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The Revenant is a Game-Changer

Leonardo DiCaprio’s acceptance speech at the Golden Globe Awards revealed that his dedication to The Revenant went 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 like The Revenant and actors like DiCaprio reach audiences uninformed of Indian issues. This film is a game-changer.

The Revenant sets a new bar in filmmaking as it achieves what most films fail to do—it fairly represents Indians. After all, fairness in representation is all we are asking for. The Revenant exceeded my expectations further because it highlighted two themes that are rarely explored—justice and the beautiful forces of nature. The plot of The Revenant is 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.

In The 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 Revenant challenges 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 Revenant shows us both perspectives, but also reveals the injustice of colonization and the destruction of the land and nature.

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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.

In The Revenant we 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, wanted everything from the Indians—their land, animals, their women, and even their children.

The white men in The Revenant had 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 of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, to the killing of Kocoum in the children’s film Pocahontas, the fascination with killing Indians remains part of America’s pastime. The Revenant offers 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.