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“I Will Be Right Here”: The Revenant’s (Native) American Vision of Survival and Permanence

Although no tradition can fully encapsulate the breadth, depth, and diversity of the surviving 562 Indian tribes and 800 tribal dialects in North America, Native American literatures voice broad concerns shared by members of Indigenous communities across the continent. The aforementioned terminology testifies to this diversity, as Native people have yet to achieve consensus on which signifier constitutes the most appropriate expression of indigeneity.1 Adapted for the screen by Alejandro G. Inàrritu and Mark L. Smith from Michael Punke’s 2002 novel of the same name, The Revenant (2015) enter this conversation, communicating the following shared concerns during its pre-title sequence: a history of Indian death, destruction and loss of tribal land, and survival. Commencing with a pre-lap of howling wind, the film opens on young Hawk (Isaiah Tootoosis) lying asleep atop bear skin between Hugh Glass and his wife as the father whispers to his son in voiceover throughout a series of shots that progresses from Edenic idyll to the fall: “It’s okay, son. I know you want this to be over. I’m right here. I will be right here. But, you don’t give up. You hear me? As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe. Keep breathing.” On screen, Glass beholds young Hawk smiling and playing with his mother in a field under a tree. Now older, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck) gazes into the camera, a burn scar covering the left side of his face, while in the background a US cavalryman departs a blazing teepee with torch in hand (see Figure 1). Glass sits cross-legged in the dirt amidst the smoldering remains of the village with his back facing the camera, cradling young Hawk’s head as the boy rests in his father’s lap. This montage not only establishes the content of Glass’s unconscious memories, but it also communicates Inàrritu’s directorial intent: rather than position his film as an adaptation of a single text authored by a non-Indian, Inàrritu fashions The Revenant into a representation of Native American literatures as a genre by first appropriating then undercutting western conventions, national mythologies and culture heroes, Indian stereotypes, and US literature to spotlight the shared history, themes, and formal invention among Indian authors.

I Will Be Right Here The Revenant’s (Native) American Vision of Survival and Permanence, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1: Hawk after the fall.

Cinematic, Historico-Cultural, and Literary Antecedents

At first glance, The Revenant resembles a traditional western. Commencing with a naked trapper fleeing towards the encampment of a Rocky Mountain Fur Company expedition with an arrow lodged in his back, the first scene after the pre-title and title sequences restages the traditional western by casting the Arikara warriors who ambush Glass and the fur trappers as interloping stock Indians. The film also appropriates western tropes through the travails of Glass, who survives the ambush only to be waylaid by a grizzly bear, witness to his teenage son’s murder at the hands of John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), and buried alive by Fitzgerald, only to dig himself out of the grave and hike hundreds of miles across the Great Plains along the Missouri River on a broken leg to avenge his son.2 Inàrritu telegraphs the contrast between Glass and Fitzgerald during the ambush. Glass attacks Arikara warriors only in self-defense, fleeing while imploring fellow expeditioners to leave the beaver pelts behind and follow him to the boat, at one point even while fireman’s carrying a wounded trapper. Also retreating to the boat, Fitzgerald calls for fellow trappers to retrieve the pelts while going out of his way to assail Arikara warriors with the butt plate of his flintlock rifle and hunting knife, even kicking Elk Dog while he is down and smarting from a gunshot wound. The insult that often accompanies Fitzgerald’s injury of Indians during the ambush drips with irony, as his proclamations of “Fuckin’ savage!” apply more to him than his enemies. By staging an Indian ambush after the pre-title and title sequences and focusing on Glass’s post-ambush trials and quest for vengeance, Inàrritu codes The Revenant as a western that depicts one man’s largely solitary journey across a natural landscape peopled by pioneers living in camps and settlements under constant threat of violence from interloping Indians bent on obstructing Manifest Destiny.

Critics generally agree that The Revenant recalls specific Hollywood westerns like John Ford’s The Searchers (1956). Others, however, situate the film within a much larger context of US culture. Like the historical fur trapper-grizzly attack survivor-vengeance seeker on whom Punke’s novel is based, the film’s Hugh Glass displays, according to Manohla Dargis, a Bunyan-esque rugged individualism that recalls the mythological “mountain man [who] has long had a hold on the American imagination.” Rendered speechless by a mama grizzly protecting her cubs, a broken Glass witnesses Hawk’s murder before being dragged into a shallow grave. Refusing to give up the ghost, Glass pulls himself up and primarily crawls across the Plains, at intervals displaying “that old can-do pragmatism, go[ing] into survivalist mode to cauterize a wound, catch a fish, or find shelter” (Dargis).3 More than negotiating myths of the frontier and rugged individualism, which in fact signal the western dime novel, Inàrritu and Smith reach back even further by recasting Glass as a noble savage. The pre-title sequence represents Glass’s unconscious memories of a time before the fur expedition while also making abundantly clear that he has gone native. Hired for his expert knowledge of the terrain along the Missouri River, Glass’s dreams reveal that the scout had once lived in a Pawnee village, married a Pawnee woman, and fathered a half-Pawnee son, only to lose his home, spouse, and adopted tribe to US cavalry raids. By making Glass a witness to Hawk witnessing the destruction of his village and point-blank execution of his fleeing mother as well as Hawk’s disfigurement in dreams, Inàrritu and Smith fashion Glass’s travails into a microcosm of the atrocities inflicted upon Indians throughout this nation’s history, albeit through the lamentable trope of the lone-surviving (white) tribesman. The Revenant therefore inverts James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans (1826), “a multicultural father-and-son dyad... in a wilderness teeming with assorted savages” (Dargis). In this context, the given name to Glass’s half-Pawnee son—who likely did not exist—seems anything but coincidental.4

