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Despite Gladstone not winning Oscar, Indigenous people beam seeing representation in ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

By Elena Perry, The Spokesman-Review
Published: March 11, 2024, 7:34am
2 Photos
Lily Gladstone arrives at the Oscars on Sunday, March 10, 2024, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.
Lily Gladstone arrives at the Oscars on Sunday, March 10, 2024, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis) Photo Gallery

When Misty Shipman-Ellingberg heard Lily Gladstone laughing in her role as Mollie in “Killers of the Flower Moon,” she heard the warm chuckles of her aunties.

When Taylor Birdtail-Gonzalez heard Gladstone speaking Blackfeet to accept a Golden Globe for her role earlier this year, she heard chatter that peppered her childhood summer vacations visiting the Blackfeet reservation in Montana.

When Tanajsia Slaughter saw Gladstone’s portrayal of Mollie, she saw what she could imagine was a real Osage woman from the time.

When all three women separately watched Gladstone be nominated for an Oscar for best actress in her role in “Killers of the Flower Moon,” they saw themselves.

Gladstone, of Blackfeet and NiMíiPuu, or Nez Perce, heritage would have been the first Indigenous woman to win in that category, but is now among the few to be nominated. Though the academy bestowed the golden statue to Emma Stone for her role in “Poor Things,” Gladstone continues to be a source of pride for Indigenous women who seldom feel represented in film.

Tens of millions tune in to watch the Oscars each year, among them was Shipman-Ellingberg, a filmmaker who directed Gladstone in “The Handsome Man,” an award-winning independent short film shot on the Kalispel reservation.

Shipman-Ellingberg directed Gladstone just after her work on the “Killers of the Flower Moon” set wrapped. She recalled getting a text from Gladstone, asking if she still wanted her in the film.

“I said, ‘Well, of course,’” Shipman-Ellingberg said, laughing. “We were an incredibly small production. It was a $10,000 film, as opposed to $200 million, but we’re so grateful and so proud to be working with these … stars in the Native American community. It just meant everything to us.”

Gladstone’s portrayal in “Killers of the Flower Moon” subverts tropes of Indigenous people that are overused in the film industry, Shipman-Ellingberg said, like that of the highly spiritual woman who guides the white man to connect with nature or the “noble savage,” the primitive man uncorrupted by the woes of civilized society.

“We’re always propping up the Jimmy Stewarts and John Waynes in their journey of self discovery, their journey of redemption, which is like, OK , cool, but I’m not so interested in being a prop for a white man’s story,” Shipman-Ellingberg said. “I want to be a facilitator of change in my own tribal community, and I want to help our own tribal voices be brought to the forefront, which is what Lily is doing.”

Filmmaker Ryan Abrahamson let out a “silent scream” and fist -pumped the air when he first saw Gladstone on the screen, his enthusiasm growing each time he saw her on a movie poster or advertisement. Her performance was an authentic Indigenous representation, said Abrahamson, who is also president and CEO of Spokane-based Counting Coup Media. He doesn’t think this was easy work for Gladstone, trying to undo decades of representation like white actors masquerading as Indigenous caricatures or productions playing English backwards to imitate Indigenous languages.

“Unfortunately, they carry a title with them that has a responsibility and they can’t be anything less than perfect,” Abrahamson said.

That pressure is felt by actress Slaughter, with ancestral roots in Trinidad and Fiji, especially when portraying characters Indigenous to North America. Any role she takes, she feels an obligation to do her characters and the tribes they are associate with justice by studying the language and pronunciation and connecting with tribal elders to ensure her portrayal is accurate, a stark contrast to the Indigenous representation of the past.

“Indigenous people as a whole have been misrepresented in Hollywood for so long that now we finally have actual Indigenous people getting to be the actors, it’s almost an obligation we have to do everything in the right way so that we’re no longer misrepresented,” Slaughter said.

Slaughter played roles in westerns “Black Wood,” “The Last Son” and most recently the lead actress in Abrahamson’s soon-to-be-released Salish short film “Strongest at the End of the World.”

She won’t audition for roles she feels rely on stereotypes, avoiding those that depict Indigenous people as drunks or drug addicts or oversexualized Indigenous women.

“I don’t want some young Indigenous girl seeing me on camera thinking that’s OK; if I do something, it’s OK if they do it,” Slaughter said.

Slaughter is encouraged to see Indigenous women, like Gladstone, in the spotlight — win or lose.

“I just feel like it’s important for these moments for us to use them as motivation to continue,” Slaughter said. “I feel like no matter what our goals are, whether we’re in film, in education, in politics, it’s just that we’re here, we’re always going to be here and always gonna succeed. Indigenous people have had every wall placed in font of them and we continue to rise every time.”

Taylor Birdtail-Gonzalez was proud to see Gladstone on the big screen, with her long, dark hair and cultural behaviors that resonated with her, her ears perked when she heard the Osage language on screen. A teacher at the language immersion school, Salish School of Spokane, and a member of the Gros-Ventrè Tribe, Birdtail-Gonzalez is a passionate language revitalization advocate and sees first hand the interest growing among kids to learn their ancestral languages. Continuing to integrate the language into mainstream media, she said, will only spur more interest.

“Just having to constantly push through with your language and giving visibility to your community and culture, that’s something I’m really proud of to see in ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’ putting it in the mainstream,” she said.

Birdtail-Gonzalez, 31, grew up hearing Salish from tribal elders and at ceremonies, deciding to commit herself to learning it when she was 18.

“It’s giving these kids a sense of pride and a longing for it even, more so than in my generation so that’s cool to see,” she said.

Though Gladstone didn’t win, Shipman-Ellingberg is proud of Gladstone’s portrayal and the recognition earned by a nomination, though she’s disappointed at the loss, indicating the academy has “more work to do.”

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“Sometimes we get put on every stage in the world and it turns out to be lip service once again,” Shipman-Ellingberg said. “But I am very hopeful for the future.”

Expect another Gladstone nomination and eventual win in the near future, Shipman-Ellingberg said.

“The rallying cry is, ‘We ride at dawn.’ We’re not going to let this go,” she said.

“We’re going to continue to tell our stories our way for our people and share with the world who Native American people are. We are very proud.”