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'Killers of the Flower Moon' brings up historical trauma, but there is mental health help

Osage Nation citizen Margaret Sisk (left) and her aunt Mary Shannon Brave.
Allison Herrera
Osage Nation citizen Margaret Sisk (left) and her aunt Mary Shannon Brave.

Margaret Sisk is in a good mood, she just got off work ready to have an early dinner at a local Mexican restaurant in Pawhuska, Oklahoma.

Over the din of customers and conversation, Margaret jokes with a family member, telling them to keep their voice down.

"I said keep your ayyy's down" Margaret laughed.

"Ayyy" is a slang word for "that's funny," Margaret explained to me.

"It's just a wonderful expression, and you'll hear people say ayyy and they start laughing," she said.

Sisk has a warm smile and a big laugh. She had a small scene in the beginning of the movie Killers of the Flower Moon.

It wasn't her first brush with Hollywood. Back in the 1980s, she had a small part in the Outsiders, Francis Ford Coppola's movie based on S.E. Hinton's book about 1950s street gangs in Tulsa — she played a Soc.

"It was on the news all the time, 'Oh, they're filming over here, or they're filming over here, or they're filming here,'" Sisk said. "And I thought, I want to do it-so I went down to where I knew they were casting."

In Martin Scorsese's adaptation of David Grann's bestselling novel Killers of the Flower Moon, Sisk wears no makeup in her small part. She's playing a mourner as a pipe is buried. This is the first scene in Charles Red Corn's 2006 novel A Pipe for February, which is a fictional account of the murders.

But will this movie get Osage people to open up more about this painful past?

"Yes…. And I think that it's a long overdue conversation about my tribe," she said. "You know, it really happened. It wasn't fairy tales by any means. When your family's murdered or your cousin was murdered for this money."

Sisk said her mom talked about it a little bit with her, but it was too close, she said.

Her mother, Mary Agnes Wagoshe Shannon, had a guardian, someone who controlled her money, even after she died.

"Just knowing that that woman hurt my mother and, you know, abused her…you know, it's hard to talk about because I love my mother so much," Sisk said.

In anticipation of the movie, the Osage Nation's health care system has set up a hotline for citizens. People may experience past trauma that the movie may bring up.

Osage Nation

"Trauma is not the end of our story," a tagline reads along with the hashtag #whazhazheheals on the nation's website.

"With intentional healing-centered efforts and knowledge, we manage it. Grounded in culture and tradition, Osage Nation Health System supports Osage tribal members through various wellness programs, including: Wahzhazhe Health Center, the Primary Residential Treatment Centers, the Osage Nation Counseling Center, Prevention, Community Health Representative, and Public Health Nursing."

Osage Nation Principal Chief Geoffrrey Standing Bear, spoke on a panel with Daivd Grann and Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby earlier this week, said mental health care for Osages is a must right now.

“I can tell you honestly, the Osage has been behind the timeline in facing up to the complicated issues of our stress, anxiety, all the issues that are so throughout our people,” he said at the panel.

During the Los Angeles premiere of the movie, Chris Cote, one of the language consultants hired to work on the film told a reporter that, "Martin Scorsese, not being Osage, I think he did a great job representing our people, but this history is being told almost from the perspective of Ernest Burkhart [played by Leonardo DiCaprio] and they kind of give him this conscience and kind of 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."

Standing Bear acknowledged the anger.

"Some of them who worked there were consultants on the film were interviewed and saying the movie just made them angry," he said. "I understand, I know who those families are, it's deep, and it just brings this up."

Left to right, Dr. Jeff Simmons, David Grann, Osage Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear, Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby and FBI Oklahoma City Special Agent Edward Gray.
Oklahoma Christian University
Left to right, Dr. Jeff Simmons, David Grann, Osage Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear, Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby and FBI Oklahoma City Special Agent Edward Gray.

Changing the conversation

Since the pandemic, tribal nations throughout Oklahoma have invested millions of dollars in mental health facilities to serve their citizens, responding to a need that peaked during the pandemic. Earlier this year, the Cherokee Nation announced they were opening a multi-million dollar facility in Muskogee with money from a historic opioid settlement they won more than two years ago.

Chickasaw Nation has also invested millions of dollars in their own health care system, with a focus on mental health.

For many, it's the stigma of talking about depression or anxiety that prevent them from getting treatment.

"So often when people start to have their story told or a story told, then they start to process stuff that happened-so also we have to talk about epigenetics," said Marca Cassity, a licensed trauma therapist specializing in Native American and LGBTQ mental health.

Epigenetics is another way of talking about historical trauma. Osage people, who have relatives that experienced this trauma watching this for the first time on the big screen, may start to feel and process this trauma, Cassity says.

"We know now from research that the DNA of our ancestors and what they lived through lives in us still, we might be we're holding that," Cassity said about historical trauma.

Cassity also performs under the stage name Marx, and they are releasing a new song called Dawn from their upcoming album 2S Sacred. It’s based on some of the things in the movie as well as Osage culture and tradition and "my Indigenous ancestors, especially Osage ancestors, who lived through all that they lived through previous to the 1920s, but also into the 1920s," Cassity said.

"Elders in our tribe and the ones before them when I was younger talked about this tradition in the Osage world of wailing, especially wailing in the doorways at dawn in the mornings," Cassity said about the origins of their new song.

Cassity's great-great-grandfather was Frank Lessert Jr. and was on the tribal council in 1926-the period depicted in the movie.

Their grandfather, Mark Freeman Jr., was on the tribal council during the constitutional reform in 2006.

"He was so proud to be a part of that," Cassity said.,

Cassity says one thing they would suggest right now for people who are experiencing feelings right now because of the movie?

"A place for them to talk about their experience of seeing the movie or hearing about the movie or their lived experience through their families or their lived experience for our elders to talk about their experiences with someone who hears them and reflects back to them," Cassity said.

The Osage singer Marx performs in their music video for the new song "How Long."
The Osage singer Marx performs in their music video for the song "How Long."

How the film can contribute to healing

Sisk says participating in the movie was powerful. She remembers the moment after she filmed her scene-seeing director Martin Scorsese emerge from his tent to thank her for her performance. It was a typical, hot Oklahoma day.

"He came out to shake my hand and thank me — and I said, 'no, thank you,'" Sisk remembers. "Thank you for telling this story."

Sisk, who lost her daughter several years ago, told Scorsese, "thank you for putting me back in Osage clothes because I was never going to dance again after I lost my daughter."

"He teared up and I teared up," Sisk said. "We had our moment, but I was so happy."

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Allison Herrera covered Indigenous Affairs for KOSU from April 2020 to November 2023.
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