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'Killers of the Flower Moon' is helping some Osage citizens to grapple with their past

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

First came the book, now a movie. "Killers Of The Flower Moon" recounts a series of brutal murders of Osage Indians a century ago for their wealth and oil-rich land. Now the community where many of the murders took place is figuring out how to try to open up about this painful past. KOSU's Allison Herrera has this story from Fairfax, Okla.

ALLISON HERRERA, BYLINE: Dr. Carol Conner knows downtown Fairfax - population 1,100 - like the back of her hand. So a few years ago, it really started catching her attention when she would see cars parked in front of the historic Tall Chief Theater.

CAROL CONNER: And so I would be driving down our main street, which is mostly vacant of cars, and there would be a Volvo or a Lexus. And most people here drive ranch trucks or other non-luxury vehicles.

HERRERA: Carol is a little extroverted.

C CONNER: So I would pull up next to them and say, what are you doing here? Did you read the book? And 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.

HERRERA: This was shortly after David Grann's nonfiction book was released. Carol and her husband, Joe, couldn't stop and talk to everyone. So with money from the nonprofit they run called the Fairfax Community Foundation, they decided to do something about it.

JOE CONNER: So 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.

HERRERA: That's Dr. Joe Conner, Carol's husband. He's an Osage citizen. He said he wanted to tell people the why.

J CONNER: What led up to it, and also, importantly, what was the impact of those murders on this community afterwards?

HERRERA: The murders began over a hundred years ago, but they are still not widely discussed in Fairfax.

OWEN HUTCHESON: My high school actually had us all read the book, and that's the first time I found out about the murders and what happened to the Osage people.

HERRERA: Owen Hutcheson is a young Osage man who works for Joe and Carol Conner and grew up in Fairfax.

HUTCHESON: And I think a part of that was Osages that do still live here didn't want to talk about it. And then the people who are non-Osage that lived here either didn't know, or they were complicit at the time.

HERRERA: Shannon Shaw Duty is the editor of the Osage News and also grew up here. Her Great-Aunt Liz was alive at the time and had friends and family who were murdered.

SHANNON SHAW DUTY: They didn't want to talk about it, and we never understood. But we do now. It was too painful.

HERRERA: When the book hit the shelves in 2017, Carol remembers getting a very frosty response when she put an item in the paper she and Joe publish called the Fairfax Chief, a newspaper that's been around since the 1920s.

C CONNER: Small-town newspapers, no one ever unsubscribes. They die, but they don't unsubscribe. But the week that we had David Grann at the Tall Chief Theater to sign books, I had 12 people unsubscribe from the newspaper.

HERRERA: But a few years later, attitudes began to change. Martin Scorsese signed on to direct the movie. That was exciting. And more importantly, his film crew actually listened to Osages about their concerns for the movie. Shannon Shaw Duty would hear from fellow Osages about it.

DUTY: They were telling me how they felt, and, you know, there was outrage. And then there was, oh, my gosh, this is so exciting.

HERRERA: Joe and Carol Conner wanted to take the momentum of the film and run with it. They're part of an effort to revitalize downtown Fairfax, including a historic theater built for the community after the murders.

J CONNER: Oh, we're standing right in front of the Tall Chief Theater, built by Alex Tallchief.

HERRERA: Saving it is a passion project for Joe Conner.

J CONNER: We see this as an investment in the future of not only just Osages, but also the entire community.

HERRERA: Osage citizen Danette Daniels is also trying to uplift the community. She was raised here. She's opening up 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.

HERRERA: She's hoping to give tours on the second floor of the building, where the two doctors, the Shoun brothers, allegedly poisoned Osages.

Oh, my God, look. Whoa.

DANIELS: So this is filmed - in the movie, this is filmed.

HERRERA: I asked Danette how she felt about offering tours to people about this terrible subject.

DANIELS: Well, it's history, so it's just the truth. And people need to understand the truth.

HERRERA: What does it feel like to own part of this history?

(SOUNDBITE OF KEYS RATTLING)

DANIELS: It feels good, especially as an Osage person. Yeah, taking it back.

HERRERA: For these Fairfax citizens, the movie is an opportunity to honor the victims of the murders and move forward.

For NPR News in Fairfax, Okla., I'm Allison Herrera.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRATE DIGGERS' "GREEN TEA")

SIMON: And note to our listeners that since Allison reported this story, Joe Conner passed away. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Allison Herrera joined KOSU in November 2015, after serving as the editor of the award-winning online publication the Twin Cities Daily Planet.