A Smithsonian Channel documentary airing on May 29 focuses on the Osage Reign of Terror with an Osage filmmaker exploring his family’s history, as well as speaking with other Osage community members regarding that dark historical period on the Osage Reservation.
The Smithsonian Channel is launching its third season of “America’s Hidden Stories,” described as “a six-part series exploring little-known chapters of American history,” according to a news release issued by the channel and London-based Arrow Media, which was commissioned by the Smithsonian Channel to produce the Reign of Terror-focused documentary.
The Memorial Day launch of the third season starts with “The Osage Murders” episode featuring Osage tribal member David Bishop, who passed away unexpectedly in early May. A camera crew followed Bishop during his Summer 2022 visit to the Osage Reservation where he interviewed various individuals.
“Episode one follows David Bishop, a filmmaker and member of the Osage Nation who is on a deeply personal mission,” the release stated. “He returns home to learn the truth behind a series of reservation murders that happened a century ago through stories and artifacts passed down from the reservation’s ancestors. David will take viewers on his journey as he examines the events that inspired the film, Killers of the Flower Moon — premiering at the Cannes Film Festival (on May 20) — and meets other Osages with direct links to this history.”
Episode 1 (The Osage Murders) of “America’s Hidden Stories” airs on the Smithsonian Channel on May 29 at 8/ 7 p.m. Central Time. The documentary is 44 minutes long for the one-hour TV timeslot with commercials.
“This all-new season of America’s Hidden Stories will revisit America’s past and redefine some of our nation’s most significant moments,” Pamela A. Aguilar, SVP, Head of Smithsonian Channel, Content said in a statement. “It’s imperative that as technology advances, we work to reveal the hidden truths and shed light on those who were touched by these forgotten chapters of U.S. history.”
Bishop, who grew up and graduated from high school in Pawhuska in 1990, takes viewers to the Osage Reservation where he researches a family member’s death during the 1920s when the Reign of Terror occurred. Bishop visited the Whitehair Memorial Osage Learning Center where he utilized archives and resources provided at the center, as well as national archives.
Unfortunately, with less than a month before the documentary’s airing, Bishop, 50, died in a May 6 rafting accident on the Rio Grande in northern New Mexico, according to a Santa Fe New Mexican article. Bishop, who lived in Santa Fe and Española, was discussing strategies with Arrow Media to promote the documentary airing at the time of his passing.
The company released a statement written by Bishop on his Smithsonian documentary work.
“It is with great honor and respect that I am able to tell such a poignant story about my Osage ancestors, through the lens (and partnership with) the Smithsonian Channel,” Bishop said. “I hope that by sharing my family’s personal journey it inspires others to come forward with their own families’ tragic accounts of these events as well. The story of the Osage people is not only about greed and atrocity, but also that of hope and redemption in a modern world.”
Anna Davies, an Arrow Media executive producer, as well as the documentary’s executive producer, said a show idea was long discussed in her company, which was approached by the Smithsonian Channel in early 2022 about a documentary idea on the Reign of Terror especially with the upcoming “Killers of the Flower Moon” film release announced for October.
“They came to us and said ‘we know about the Scorsese (directed) movie, we actually really like documentaries that allow the audience to learn something about a true story, particularly if they have some other framed reference for it with this movie coming out’,” Davies said. “What they said to us at that time was for them – and for us too – it was very important that we as a British production company wouldn’t just come along and try and tell the story, that we needed to be working in a completely integrated way with an Osage filmmaker and so they connected us with David Bishop who had worked with the Smithsonian Institution (before).”
“It was really good synergy because here we were with the production capabilities to make a documentary and we have a lot of experience working with the Smithsonian,” Davies said. “And here was David who was passionate about telling the story and he was an Osage tribal member and so it was a really perfect partnership … And during that process, Smithsonian said ‘we actually think it would be a great idea to have David be the person on camera taking the audience on that journey as an on-screen investigator.’”
Based in London, Davies never met Bishop in-person, but both stayed in constant contact via electronic means with the documentary planning, production and editing processes. A camera crew and director Anna Keel, joined Bishop in Oklahoma for two weeks where the interviews were conducted. Bishop and the production crews finished the documentary last fall, but the Smithsonian Channel – owned by Paramount – wanted the documentary release to coincide with the release of the “Killers of the Flower Moon,” Davies said.
Osages interviewed for the documentary include: Margie Burkhart, granddaughter of Mollie Burkhart, who is featured in David Grann’s “Killers of the Flower Moon” novel; retired tribal court judge Marvin Stepson; and Tara Damron, program director at the Whitehair Memorial.