The generally positive portrayal of Indian characters in The Revenant prompted some critics to view it as a revisionist western. Such appraisals position Inàrritu’s film vis-à-vis Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves (1990) and, especially, Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005).5 A retelling of the Pocahontas legend from her perspective, The New World amounts to what A.A. Dowd considers “a whispery meditation on the relationship between man and nature... [that] supplies Glass with plenty of wordless dreams, spiritual visions, and flashbacks to his dead loved ones.” Ty Burr perceives these dreams and visions as “overwrought.” Ann Hornaday goes even further, dismissing Glass’s unconscious memories as “moments of arty transcendence... [on] a death trip disguised as a spiritual awakening.” For Inàrritu, this death trip catalyzes Glass’s spiritual awakening, the director-cowriter telling Jonathan Romney that “[t]he whole journey...[is Glass] remembering. The word ‘remembering’ comes from the members - you lose a member of your family, you lose a member of your body, your hair, your teeth. He’s stitching his members back. He’s remembering himself and coming to terms back alive, healing, being reborn again.” Although elements of the revisionist western most often manifest through Glass’s memories of becoming Indian, the genre’s conventions also become apparent during Elk Dog’s journey.

Inàrritu and Smith intersperse several vignettes throughout The Revenant that give voice to the Indian perspective of Manifest Destiny. Elk Dog steps into this space, speaking truth to (white) power by challenging stereotypes the Hollywood western has conditioned audiences to accept as true, particularly the motivation (or lack thereof) for Indian ambushes. The Arikara chief reveals that the ambush constitutes retaliation for the abduction of his daughter Powaqa rather than ignoble savagery. In the aftermath of the ambush, Elk Dog commands his warriors to collect the remaining pelts so that he can trade with French fur trappers. Toussaint (Fabrice Adde) refuses to renegotiate terms, subjecting the chief to a lecture dripping with an ethnocentric hypocrisy that far too often permeates “historical” accounts about the “taming” of the American frontier. After Elk Dog refuses to have a whiskey with Toussaint, the Frenchman chastises the chief for not honoring their agreement to only trade firearms and ammunition and halves the fee for the pelts because they already bear the brand of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company. In the film’s most explicit verbal rebuke of the Hollywood western, (mis)conceptions of US history, and the archetypal ignoble savage, Elk Dog challenges Toussaint’s consensus memory in French (“You stand there and talk to me about honor?”) before diving into the Frenchman in Arikara: “You all have stolen everything from us. Everything! The land. The animals. Two white men snuck into our village and took my daughter . . . I take your horses to find my daughter. You are free to try and stop me.”6 Hornaday observes that this subplot illustrates The Searchers’ “narrative of captivity turned on its head.” However, Elk Dog’s relentless pursuit of Powaqa and her white captors and the woman’s post-rape castration of Toussaint, her actual abductor, invert Colonial-era captivity narratives such as Mary Rowlandson’s The Sovereignty and Goodness of God (1682) and Cotton Mather’s account of Hannah Dustan’s captivity in Magnalia Christi Americana (1702). Moreover, the trade deal between Elk Dog and Toussaint signals a much wider context, dramatizing in microcosm the history of Indian-white trade relations, including factors that contributed to the development of stereotypes such as the vanishing Indian (genocide, white violation of treaties, captivity on both sides, and forcible removal of Indians from tribal land) and the alcoholic reservation Indian (US government extermination of the bison and reservation policy).

The catalyst for Elk Dog’s and Glass’s parallel journeys also suggests noble savagery and the revisionist western. By dramatizing the fur trade at its peak in The Revenant, Inàrritu restages (the white) man’s deleterious effect on the wilderness that would become the Western United States. Edward Lawrenson observes this in Lubezki’s cinematography, which alternates between “breathtaking wide shots of men engulfed in their vast surroundings . . . [and] uncomfortable close-ups of the weathered features of actors buffeted by snow and rain” to fashion the fur trappers into “figures lost in an inhospitable environment . . .  strangers to this land, immigrants no less” (26). Having emigrated from Mexico to the US earlier this century, Inàrritu identifies a second major theme in his film, “the beginning of deregulated capitalism” (Lawrenson 25). Inàrritu argues that these trappers represent the genesis of US capitalism:

The way these men deal with nature[…] Cutting trees – profit from it. Killing animals – profit from it. And the impact they had on the indigenous communities, the broken promises and contracts and the blindness of seeing them as people, the fear of the otherness, the judgments and the prejudice of the colour of the skin and other cultural beliefs[…] We haven’t escaped from that kind of fear and prejudice. (Romney)

Fitzgerald embodies this still-pervasive fear and prejudice, his senseless stabbing of Hawk, assaulting of any Indian who crosses his path, and accompanying such injuries with racist vitriol revealing the fur trapper as the film’s ignoble savage. At the same time, Fitzgerald’s journey illustrates that fear and prejudice are not limited to matters of race: after finally arriving at Fort Kiowa, the trapper learns from Captain Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) that his supplies cost more than his contracted pay; this lesson, Dargis observes, shows Fitzgerald that “the system that turns people and animals into commodities is rigged against men like him.”7 In this sense, perhaps the fur trapper functions in the film as both a victim and victimizer.

