Blackwell locals represent Native American culture in TV & Film

by Charles Gerian

They have worked with Oscar-winning actor Leonardo DiCaprio, the stars of various “Yellowstone” TV projects and acclaimed directors like Martin Scorsese. But these actors don’t live in Beverly Hills or a penthouse in New York City. They’re right here in Kay County. Jason Murray and Jarad Looper have made quite the name for themselves in productions such as “Killers of the Flower Moon,” “1883,” promotional videos for the State of Kansas and the Paramount Network’s Kevin Costner-led western drama “Yellowstone.”

While they’ve rubbed elbows with some of the biggest names in TV and film, at the end of the day, they said they are just proud to represent their Native American heritage and inspire a new generation of Native American youth.

Murray was born in Blackwell and graduated as part of the Blackwell High School Class of 1991.

He got his exposure through dancing at powwows as well as participating in the Voices of the Wind Pageant in Council Grove, Kansas.

“It’s the reenactment of the last signing of the treaty that moved the people of the Kaw Nation into Oklahoma,” Murray said.

“It is a live show. I also shot a commercial and video of dancing for the State of Kansas.”

In 2021, the long-gestating film “Killers of the Flower Moon,” based on David Grann’s best-selling 2017 novel about the Osage Nation murders and the birth of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, began filming in Pawhuska.

It was directed by Scorsese and featured an all-star cast, including DiCaprio, Robert DeNiro, Jesse Plemons, John Lithgow and more.

Filming took place in Pawhuska, and Murray was one of several Native Americans on the scene to flesh out the cast and make it as authentic as possible.

Murray, who is Kaw-enrolled but also Osage, said his grandfather lived through the events depicted in the film and that he remembers those stories well. Murray said he considered it an honor to represent his culture and family in the film.

“My first night on set, I worked with Leonardo DiCaprio,” he said. Then he joked: “I came home and told my wife, and she was like, ‘whatever,’ then got on Facebook and saw the photos. “Working under the direction of Martin Scorsese was one of the best experiences I ever had. [Scorsese] really has a gift for working with people, and it was a blessing to be directed by him with some of the biggest names in the business. Being Osage, it was also a tremendous honor to see how they not only treated our people, but how dedicated they were to telling the true story of this dark chapter in history.”

Looper, a lifetime Blackwell resident and a man of Choctaw descent said he saw a casting call shared by Murray.

“I saw Jason share a post on Facebook, and so I applied for that,” Looper said. “A few days later, I had gotten a callback. It’s been amazing, getting to work with so many people that I’d honestly consider family now. “My friends that I met as background work to inspire other natives – it’s so amazing. SB, Andrew Taylor, David EchoHawk, Dan Warrior – these guys are like older brothers to me now. Mo Brings Plenty and Christian Wasanna are two of my favorite actors.”

Following Looper’s appearance in “Killers of the Flower Moon,” he went on to have roles in “Yellowstone” and the drama’s prequel series “1883” as well as a tobacco-free commercial.

Looper’s first speaking role came as a tribal police officer in the independent film “The Shatter Man,” which has yet to release.

He also has an appearance in another “Yellowstone” project, “Lawman: Bass Reeves,” about the first Black lawman in the wild west.

The project is in filming and will star David Oyelowo, Dennis Quaid and Donald Sutherland.

Murray and Looper’s major breaks onto the Hollywood scene were with “Killers of the Flower Moon,” and their foray into high-profile projects came at a cultural turning point for Native Americans in television and film.

The early 2020s saw major Indigenous-based projects taking off across multiple studios, many of which filmed in Oklahoma, including Disney / 20th Studios’ FX dramedy series “Rez Dogs.” Projects like “The English,” “Yellowstone” and its two spin-offs “1883” and “1923,” “Under The Banner of Heaven,” The Predator prequel “Prey” and “Three Pines” opened the door for a new era of Native American representation.

The importance of that wasn’t lost on Looper or Murray. “There’s a huge difference now between how Native Americans used to be represented versus how they are now,” Murray said.

“Now there is a lot of care put into that – a lot more of truth about the history of America and the role the Native Americans had in that.” Looper agreed, saying: “There are more Native Americans in movies and TV now than there ever was. Older movies didn’t use a lot of Native actors, and the Native Americans in older films like that didn’t talk or act like how our people really do. But the projects being made now really reflect that way of life and culture.”

Both said they saw these roles as incredible moments in their personal lives and as a chance to represent the next generation.

“It feels amazing to be a part of these projects,” Looper said. “I felt inspired by the Natives I had seen on TV, and I hope I can get to inspire other young ones. It’s amazing getting to watch history and see it told the way it should have been many years ago. We get to learn and teach the truth of our people. I want to continue and inspire the younger generation.”

“It’s a great feeling to be in a role that people will look and go, ‘Hey, I know that guy.’... But it’s even better knowing that I can give hope to others," Murray said.

The next time Blackwell residents go to the store or a gas station in town, they could be face-to-face with a real-life Hollywood star.

“Killers of the Flower Moon” will be in theaters Oct. 6, 2023.