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“The True Story Behind The Revenant, as Told in 1939” The Revenant is a Game-Changer Read more at

January 16, 2016

The Revenant is a Game-Changer






Leonardo DiCaprio’s acceptance speech at the Golden Globe Awards revealed that his dedication toThe Revenantwent beyond the screen. Not only did he “share” his award with Indigenous peoples and communities, he also exposed the persisting environmental injustices that we face in protecting our lands and the significance of our history and voices. DiCaprio’s words are not mere rhetoric as he may be familiar with the struggles at Oak Flats and the Tar Sands. Movies likeThe Revenantand actors like DiCaprio reach audiences uninformed of Indian issues. This film is a game-changer.

The Revenantsets a new bar in filmmaking as it achieves what most films fail to do—itfairlyrepresents Indians. After all,fairnessin representation is all we are asking for.The Revenantexceeded my expectations further because it highlighted two themes that are rarely explored—justice and the beautiful forces of nature. The plot ofThe Revenantis about bringing justice to a lawless land, as Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) seeks to avenge the murder of his Indian son Hawk (Forest Goodluck). As we learn in the film, justice and revenge are two different concepts.

InThe Revenant,the Indians represent justice, as they are moved beyond the stereotypical roles of unpredictable and impulsive brutes. Ree leader Elk Dog (Duane Howard) despises the white invaders (French and American), and he is on a quest to rescue his daughter Powaqa (Melaw Nakehk’o) who was kidnapped by an unknown group of white men. Elk Dog is intelligent and relentless in seeking justice, and he and Glass cross paths on numerous occasions in their pursuits of justice, both unaware of the other’s plight. In the end they are both triumphant.

Powaqa is a paragon of justice and becomes a hero in her own right. With the help of Glass, she is able to inflict a swift and just punishment upon one of her persecutors and escapes captivity. The sequence emphasizes—in a manner that few Indian-themed films have done before—that kidnapping, trafficking, and violating Indian women is a crime, immoral, and is to be met with swift and severe punishment. Powaqa is a character that single handedly dismantles the stereotypes reinforced by earlier films that exploit Indian women as easy prey for sexual violence. Moreover, her story represents the roots of the persisting social and jurisdictional problems of violence against American Indian women, as well as the tragedies of the missing and murdered Indigenous women of Canada.The Revenantchallenges our perceptions of these issues, making them real and exposing their roots. The violence is happening now and it must be stopped.

Throughout the film, the beauty and power of nature are captured with wide shots and long scenes of the wilderness and animals, taking us to places that we thought to be lost in time. Golden Globe winning director Alejandro González Iñárritu captures forests, storms, waterfalls, and an avalanche with impeccable timing and precision. If he wanted to remind us of our humble existence on earth, he succeeded. Iñárritu also reveals nature’s destruction at the hands of man with disturbing scenes of animal flesh and blood, and a cryptic scene of a mountain of bison skulls from the overkill of hide hunters. To the Great Plains Indians, nature was the center of our way of life. To whites, nature was the enemy to be conquered.The Revenantshows us both perspectives, but also reveals the injustice of colonization and the destruction of the land and nature.

The white men in the film are trappers and traders at the height of the beaver fur trade. Historically, these white men were the first that the Northern Plains Indian peoples met. The Indians did not meet the families of settlers who squatted on treaty lands after the U.S. military inflicted genocidal campaigns of death and destruction. The first trade forts were the first man camps, like those in the Bakken oil fields today. These groups of men undoubtedly had negative social impacts on the surrounding Indian and Indigenous communities. I commend the film for showing a mere glimpse of how hordes of men (without women and children) invaded Indian lands, set up forts, and lived as sexually repressed drunkards working for the mighty dollar. This form of settler-colonialism was not a new phenomenon and it has not vanished.

InThe Revenantwe see sides to American culture and history that are typically romanticized—lawlessness and greed. History reveals that, in fact, the hordes of traders and trappers brought lawlessness to Indian country, which was not lawless and inhabited by sophisticated Native nations. The introduction of the alcohol, gun, and sex trades destabilized numerous Native nations. As presented in the movie, the Indians did not want much from the whites aside from muskets (which were inferior to the efficiency and accuracy of bow and arrows) and horses (which they could have acquired through trade with other Indians in the first place). The white traders however, wantedeverythingfrom the Indians—their land, animals, their women, and even their children.