With their recasting of a white man as an ignoble savage to critique unregulated capitalism in The Revenant, Inàrritu and Smith fashion Fitzgerald into an heir of the Puritan legacy of unrestrained venture capitalism. Focusing on ambition, meaningful work, and material success as reassurance of salvation, Puritanism engendered national myths like American exceptionalism and the land of opportunity, which in part underpinned the doctrine of Manifest Destiny. In their screenplay, Inàrritu and Smith supplement Fitzgerald’s actions with dialogue that expresses his desire to get on (“I ain’t got no life! I just got living, and the only way I get to do that is through these pelts!”) and the doctrine of predestination (“The good Lord’s got us on the road whether we choose it or not.”). In addition, the trapper offers Glass the Sacrament before attempting to asphyxiate him, stabs Hawk to death for stopping the smothering (and for his indigeneity), and encourages fellow trapper Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) with adages such as “The Lord’s on our side.” Perhaps responding to Fitzgerald’s reference to predestination, Hornaday perceives the influence of Jack London’s late-nineteenth-century naturalism on the film’s setting, which depicts the “snowy state of nature at its most pitilessly indifferent.” This setting also signals more than just the traditional and revisionist western and the noble and ignoble savage.

The Revenant suggests alternative historical perspectives and literary contexts by placing a predominantly white male cast in an untamable natural environment. The title sequence suggests as much with a continuous tracking shot along a creek invaded by the barrel of Bridger’s rifle. Lawrenson notes the paradoxical taming of the seemingly untamable in the following scene, his observation of the calm before the Arikara ambush suggesting Native American literatures:

Wrapped in sodden fur and animal skin, their gaunt features barely visible behind messy nests of beards, this handful of mountain men . . . are first glimpsed skinning the pelts from their kills . . . an image of unchecked ecological plunder, the muddy terrain soaked through with blood – and perpetrated by men on the brink of exhaustion. They seem less like embodiments of national exceptionalism as survivors of some unspecified apocalypse, or mercenaries fleeing a losing battle. (26)

Inàrritu stages the ambush in a manner that specifies what Lawrenson merely implies: during the chaos, flaming arrows shoot across the sky like meteors, an unseen trapper rescues Glass from the aggression of an Arikara warrior with burn scars along his right hand and forearm. A hopeless trapper executes his horse with a pistol. Smoke rises to the sky as trappers retreat to the boat. An Arikara elder walks through the smoldering remains of the camp wrapped in a blanket, chanting while Arikara women weep and wail off screen.8 Finally, a burning tree topples to the ground after Elk Dog commands surviving warriors to collect as many pelts as possible to trade with French fur trappers (see Figure 2). The ambush and its aftermath identify the fur trappers as ecological mercenaries marking their territory before lighting out to conquest even more and the Arikara as survivors of the American Indian apocalypse, a lost cause Inàrritu venerates using elements of Native American literatures that reflect the desire of Indian authors to correct the historical record, (re)connect with tribal identity, and create a vehicle to tell their stories in their own way. These elements include Indian relation of a post-contact history rife with death, destruction and loss of tribal land, and survival; reclamation of tribal identity through sacred ceremony; and fusion of tribal forms with “mainstream” US literary forms to blur the boundary between the physical and metaphysical.

I Will Be Right Here The Revenant’s (Native) American Vision of Survival and Permanence, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2: Aftermath of the Arikara ambush.

From Literature(s) to Film

By adapting components of Native American literatures to film rather than Punke’s novel, Inàrritu signs The Revenant as a text that serves corrective, connective, and creative purposes like the work of Indian authors. First, in their script Inàrritu and Smith signal their intention to correct traditional conceptions of US history that dismiss the costs of Manifest Destiny for Indians. Beyond exploring themes of man versus nature, the travails of Glass and Elk Dog amidst the commercial fur trade illustrates in microcosm post-contact history. LaVonne Brown Ruoff argues that Indian authors often explore the legacy of fur trade expansion into Indian country that affected how tribes interacted with whites and with each other and made tribes dependent on whites for trade; Manifest Destiny and subsequent federal legislation aimed at Indian removal West of the Mississippi River; violation of the Indian Removal Act of 1830 by white prospectors and criminals forging into Indian Territory; and post-Gold Rush and postbellum reservation policy, especially the US government’s extermination of the bison (2-3). Post-ambush scenes in The Revenant restage each of the aforementioned issues, thereby testifying to the film’s function as a counternarrative to (a)historical accounts of the American frontier, à la Native American literatures.

