Lily Gladstone teared up giving a passionate speech honoring activists who work to protect Indigenous women at Variety’s Power of Woman event Thursday in Hollywood, presented by Lifetime. The “Killers of the Flower Moon” actor — who is one of Variety‘s honorees and cover stars this year — offered an account of how Martin Scorsese’s script’s evolution from a criminal investigation to a tale about an Osage woman, Mollie Kyle, and the husband who murdered her sisters and tribe members, speaks to the ongoing abuse facing Indigenous women today.
“At one point, Leo wasn’t playing this complicated villain. He was playing the first investigator for the newly formed FBI, Tom White — the essential white savior,” Gladstone said, pointing to her co-star Leonardo DiCaprio, who introduced her in a speech of his own. “That was of no interest of him. Instead, bringing this complicated villain to the forefront brought Mollie Kyle, her beautiful sisters and the Osage community out of the periphery. I’ve heard early drafts maybe had three scenes deeply developed with Mollie.”
Gladstone was honored at the event for her work as an advocate for Indigenous women’s rights. The actor works closely with the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center (NIWRC), a non-profit that aims to end violence against Indigenous women. She has taught sculpture garden workshops for the organization. In the past, the NIWRC has created a database that allows individuals to search for legislation regarding missing and murdered Indigenous women across states.
“To understand the scope of the work that these women do and to understand the irony and how it ties to this man onstage playing an FBI agent — had he done that, how unfortunate it would’ve been for audiences to walk away under the impression that the FBI are the saviors of Native women. We know that is not the truth,” Gladstone said. “Tribal governments in this nation and treaties with tribal people are the whole reason that the United States even exists. You need to enter into treaty with other nations to get your own validity. And yet these treaties are not honored.”
“Over the course of colonization, the last several hundred years, our inherent sovereignty as tribal nations has been stripped away further and further and further — to the point that if you’re not enrolled in that tribe, on that reservation, and you commit a violent crime against a Native person, nobody can prosecute you except for the FBI. States don’t have jurisdiction on tribal land. Tribes don’t have jurisdiction. It’s only the federal government,” Gladstone continued. “The only people who have any authority to do anything do nothing. And the people who are left to do anything about it are these women here.”
The actor teared up, indicating the women from NIWRC who had joined her at the event. Gladstone offered an account of her humble beginnings as an actor and how the organization helped support her at the earliest stages of her career.
“I have always known that acting is my activism. When I was struggling to pay a $300-a-month rent in 2011, holding a lot of different jobs and taking what I could, Lucy Simpson saw work that I had done with her children in a camp using art and activism to bring out and strengthen their voices,” Gladstone said. “She invited me to play the incredible Deborah Parker, trial chairwoman of the Tulalip nation and a boardmember for NIWRC and a survivor herself, in a documentary theater piece, ‘Sliver of a Full Moon.’”
Gladstone also had strong praise for DiCaprio’s continued activism: “Your dedication to uplifting Indigenous-led grassroots organizations is pretty badass… Leo, you understand that grassroots organizations, Indigenous frontline people, are the ones who are holding the line of the most valuable resources of this Earth. And I would add to that, in our Indigenous communities, our most valuable resource is our women, our children.”
“Killers of the Flower Moon” centers on the Reign of Terror, a genocidal attack on members of the Osage Nation, who were brutally murdered after coming into oil money. Gladstone plays Mollie, an Osage woman who becomes the wife of the money-loving Ernest Burkhart (Leonardo DiCaprio). She caught director Martin Scorsese’s eye for her “quiet” presence.
Gladstone touched on how the film’s events are still painfully relevant to the extreme abuse facing Indigenous women today.
“Native women, four out of five in our lifetimes, will experience some form of violence at the hands of a romantic partner or someone who wants to be,” Gladstone shared. “One thing that NIWRC is doing is bringing these stories forward of survivors in front of lawmakers, in front of Congress, in front of people who have the power to enact real change, to give our people just what we need to protect ourselves. Bare minimum.”
Gladstone is now a major awards contender for “Flower Moon.” Campaigning in the category of lead actress, she would be the first Native American Oscar nominee if selected by Academy voters. (Previous Indigenous nominees were born outside of the United States.)