'Killers of the Flower Moon' is shining the spotlight on this small town and its painful history
Now that "Killers of the Flower Moon" is becoming a blockbuster movie, the community where many of the murders took place is wrestling with how to open up about its past.
Carol Conner knows downtown Fairfax like the back of her hand.
Her town only has 1,100 people who live there. So a few years ago, it really started catching her attention when she would see cars parked in front of the historic Tallchief Theater.
"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," Conner said.
Carol is a little extroverted, so she had no problem asking the people inside these cars where they were from.
"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," Conner laughed.
This was shortly after David Grann's non-fiction book "Killers of the Flower Moon" about the brutal murders of Osage citizens for their wealth and land was released in 2017.
Carol and her late husband Joe couldn't stop and talk to everyone, so with money from the non-profit they ran called the Fairfax Community Foundation, they decided to do something about it. So Joe Conner, an Osage citizen, created an exhibit that gave the background of who the Osage people were and what led to the murders.
The exhibit includes information about the removal of Osages from their Kansas reservation to Indian Territory; the Osage Allotment Act of 1906; and how when that was passed, many Osages were deemed incompetent to take care of their own financial affairs. It also includes information about the guardianship system and how it allowed many non-Osages to benefit off of Osage money.
Joe, who passed away in September, said he didn't want to create an exhibit about the murders, because people coming to Fairfax already had read the book. He wanted to tell people why it happened.
"What led up to it and also importantly, what was the impact of those murders on this community afterwards," he said.
Now Carol is continuing his work at the foundation.
Breaking silence in the community
The murders began over 100 years ago, but they are still not widely discussed in Fairfax.
"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," said Owen Hutchison, a young Osage man who works for the Fairfax Community Foundation and the Fairfax Chief as a photographer and grew up in Fairfax.
"I think a part of that was Osages that do still live here, didn't want to talk about it," Hutchison said. "I mean, it's scary and it's hard. And then the people, who are non-Osage, who lived here either didn't know or they were complicit at the time."
Shannon Shaw Duty is the editor of the Osage News and also grew up in Fairfax. Her great aunt Liz was alive at the time and had friends and family who were murdered.
"They didn't want to talk about it, and we never understood. But we do now. It was too painful," Shaw Duty said.
Fast-forward to today, Shaw Duty says, Osages can be more open about it.
"We're a different society, and we're all educated differently … this is something that our tribal societies talk about now," Shaw Duty said. "We talk about suicide. We talk about trauma. We talk about counseling. We talk about mental health."
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 published together called the "Fairfax Chief," a newspaper that's been around since the 1920s. She was advertising a book signing with David Grann as it was being released.
"So small town newspapers, no one ever unsubscribes … they die, but they don't unsubscribe," Conner said. "But the week that we had David Grann at the Tall Chief Theater to sign books, I had 12 people unsubscribe from the newspaper."
This isn't the first time people have tried to erase this history. Osage citizen and teacher Mary Joe Webb once placed a paper she’d written on the murders in her public library in Fairfax. Joe and Carol remembered her telling them that someone removed it.
The movie adaptation re-frames the conversation
Today, attitudes are beginning to change due to Martin Scorsese's blockbuster movie adaptation of Grann's novel, which was exciting for Osages. And more importantly, his film crew actually listened to Osages about their concerns for the movie and wrote a different script.
Shaw Duty said she would get text messages from Osages she knew about the movie.
"They were telling me how they felt," Shaw Duty said. "And, you know, there was outrage and then there was, ‘Oh, my gosh, this is so exciting.’"
Joe and Carol Conner wanted to take the momentum of the film and run with it. They became part of an effort to revitalize downtown Fairfax and have businesses occupy some of the vacant buildings. That includes the landmark Tallchief Theater built by Osage citizen Alex Tallchief in honor of his two daughters, who are famous ballerinas Marjorie and Maria Tallchief.
Tallchief built the theater along with Joe Conner's dad with another goal in mind, Carol Conner said: lift the mood of the community after all these horrible murders.
Today, its red and gold marquee are still intact, even though the inside needs some repair after recent tornado damage. Saving it was a passion project for Joe Conner, who worked to raise money for its rehabilitation until he died. All over the main street, there are signs that say, "Save the Tall Chief Theater" along with a QR code where people can donate.
"We see this as an investment in not only Osages, but also the entire community," Joe Conner had explained.
During his lifetime, Joe worked to keep the town's small, rural hospital running, as well as the only locally owned grocery store open. He even posted recipes in a popular column in the "Fairfax Chief" known as "Joe's Corner," all with ingredients that could be bought at that grocery store.
It was Joe and Carol's vision to create a memorial to the victims from Fairfax — something to honor them while also saving the town.
Osage citizen Danette Daniels is also trying to uplift the community. She was raised here and is opening up a museum, gift and coffee shop in a building she bought and renovated.
It's called FORM — Fairfax Osage Reservation Museum.
"I want to be part of, bringing Fairfax back, revitalizing Fairfax," Daniels said. She's currently moving her business, The Water Bird Gallery, there.
She's hoping to capitalize on the attention the movie will bring at her new business by selling books about Osage culture, broadcloth blankets that can be seen in the film and jewelry.
She's also hoping to give tours on the second floor of the building where the Shoun brothers — who worked as doctors — allegedly poisoned Osages.
She says the production crew repainted the Shoun Brother's sign on the windows of the building and used the doctor's actual office in the movie.
Revitalizing a town
Daniels didn't hesitate when asked how she felt about offering tours to people about this terrible subject.
"It's history … it's just the truth and people need to understand the truth," Daniels said.
She said It feels good, especially as an Osage person, to own the building, which she said was built with Osage money.
"Yeah, I'm taking it back,” she said.
There have been a series of town hall meetings that include non-Osage and Osage citizens on how to bring more economic development to town in light of the visitors they expect to receive.
Recently, Carol Conner has been fielding calls from people wanting tours and wanting to know more about the history. She still remains committed to her late husband's work to fix up the Tallchief.
"We need people to visit," she said. "But we also need people with money," she said with a laugh.
Right now, she’s leading an effort to reach a fundraising goal of $150,000 just to fix the roof.
Her hope is to have this space once again be a place where there can be performances, movie screenings and yes, ballet, including the Wah-Zha-Zhe ballet about the Osage people.
For these Fairfax citizens, the movie is an opportunity to honor the victims of the murders and move forward.
Allison Hererra is the Indigenous Affairs reporter at KOSU.
This story first aired on Weekend Edition and KOSU. This version was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.