Inàrritu references Westward expansion and Indian removal in the immediate aftermath of the ambush. Acting on advice from Glass, who deduces that he and fellow survivors would be vulnerable to another ambush if they continue traveling on the Missouri River, Captain Henry orders the men to desert the boat, bury the remaining pelts, mark the spot, and walk to Fort Kiowa on a new course Glass will chart. A frustrated Fitzgerald gripes about their predicament, blaming Glass and Hawk for the vulnerability of the camp on account of a rumor he had heard about the father and son surviving a US cavalry raid that killed over forty Pawnee Indians and twenty-one cavalrymen. Fitzgerald recounts the rumor to fellow survivors, accusing Glass of shooting a lieutenant to death and demeaning Hawk and his mother’s indigeneity. After Hawk stands up to Fitzgerald, who retreats only after Glass reminds Fitzgerald that he stands in front of the barrel of his rifle, the scout admonishes his son in Pawnee: “I told you to be invisible, son … If you want to survive, keep your mouth shut … They don’t hear your voice! They just see the color of your face.” This exchange makes visible the tension teeming within this father-and-son dyad: Hawk’s face bears the physical scars inflicted by those who only see the color of his skin, and his speaking out voices the psychological scars of internalizing their hatred to the point of invisibility as a defense mechanism. After setting up camp later that night, Hawk lies with his back facing Glass, Inàrritu filming the son in medium-shot in the foreground and his father in soft focus in the background as Glass announces that he will travel West to blaze a trail to Fort Kiowa on foot as tears stream down Hawk’s cheeks. The inverse of this Trail of Tears reference occurs the following day, when Hawk sleeps against a tree behind Fitzgerald as the white man scratches and washes his scarred scalp, a reminder of Indian resistance to white encroachment and subjugation (see Figure 3).

I Will Be Right Here The Revenant’s (Native) American Vision of Survival and Permanence, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3: Fitzgerald and his scars.

Elk Dog and Toussaint’s trade deal references the history of white violation of treaties, especially the Frenchman’s double dealing and insistence on drinking whiskey to consummate their agreement. However, the dynamic between the Arikara and fur trading companies established by competing imperial powers also recalls military conflicts such as the Pequot War (1637) and King Philip’s War (1672–76) against American colonists and the Pueblo Revolt against Spanish settlers (1680); the subsequent genocide, captivity, and forcible removal of Indians from tribal lands; and US government extermination of the bison and enactment of reservation policy. Elk Dog’s retaliation for white intrusion into his village challenges the myths of the vanishing and reservation Indian that this legislation helped create, thereby testifying to the shared history Native American literatures often explore. Kenneth Roemer identifies shared history as the first of six common concerns expressed by Indian authors, who “often challenge popular notions of specific events and figures . . . to encompass an alternative world view . . . to the ‘lighting out for the territory’ and ‘frontier’ narratives of non-Indian American literature” (11, 17). Although The Revenant reflects the influence of frontier and western mythos, its depiction of Elk Dog speaking for himself and justifying the ambush as retaliation cautions viewers against the consensus memory that Indians nobly vanished behind border(lands) reserved for them.

Despite reprising the trope of the last white tribesman, Inàrritu and Smith’s characterization of Glass also contributes to their critique by restaging the history that Elk Dog and Toussaint’s trade deal suggests. Glass’s unconscious memories after being maimed by a mama grizzly function as the conduit for such historical reenactments, substantiate the rumor recounted by Fitzgerald, and document the history of Indian-white relations with a focus on Indian losses. Having carried Glass on a makeshift stretcher of tree limbs through the forest, the survivors cannot lift him up a mountain, prompting Captain Henry—unwilling to mercy kill his scout in front of the man’s son—to offer $100 each for three men to stay behind with Glass and commit his body to the ground once he succumbs to his injuries. Hawk and Bridger volunteer, and Fitzgerald volunteers only after Hawk and Bridger pledge their share to him. As Hawk and Bridger care for Glass and Fitzgerald impatiently awaits the scout’s seemingly inevitable death, Glass dreams of young Hawk running across a smoldering village, the left side of his face aflame. Circling back to the pre-title sequence, this dream initiates a montage that intercuts the present with flashbacks and metaphysical visions. Seated crossed-legged the dirt, Glass cradles young Hawk, holding a moist cloth to his son’s mouth so that he can sup water from it while whispering the proverb of survival to the boy in Pawnee. Hawk repeats this refrain to the unconscious Glass in the present. The father continues whispering the refrain and consoling Hawk in the dream, which resumes with US cavalrymen setting teepees aflame with hand torches as Glass’s wife whispers in voiceover: “When there is a storm [. . .] as you stand in front of a tree [. . .] if you look at its branches, you swear it will fall. But if you watch the trunk, you will see its stability.” Immediately thereafter, young Hawk witnesses his mother gunned down in the back by a US cavalryman and envisions the departure of her soul, a bird hatching out of the bullet hole. Glass envisions himself lying incapacitated in the forest, his wife levitating above his head. Now widowed, Glass sleeps with young Hawk in his arms, then beholds (burial) mounds of bison skulls on the Plains.

