In Alejandro González Iñárritu’s grandiose frontier epic The Revenant, Vancouver actor Duane Howard stars as Elk Dog. It’s 1823 and the Arikara leader’s daughter has been kidnapped by one of the European fur traders who have come to take as many pelts as their horses can carry out of the harsh winter.
The film opens with Elk Dog’s war party descending on the traders as they flee in their boat, the precious furs safely on board. Elk Dog may have to forge an uneasy bargain with some of these newcomers in order to find his daughter and get his revenge.
With its obvious dedication to authenticity in its period details and use of First Nations languages, The Revenant is well equipped to tell Elk Dog’s story, but it only does that on the periphery.
No escape from colonial gaze
The Revenant is not an indigenous story. Like Dances with Wolves before it (among many others) it is an American fable that uses First Nations characters to support its allegorical intent, and one that never escapes the colonial gaze of the western genre.
The focus is on hired scout Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio), who’s been employed along with his Pawnee son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) to lead the hunters to good pelts and then get them back out safely. After Elk Dog’s attack, only a few of Glass’ party have survived.
In a mirroring of Elk Dog’s story, Glass witnesses his son’s murder at the hands of the desperate and dastardly John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), and must literally drag himself from a shallow grave to seek his revenge. Later his story intersects again with Elk Dog’s, but only after he must survive one ordeal after another, from bear attacks to an avalanche.
Like Kevin Costner’s more traditional western, The Revenant takes great strides to get period details correct around clothing, language, housing and combat, but does little to elevate the indigenous characters beyond narrative and storytelling devices.
Very loosely based on the novel by Michael Punke, screenwriter Mark L. Smith and Iñárritu have added Elk Dog and Hawk to Glass’s story, as well as the character of Glass’s wife (she doesn’t get a name, and is played by Grace Dove), who only appears in flashbacks.
Endemic issue with westerns
These additions speak to an endemic issue with the western as a genre when it comes to the representation of indigenous people.
As Armando Jose Prats writes in his book Invisible Natives: Myth and Identity in the American Western, “For all that it insists on the Indian’s virtual absence, however, the Western requires him — not because it needs to depict one more moment in the relentless course of empire, but because the Western functions primarily as a source of national self-identification.”
As a story about the indomitable spirit of the American frontier settler First Nations are required as an emblem of the wilderness being settled, as this is central to the colonial myth of “Manifest Destiny.”
First Nations have to be present in westerns in order to disappear and for America to be born. Glass, as an embodiment of the America frontiersman, must prevail — thus his ease at adopting indigenous language and his ability to survive events that surely would kill a normal man.
The Revenant fails to escape genre
Iñárritu has compared Glass to a saint, and indeed there is something spiritual about him. He is able to inhabit the skins of several creatures throughout the film, at various times clothed in bear skin or horse hide and embraces indigenous culture, as displayed by his family and bear claw necklace (as one hashtag reads, #DancesWithBears).
In the golden age of the western (1939-1960), representation was rarely an issue for Hollywood, largely because indigenous people were still trapped in the throes of genocide, with residential schools and restrictive laws still in place throughout North America.
There was no resistance to be offered to these images, and the First Nations involved on screen had little influence on their own depiction.
The social justice movements of the 1960s forever saw a drastic reduction in the production of westerns, as cultural tastes and politics shifted away from the depictions of previous generations.
In the 1980s, westerns almost ceased to exist, and those that were made mostly omitted First Nations. Dances With Wolves brought westerns back, if they ever truly went away, and imbued them with progressive strides in authenticity, but have still not solved issues of indigenous representation on screen.
A film about Elk Dog would be a major step in the right direction. A film about Hugh Glass, no matter how immaculately produced, is unable to escape the constraints of the genre it honours.