“(Damron) talked to David on-camera about the guardianship system, the completely egregious financial theft of Osage money that was happening on this industrial scale that was sanctioned by the federal government,” Davies said. “But then David’s own family had this mysterious death that he and his sister, Donna Leonard, had known about … But, as with these things often is the case, none of it was completely clear what had happened. So, with Tara Damron’s help, David and his sister were able to see some archival materials, which actually told them stuff they didn’t know exactly about their great-grandmother, whose name is Odell Revard DeNoya Bighorse.”
Davies said others interviewed included an official in Washington, D.C. at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian to provide historical context; Pawhuska elder Florence Bigheart Tranum; Meg Standingbear Jennings; former Principal Chief Jim Gray; artist Wendy Ponca; Pawhuska District Cook Ginger Kent-Hollis; and Assistant Principal Chief RJ Walker who was friends with Bishop since childhood.
Osage Minerals Council Chairman Everett Waller appears in the documentary to also help with storytelling, Davies said.
Damron said she and office staff helped Bishop research Odell Revard DeNoya Bighorse, who was an Osage original allottee. According to funeral records shared with Bishop and his sister Donna Leonard, Revard DeNoya Bighorse was born in March 1890 and died in January 1928 at age 37.
“It was sort of a journey for them as siblings to find out ‘is this really true?’, ‘maybe there was something else going on’,” Damron said of the visit. “Once you start researching something, you never really know what you’re going to find and once you get into it, a lot of times you’ll have more questions than answers, but you do find information and so we helped with that. And for my part, I contacted the National Archives in Fort Worth (Texas) and in one of their many records collections, they have the Osage Agency records and (asked for information on Revard DeNoya Bighorse) and they were super helpful because they have all of those records (including probate and guardianship files).”
During the interviews, Gray said he provided historical information of the Osage, which also included other difficult periods such as the Indian boarding schools and their forced assimilation practices at the time for the Indigenous students. “I was trying to give them a sense of the flavor of the period at the time,” Gray said, adding “it was a dark chapter in our tribe’s history.”
Standingbear Jennings, who is Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear’s sister, provided family home movie footage which recorded her family members and other Osages living in the 1920s showing life in Pawhuska and the peoples’ lifestyles at the time. Davies said the black-and-white film footage was used in a previous documentary project in 2017 and made contact again for the latest project “and some of that footage is featured in the documentary.”
“We have David and Meg and Florence Bigheart (Tranum), who’s James Bigheart’s great-granddaughter, all sitting there watching it together and talking about that and also reflecting on what then happened and what the reaction to that wealth was by white America, which was jealousy and greed and resentment.”
Standingbear Jennings was vacationing in Costa Rica when her brother and other Osages attended the Cannes Film Festival for the Scorsese movie’s world premiere. In a phone call, she said she is glad more people will become aware of the Reign of Terror considering the period was not widely discussed in school classrooms through the years and some Osage families also would not talk about the period as well.
“Unfortunately, my grandmother, who lived with me for many years, not once would she ever talk about it, she would talk to me about some of her travels around the country and all the fun things they did, but in terms of the tragedies, the murders, no, she would never bring that up,” Standingbear Jennings said. “I’m glad it’s going to be aired so people will be able to hear the story. In fact, while we’re here in Costa Rica, we were watching the red carpet (live video) at Cannes and … And people we met here from Kentucky had no clue what was going on and I said ‘remember the name of this movie,’ you will hear about this.”
Walker said he stayed in touch with Bishop through the years and Bishop was proud of his latest documentary work. For the documentary, Walker and Bishop talked on camera while fishing at a pond on the Osage Nation government campus in Pawhuska. The two friends shared memories, talked about their families while fishing as they did together in younger years.
Gray noted “the sad part” about the documentary’s release is that Bishop is not here to experience it with his unexpected passing. “That was a blow, I felt sorry for his family, it was an accident and I knew he was looking forward to it, things were already in motion.” The others featured in the documentary also expressed their condolences to Bishop’s family and friends.
Walker said he was allowed to view the Smithsonian documentary a week before its release and praised the work. “I think it’s going to be a similar takeaway from what (viewers) will get from the ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’… It was professionally done, it had a lot of eyes on it, I expect it to be widely viewed and revealing. (In recently speaking with Bishop) he was very excited about it, very satisfied. It’s just a shame that he’s not going to be here because he’s in every scene in telling the story.” The Smithsonian Channel is online at www.smithsonianchannel.com and the “America’s Hidden Stories series page is at https://www.smithsonianchannel.com/shows/americas-hidden-stories