Subsequent dreams further testify to the influence of Native American literatures on The Revenant. In dreams, Glass envisions himself beholding a mound of bison skulls up close, then wearing a bison skull inside a sweat lodge. A US cavalryman surveys the interior of a burning teepee and, turning to exit, faces Glass, who aims a pistol at him. Glass outstretches his blood-stained hands. Hawk’s body has been committed to the Missouri River, presumably by Elk Dog’s war party, who had discovered the teenager’s corpse while searching for Powaqa. Glass’s dreams depict what Roemer identifies as the second common concern voiced by Indian authors—post-apocalyptic perspectives. Secular in nature, such post-apocalyptic worldviews express the “historical sense of a people who have already experienced a near extinction, survived, and carry on . . . belie[ving] that the destructive phase of the apocalypse has already occurred” (11-12). Despite apocalyptic imagery of fire, disfigurement, death, decomposition, and desolation in Glass’s dreams and the Arikara ambush, the scout’s unconscious memories also illustrate an awareness of miraculous survival—the third common concern raised by Indian authors (Roemer 11-12). Although Glass endures a grizzly attack, surviving racist legislation and violence seems even more unlikely, as Fitzgerald suggests with the sarcastic growl that concludes his account of the US cavalry raids that destroyed Glass and Hawk’s village: “That’s kind of a miracle, don’t you think?” Although Elk Dog’s trade deal and Glass’s dreams both catalog and express sorrow for tragic losses, they also voice “a persistent articulation, even celebration, of the good stories of survival, including a strong will to defend tribal and cultural sovereignty and identity,” which Roemer identifies as the fourth common concern raised by Indian authors (12). Glass consciously exhibits hope for pan-tribal sovereignty and identity by intervening on Powaqa’s behalf, the scout having crossed paths with her and the French trappers on his journey. This hope is fulfilled as the film climaxes: Glass leaves Fitzgerald to the mercy of the Missouri rather than killing him, and its current washes the trapper into the arms of Elk Dog, who fatally scalps the white man and forges on with Powaqa by his side, leaving Glass be.

Glass and Powaqa’s role in each other’s survival in The Revenant expresses the same yearning for tribal interconnectivity and identity as Native American literatures. The white man’s primarily solitary voyage before crossing paths with the Arikara woman, however, perhaps more strongly expresses this hope by depicting his reclamation of tribal identity through ceremony. Richard Fleck observes that characters in contemporary Indian writing suffer alienation and dislocation via removal from tribal land by either war or urbanization, which can only be mitigated by “the process of a gradual reaffirmation of tribal values” (3). Glass’s unconscious vision of wearing a bison skull in a sweat lodge constitutes this gradual process; however, the scout also reaffirms tribal values while conscious. Occurring between two dreams that recall cavalrymen raiding his village, Glass wakes, climbs out of his grave, and crawls to his son’s corpse. After checking for a pulse, the father rests his head on Hawk’s chest and whispers, “I’m not leaving you, son. I’m right here” (see Figure 4). Then, Glass completes the mourning ritual by snapping a water sprout from a nearby tree, inserting it into his son’s mouth, and presumably whispering his goodbyes. Suzanne Lundquist observes the centrality of ceremony in Native American literatures, noting that Indian authors tend to focus on characters who act out of either “knowledge of or estrangement from sacred narratives, ceremonies, and communities” (5). Glass’s impromptu funeral ceremony for Hawk constitutes an action of knowledge; however, his son’s death also represents estrangement because it leaves Glass alone, thus illustrating what Roemer identifies as the fifth common concern expressed by Indian authors— “complex concepts of communal identity” (11). Glass and Hawk’s survival of raids by US cavalrymen illustrates the first of three “central motifs of the post-apocalyptic worldview of communal identity . . . the fracturing, decentering, and confusing multiracial expanding of communal identities” that result from survival mechanisms which prompt “[v]oluntary and forced abandonment and separation.” The second motif of post-apocalyptic communal identity, though, privileges “message[s] of the survival and adaptation … Often small scale, adaptations are humane, sometimes humorous, and genuinely miraculous” (Roemer 13-14). On the road to revenge, Glass receives such a message upon crossing paths with Hikuc (Arthur RedCloud).

I Will Be Right Here The Revenant’s (Native) American Vision of Survival and Permanence, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 4: Glass mourns Hawk.

