Community

Grayhorse Cemetery in spotlight after local news coverage

Photo caption: The Grayhorse Cemetery on Memorial Day, May 27. More than 350 Osages are buried in the cemetery, according to a survey conducted in 2011. SHANNON SHAW DUTY/Osage News

Grayhorse Cemetery is colorful on Memorial Day as Osages decorate their loved ones’ graves with flowers and flags. Mostly unchanged over the past 100 years with the exception of new gravesites, the cemetery is a quiet, peaceful place with a long history in the Osage community. 

On May 9, a news article on Tulsa’s KJRH virtual channel 2 titled “Osage County photographer looking to stop vandalism at cemetery,” featured a woman named Sherry Carter who said she had seen evidence of recent vandalism there.

After four trips to the cemetery, Carter said she noticed that photos on headstones had been shot, carved or chiseled out. She and her husband Babo Carter said the vandalism was recent and a sign of community prejudice. She said that it saddened her and that she felt uneasy there.

KJRH news reporter Megan Allison blamed the damage on the Osage Reign of Terror of the early 1920s. The article did not mention whether the couple are Native Americans.

The truth is that such vandalism actually happened before 1970, said Judge Marvin Stepson, Osage elder and a member of the Grayhorse District. Stepson said he has many relatives buried in the cemetery and one gravestone has minor damage and he thinks it may have happened before the 1990s, but he doesn’t have an exact date.

“I heard a monument worker say that some were shot out, but some had moisture leak behind the frames and when the water froze the photos were broken,” Stepson said. “Look closely at the missing photos and you can see where the bullets may have impacted the photos, breaking the photo and making a divot in the frame.”

Many Osages in the cemetery were buried after 1920, and many Grayhorse families have buried loved ones there ever since.

Neither Carter nor Allison spoke with someone from the Osage Nation about the cemetery or about families and descendants of people buried there. The Native American Journalists Association does not encourage such reporting about news in Indian Country.

While the article may have been incorrect on many levels, it is one of many reports in the increasing coverage of the Osage Reign of Terror since the 2017 release of David Grann’s nonfiction bestseller, “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.” Three tours covering Osage County are now offered in Pawhuska plus one specifically about the book. The Osage News plans to review the tours in the July issue.

Just 20 years ago, it was taboo in the Osage community to speak of the murders. Now, images of slain Osages and “Killers of the Flower Moon” pop up around Osage County.  

Reclaiming the Osage Narrative

As the film adaptation of the book continues with Martin Scorsese directing and Leonardo DiCaprio starring, interest by tourists and the media increases.

This would be the opportune time for the Nation to take control of the narrative, form partnerships with neighboring towns and businesses, and tell the story of the murders from an Osage perspective, instead of allowing outsiders to tell their story, said Crystal Echo Hawk, president and CEO of Echo Hawk Consulting and CEO of IllumiNative.

Echo Hawk, a member of the Pawnee Nation, is also the lead on Reclaiming Native Truth, the largest public opinion research project ever conducted by and for Native people. The project mapped what Americans know about Native Americans living today and what they think about Native people and why.

“What our research found is that almost 90 percent of schools in the United States don’t teach about Natives past the 1900s,” Echo Hawk said. “So, for many Americans, we don’t exist in a contemporary context.”

Even in Oklahoma, where 39 tribes are federally recognized, education standards don’t teach a history course about Native Americans post-1900. Echo Hawk said narratives taught in Oklahoma schools romanticize Native Americans, glossing over and justifying colonization and manifest destiny.

“I would say the majority of Oklahomans don’t know what happened here to the Osage,” she said. “That level of erasure is really profound.”

Echo Hawk emphasized that the Nation must be proactive.

“This film coming out is really, really going to blow Oklahoma away,” she said. “It’s going to be like a volcano erupting because you’re talking about all of this grief and these wounds being opened up for Osages. And you have to think about what is that going to trigger in some of these families and what is that going to trigger in this climate we’re living in right now?

“There is tense division and active white supremacy. There’s a lot of racial tension happening right now.”

Grayhorse Cemetery

The graveyard sits on 3.02 acres of land donated around the time of the 1906 allotment by Wilson Kirk, an Osage original allottee from the Grayhorse District, said George Pease III, chairman of the Grayhorse Five-Man Board, the cemetery’s governing agency.

In 2011, the board commissioned a survey of the cemetery to record the number buried there and location of their graves, Pease said. The survey was done with ground-penetrating radar, a non-destructive technique using high-frequency electromagnetic waves to identify subsurface information.

The survey reported that 373 individuals were buried and that 24 of their graves were unmarked. The number of individuals now buried is probably closer to 400, Pease said.

Osages living in Grayhorse keep an eye on the cemetery, and the Osage Nation Police Department frequently patrols the area, he said.

Cemetery roads are narrow because they were made for Model T vehicles of the early 1900s. If a tour bus were to enter the grounds, Pease said, roads or possibly gravesites would be damaged.

“What we try to do first is help them if they’re trying to locate someone, and we try to be friendly about it and help them in some way,” he said. “If they’re sightseeing, that’s fine. Just be respectful of all the people that are there.

“We don’t want to be a circus. It’s a place of respect, and that’s the way it’s always been.”