The white men inThe Revenanthad one loyalty above all others, money. In the film most of the trappers were motivated by money, and they were reluctant to help one another without compensation. In fact, without the promise of pay the trappers had no other reason to be in the wilderness, and I believe this to be historically accurate. Whether deliberate or not, the writers revealed a fundamental difference between Indigenous and colonial cultures—one was motivated by greed, while the other by family ties and tribal loyalties.

The film has its share of violence and the killing of Indians. Perhaps this is a common theme that will never part from mainstream films. From the killing the two Lakota boys at the introduction ofBury My Heart at Wounded Knee,to the killing of Kocoum in the children’s filmPocahontas,the fascination with killing Indians remains part of America’s pastime.The Revenantoffers a better approach to humanizing Indians however. Glass and his undying love for his wife and child reveals that we as humans have a lot more in common than we think.

Dr. Leo Killsback is a citizen of the Northern Cheyenne Nation, who culturally and spiritually identifies as a Cheyenne person. He is a Professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University and teaches American Indian & Indigenous Film and American Indian History.



The True Story Behind The Revenant, as Told in 1939

Jan. 7, 2016

If there were ever a true story ripe for big screen treatment, it’s that of Hugh Glass, a 19th century trapper who traveled 1,500 miles through the wilderness in pursuit of vengeance against the men who left him for dead after he was mauled by a bear. A fictionalized version of the tale was recently brought to life by Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu in The Revenant, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Glass, based on the 2002 Michael Punke novel of the same name.

But Punke’s book wasn’t the first to tell Glass’ story: in 1939, the New Deal-era Federal Writers’ Project published The Oregon Trail, a history of the American West in which Hugh Glass appears. In its review of the book, TIME called him “the angriest man in U.S. history.” Here is the real story, as told by that book:

In 1823, Glass joined a team led by Andrew Henry that traveled up the Missouri River and the Grand River in modern-day South Dakota. It was during that trip that Glass was mauled by a grizzly bear. “Before Glass could shoot or retreat, the animal had seized him and bitten out a large chunk of his flesh, which she dropped to her younglings,” the book relates. “Glass screamed for his fellows but before they could kill the bear he had been mangled from head to foot.”

In case you had any doubts to how truly fearsome grizzly bears are, The Oregon Trail offers some context: “The grizzly is one of the most ferocious and dangerous animals in the world—as some San Francisco gamblers proved long ago when they staged a fight between a grizzly and a tiger; the tiger was dead in a few seconds.”

Glass did not die, but his fellow travelers didn’t expect him to survive for long. They could not carry the injured man with them and, since winter was approaching, they could not risk staying with him until he died. The men in the group offered two of their own $80 (quite a sum in that time) to stay with Glass and give him a decent burial once he died. But Glass would not let go of life, and after five days the two men abandoned Glass, scared that they would perish themselves if they stayed any longer. “Slipping away they took with them all his belongings—his gun, knife, flint and other essentials of wilderness life,” the book continues. “These they gave to Henry and asserted that Glass had died.”

The book goes on to say that Glass’ “rage” at having been abandoned “provided the vitalizing will to live.” Without a gun, he began to drag himself to the nearest post, Fort Kiowa, 100 miles away. He was close to starving until he came upon a group of wolves killing a buffalo calf. He scared the animals off and ate the raw meat of the killed animal. He joined with a trapping party on its way to Yellowstone at the post, but they were attacked by a group of Native Americans, the Aricaras. None but Glass, who was saved by another tribe, the Mandan, survived.

Glass set off alone again and arrived at the Big Horn post, where he planned to enact his revenge, 38 days later. But the group that abandoned him had already left. He picked up supplies and joined yet another party of four men to Fort Atkinson in dogged pursuit of the men who betrayed him. They encountered another band of Aricaras. They seemed friendly, and Glass’ group joined them at their home. But it turned out the tribe’s chief had been killed by trappers the year before, and Glass and his fellow trappers had been set up. Two of the men were killed, while the others escaped. Glass found himself alone again.

Glass had lost his gun but still had his flint and knife. He was reported to say of these circumstances, “These little fixin’s make a man feel right pert when he is three or four hundred miles from anybody or anywhere.” They were apparently enough to sustain him until he eventually reached Fort Kiowa, later that spring.

What happened there, however, was rather anti-climactic:

“In June he walked into the fort at last to face those who had deserted him. Reports of his superhuman journey and vengeful desire had already reached the fort; he was received with awe and expectation, but his rage had been completely exhausted by the nine-month trek. Nothing happened.”

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