Glass encounters Hikuc after a journey comprised of camping in a cave by fireside, repurposing a tree limb into a crutch, and escaping the Arikara by sliding into the Missouri and allowing its current to wash him away. After surfacing down river and falling asleep on its bank, Glass wakes and wades into the water, fishes by hand, and eats the animal raw. Unseen howling and rumbling interrupt Glass’s meal and, after struggling up a small hill in the direction of the commotion, he marvels at a herd of bison surrounding a small pack of wolves stalking a lone bison in the center. After falling asleep against a tree, Glass wakes to witness a whimpering wolf hobbling away from a series of fires blazing around a bison carcass, where Hikuc feasts. Glass approaches the Indian from the rear, prompting Hikuc to lay down his meal, take up his bow and arrow, and aim for the white man. Glass immediately holds up his hands in surrender, falls on his face, and gestures for food, which Hikuc obliges by tossing him raw bison liver. Hikuc wakes Glass the following morning, surveying the white man’s injuries and inquiring about his condition in Pawnee. Glass manages to relate Fitzgerald’s murder of Hawk and his own survival, handing the Indian the necklace Bridger had fashioned out of grizzly claws as a trophy. “I lost my family, too,” Hikuc replies, expressing hope for tribal sovereignty and identity: “Sioux killed my people. I’m going South to find more Pawnee. My heart bleeds, but revenge is in the Creator’s hands. You will ride with me.” Like Glass and Elk Dog, Hikuc’s tale of survival and adaptation references the history of Indian-white relations: the extermination of his people by Sioux warriors and his own death at the hands of Toussaint and the French fur trappers constitutes the cost of the fur trade as, Ruoff reports, American and French corporations routinely recruited Indian tribes to “secure their claims to various territories or to defeat their enemies, Indian or non-Indian” (2). In this sense, Glass’s discovery of Hikuc’s lifeless body hanging from a tree visually rebukes the Hollywood western, misconceptions of US history, and the ignoble savage, the makeshift caution sign the French trappers had placed around Hikuc’s broken neck reading, “ON EST TOUS DES SAUVAGES” (“WE ARE ALL WILD”).

Before Hikuc meets his fate, a montage featuring Glass riding with the Indian on horseback and the adopted kinsmen camping by fireside makes visible their path as the last of the Pawnees. Hikuc’s journey signals a departure from and convergence of Roemer’s and Lundquist’s perspectives on Native American literatures. For Roemer, Hikuc represents the third motif of post-apocalyptic communal fracture and survival/adaptation, functioning like “characters, poetic personae, and the ‘speakers’ and writers of life narratives [who] identify themselves (or be defined by narrators) as embodiments of families, clans, bands, single tribes, and multiple tribes” (13). Lundquist, though, would consider Hikuc’s journey a migration narrative because of his “struggle to find or be lead to . . . lands of inheritance . . . [or] gain some ecological or psychological advantage; to flee from dangerous circumstances; or to more fully share in human communities” (5). At the same time, Hikuc merges Lundquist’s and Roemer’s perspectives on the centrality of ceremony and complex conceptions of communal identity. One of the few moments of levity in The Revenant encapsulates this synthesis: the kinsmen camp by fireside as snow descends from the evening sky, and Hikuc leads Glass in a small-scale, humane, and humorous display of survival, both men giddily catching snowflakes on their tongues in a childlike, noble savage manner (see Figure 5).

I Will Be Right Here The Revenant’s (Native) American Vision of Survival and Permanence, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 5: Hikuc and Glass catch snowflakes on their tongues.

As the montage unfolds, flurries give way to a storm, and Glass’s condition worsens. In response Hikuc gathers shards of grass and tree branches, builds a fire, and chops down a small tree, all while chanting Pawnee in voiceover. After wedging the toppled tree between the branches of two small, rooted trees, Hikuc drags Glass in the center and covers them all with Glass’s grizzly pelt to form a sweat lodge, the Indian’s chanting transitioning to the voice of Glass’s wife repeating her proverb of permanence. Hikuc disrobes Glass from the waist up, rolls the white man on his stomach, and packs pieces of grassland into his wounds. The Indian places a burning grass-filled cloth twisted into a bag atop Glass’s maimed left hand and covers the bag with snow shortly thereafter, resulting in the injured man passing out. After a period of recovery, Glass wakes, forces his right hand through the grizzly pelt, and emerges from the sweat lodge to calmed winds, sunshine, melting snow dripping from trees, and a canteen filled with (living) water that Hikuc had hanged from a tree branch. Born again, Glass can now walk without assistance and resume his journey, another moment of didacticism that becomes visible after taking into account what Glass witnesses while unconscious.

Glass dreams of Hawk while recuperating in the impromptu sweat lodge. Commencing with a petroglyph, an image Inàrritu reveals to be a mural of the Crucifixion, this wordless dream features the tattooed hand of an unidentified Indian feeling along the wall of a former Spanish mission. Glass envisions himself witnessing the ruins: all that remains are the rear wall adorned with the Crucifixion mural, tolling bell, and front wall, where a wide chasm runs along its center from the bell tower up top down to what used to be the entrance. Trees have sprung up in what was the mission’s interior and, as Glass surveys the holy site, he happens upon Hawk standing before the mural at the feet of Christ. Wrapped in a blanket, Hawk turns to face Glass and approaches his father. They embrace. Inàrritu shoots the reunion in close-up, Glass closing his eyes and exhaling before the camera pulls out to reveal the white man embracing a tree, the wifeless husband and childless father’s vision ending with a final bell toll. Although this sequence suggests a new birth experience, Inàrritu immediately undercuts it as a possibility by not only pulling out to reveal Glass embracing a tree instead of his son, but also staging a natural birth of sorts.

