you heard any of this history, Alan, before Killers of the Flower Moon?
Alan: No, no, not at all. When I saw the preview for the movie, I didn't know that it was based on facts. I just thought it was a movie with some interesting actors, but now listening to you guys, which I greatly appreciate, you can get the facts.
Kai Wright: Okay. Thank you for that, Alan. This is what we're talking about, Damon, is that it's one thing to have a book, it's another thing to have a Hollywood film to get people's attention. The subtext of a lot of this is like, every time there is a movie like this that deals with a difficult history, particularly for one of our communities that is often left out of Hollywood stories told by some white person is like, basically, did they get it right? Everybody wants to know, did they get it right? Just in the context of this film, what would that even mean for you? We've talked about it in some of the details, but getting it right, what does that mean for a film like this to you?
Damon Waters: Well, I'm an Osage citizen, but I can't say that I'm an expert on everything Osage, but I think they did it as close as they could. It's a great movie. You're certainly going to be entertained. It goes by really quickly for the three-and-a-half-hour runtime that it's. I don't know if you could ever get the story right, but I think it gets close enough. I think the fact that the story is out there and people are going to the theater to see it, and I think that's right.
Kai Wright: For you, it sounds like it has profoundly changed your life.
Damon Waters: Yes, it absolutely has. I remember as a kid going to Fairfax with my dad, and my dad would be like, "Ah, I got to run into Fairfax." We'd go and I would say, "Oh, I don't want to be in this town at all." Because it was just so abandoned and run down, there wasn't nothing to do as a kid. Then now coming back, I understand the importance of trying to get this town back to its glory day and it might not ever get there, but I think it's a town that deserves to be in the spotlight, it is a town that deserves to have all the glory that comes to it.
The revenue from tourism, I think is something that's not being able to be capitalized on because of the condition of the town. I feel such a sense of unfairness and I want to just bring some kind of justice back to this town. I feel like this is a start for us. Things are starting to happen. Some people are starting to help us out, and we're starting to revitalize the town, and I can't wait to see what this town's going to look like in 10 years.
Kai Wright: How about that? Just quickly to correct, earlier I mentioned Mollie Burkhart had two sisters. She had three sisters in total, and all of them died within five years. That's one family. That's the main family that's depicted in the movie. As you have told us, Damon, that is just the beginning of the death. We're talking about revitalizing the town. What about revitalizing the people? What is that going to look like? It sounds like you are going through a bit of a revitalization yourself from this history. What does it mean and what will it take to revitalize the Osage people, if that is even necessary? Help me think about that.
Damon Waters: Well, I'll say that that's something that Joe was good to speak on too, is just not just for the Osage people. I think the Osage people that are in town only make up 3% of the population. Only 9% of the town of Fairfax is indigenous. The rest is a mixture of Caucasian and African American. It's not predominantly an Osage town anymore, and Joe wants to bring it and Carol and myself and Owen, we want to just make this for the town. Certainly, we want the theater to be there for indigenous playwrights and movies to premiere and things because we're right there in the heart of the Osage Nation. The town itself is not predominantly Osage anymore.
It's a good question and it's something that's going to be hard to navigate and hard to see how things go because, like Carol said, the day that David Grann talked in town, they had 12 people unsubscribe from the paper. There's still a presence there that doesn't want these types of things to happen.
Kai Wright: It's hard history. We will have to leave it there. Thanks to Osage citizen filmmaker and actor Damon Waters, look out for his new documentary about the Tall Chief Theater in Fairfax, Oklahoma. Thanks for this time, Damon.
Damon Waters: Thanks for having me.
Kai Wright: Thanks to our friends at KOSU in Oklahoma for partnering with us on this show. You can always keep talking to us. Go to notesfromamerica.org. Look for the green record button. Notes From America is a production of WNYC Studios. Follow us wherever you get your podcast, and on Instagram @NotesWithKai. It has been lovely talking to you this week, and I look forward to talking to you next. Take care.