Upon resuming his journey, Glass witnesses Hikuc’s corpse hanging high over the horizon, the white man’s rebirth as illusory as the Immaculate Conception, Resurrection, and Ascension are for many non-religious individuals like Inàrritu.9 This discovery initiates Glass’s second death, which occurs after the white man pays forward the mercy Hikuc had shown him. As the Indian’s corpse hangs outside the French trappers’ camp just above Glass’s head, the white man intervenes on Powaqa’s behalf, turning Toussaint’s own pistol on the Frenchman to stop him from raping the woman and untethering both Hikuc’s horse and the Frenchmen’s horses. Resting against a tree after escaping atop Hikuc’s steed, Glass communes with his wife in a wheat field, his reverie interrupted by the arrow of an unseen Arikara warrior impaling the tree. While fleeing the Arikara war party, Glass rides the horse off a cliff, the animal plunging directly to the ground and its death while an evergreen tree breaks Glass’s fall. To survive, Glass disembowels the horse, disrobes completely, breaks the bones of the carcass, and cocoons himself inside (see Figure 6). The following morning, a naked Glass emerges from the belly of the beast to conditions similar to those he faced after emerging from the sweat lodge. After dressing, he pets the horse’s snout in appreciation before departing on foot across snow-covered Plains and thawing streams. This act of appreciation demonstrates, according to Fleck, that “the land and all living things upon it... [are] interrelated with Tongashala or the great spirit as their father and Earth Mother who is, of course, all of life’s mother” (4). Occurring outside amidst nature, this literal birth brings Glass back from the dead, a revenant.

I Will Be Right Here The Revenant’s (Native) American Vision of Survival and Permanence, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 6: Glass’s rebirth.

Not only does this sequence illustrate Glass completing the process of stitching his members back via ceremony and nature, but it also further adapts thematic concerns of Native American literatures to film. Glass’s vision of Hawk among the ruins of a Spanish mission and revelation of his actual absence evokes an Indian spirituality that counters the Catholicism that was used, in part, to justify European domination of the New World and its inhabitants. Roemer observes that Indian authors emphasize “the importance of place in both spiritual and secular realms,” which derives from Indian religious expressions that are “grounded primarily in spatial relationships” (16). Glass’s vision replicates this

strong awareness of the absence of Indian possession of former Indian places... [and] the difficulty of establishing a sense of place by stressing the paradoxical presence of absence... of former tribal lands and of the limits of Indian sovereignty in Indian country... which can take the form of a painful daily consciousness of places lost... The awareness can address the effects of past and present removals and relocations from place... [and] the absence of traditional place/community implies the desperate need for combinations of old and new senses of place. (Roemer 17-18)

By creating a fictional wife and son for Hugh Glass, Inàrritu and Smith make their major contribution to the revenant legend, transposing the painful Indian consciousness of lost land and sovereignty into the unconscious memories of a white man remembering the loss of his nontraditional family and community.

In addition to historical and thematic issues, Glass’s vision of Hawk in the deserted Spanish mission adapts formal elements of Native American literatures to film. This sequence illustrates, as do Glass’s previous dreams and visions in The Revenant, Inàrritu’s fusion of Indian spirituality and mainstream filmmaking techniques such as flashback and montage. In Native American literatures, the merger of Indian spirituality and non-Indian forms like stream of consciousness creates, according to Fleck, “time fusion through symbolic, petroglyphic layering of character and action and of images of landscapes and inscapes of the mind” that result in “North American Magical Realism,” or the juxtaposition of Indian “myth” to (white) American “reality” (3). Inàrritu’s fragmented and disjointed rendering of Glass’s dreams and visions adapts to film the petroglyphic layering of character and action in Native American literatures, resulting in cinematic North American magical realism: Glass communes with Hawk among the ruins of a Spanish mission, Hawk envisions a bird hatch from the bullet wound that killed his mother, and Glass sees her levitating above him as he lies incapacitated in the forest, her silhouette seemingly gliding amidst wheat stalks then levitating above him as he lies in a wheat field, and her standing in the snow by a tree then walking into the forest. Occurring after his climactic fight with Fitzgerald, this final vision constitutes the only instance of Glass consciously witnessing the woman and, by standing upright and walking away from him rather than levitating above his head, signals an ambiguous ending that suggests he is not conscious, and she is leading him to the other side.

The repetition of Indian language in The Revenant also adapts aspects of Indian storytelling. This style encapsulates the threefold purpose of Native American literatures to correct the record, connect with tribal identity, and create distinct Indian forms. Creating complex economies of language, space, and time using Indian spirituality and storytelling, this sixth and final concern voiced by Indian authors, according to Roemer, illustrates how “[t]raditional Native American word concepts move far beyond describing, communicating, and explaining to encompass generative powers of creating and interconnecting. . . Word power and sense of place are intimately connected” (16). In this context, Glass and Hawk’s proverb of survival, Hawk and his mother’s proverb of permanence, and Hikuc’s proverb of forgiveness function as much more than overwrought moments of arty transcendence on a death trip disguised as a whispery meditation on the relationship between man and nature. These proverbs illustrate the generative powers of the (spoken) word and place to create and interconnect, which primarily take hold whenever Glass unconsciously remembers past interconnections as his body heals amidst nature. In addition, the repetition of these proverbs expresses the communal nature of Native American literatures, these characters often reciting their proverbs “in chant-like cadences of repetition with variation” (Roemer 15-16). Therefore, Glass’s recitation to young Hawk (“I’m right here. I will be right here. .  . As long as you can still grab a breath, you fight. You breathe. Keep breathing.”) changes when teenage Hawk comforts Glass post-grizzly attack (“I’m right here. I’ll be right here. . . You are still breathing.”) and again as the father mourns his son (“I’m not leaving you, son. I’m right here.”). Glass indeed remains and, as he deposits Fitzgerald into the Missouri River, Glass adapts Hikuc’s “[R]evenge is in the Creator’s hands” into “Revenge is in God’s hands, not mine,” the potentially-surviving white tribesman grabbing breath by deep breath while witnessing his wife walk away in the snow.10

The woman in Glass and Hawk’s life voices the same variation in her disembodied recitations. She singsongs her second recitation as the snowstorm intensifies and Hikuc builds Glass a sweat lodge, and she whispers the third as the white man struggles up a hill after fighting Fitzgerald. However, Inàrritu portrays complex economies of language, space, and time with the wife and mother’s first recitation in the aftermath of the grizzly attack, which predates Hawk’s rendition to his mauled father: “Can you hear that wind, father? Remember what mother used to say about the wind? The wind cannot defeat a tree with strong roots. You are still breathing.” This proverb of permanence foreshadows Hawk’s murder and Glass’s survival, Inàrritu fashioning the metaphorical storm of Hawk’s murder, which Glass physically cannot prevent, into a literal storm: Glass faces the sky after witnessing Fitzgerald stab his son to death, the sky blackening and trees blowing violently in the wind. The woman’s second recitation of her proverb conveniently takes place as Hikuc chops down a tree amidst a violent snowstorm while chanting a presumably similar adage. Occurring as Glass’s physical condition worsens, this moment constitutes the second storm that will seemingly shatter Glass forever; however, the two rooted trees and one chopped tree that form the foundation of the impromptu sweat lodge also form the foundation of Inàrritu’s argument: only sacred ceremony provides the stability of tribal community and identity, which therefore grants salvation—the miracle of survival.

Answering the Call

Despite Inàrritu fashioning The Revenant into a representation of Native American literatures, the film’s embodiment of concerns voiced by Indian authors were generally greeted by the Indigenous community in North America as either happy accidents that imply such concerns or dismissed as hollow platitudes that obscure the changing same. Scholar Leo Killsback (Cheyenne) and visual artist Alex Jacobs (Mohawk) both suggest that the film’s rendering of the nineteenth-century Great Plains (re)captures a harshness that emphasizes, whether intentional or not, the importance of communal ties for survival, be they familial, tribal, or otherwise. Most Indian authors, artists, activists, and critics concur with Canadian comic Ryan McMahon (Anishinaabe/Mètis) and acclaimed author Sherman Alexie (Spokane-Coeur d’Alene), who perceive Leonardo DiCaprio’s shout-out to indigenous people during his Golden Globe award acceptance speech as proof of the lingering inequalities in Indian representation on screen, behind the camera and, especially, in the board room. In this way, Indian artists and cultural critics join mainstream film critics in viewing Inàrritu and Mark Smith’s adaptation of Michael Punke’s novel as a Hollywood western that features ignoble savages ambushing Rocky Mountain Fur Company trappers, scores of nameless stock Indians dying a violent death, Indian women falling prey to either white male exoticization or fetishization, and a noble savage sidekick sacrificing for the personal growth of a white savior. However, The Revenant also represents a revisionist western based on the debt Glass owes to “the kindness of strangers” like Hikuc, which constitutes, according to Lawrenson, “a departure from the ethos of self-reliance and individualism that classic frontier tales have thrived on and perpetuated” (25). Likewise, the (albeit marginal) space Inàrritu and Smith create for Elk Dog and Powaqa counters Colonial-era American literature: the Arikara chief’s ambush of the fur expedition’s camp results from blood ties rather than bloodlust, and his daughter’s castration of Toussaint constitutes payback for her abduction and rape.

Although The Revenant certainly belongs in discussions focusing on the aforementioned contexts, Inàrritu makes abundantly clear during the pre-title sequence that any discussion of his film cannot commence without first acknowledging its firm grounding in the tradition of Native American literatures. The proverb of survival that Glass speaks during this apocalyptic vision voices common concerns expressed by Indian authors and therefore encapsulates Native American literatures and their focus on the necessity of Indians documenting their shared history of post-contact relations with whites, reclaiming tribal identity through scared ceremony, and fusing tribal and non-tribal forms to create complex economies of language, space, and time that result in the blurring of the physical and metaphysical. It becomes clear, then, that The Revenant represents Inàrritu’s response to the call issued by Andrew Wiget thirty years ago. In his analysis of Indian storytelling using performance theory, Wiget suggests that visual mediums such as cinema are most effective for articulating the concerns voiced by Native American literatures (318). Now is the time for more Indian storytellers to follow Inàrritu’s lead.


1 Native American-Indian terminology: Generally speaking, members of Indigenous communities across the US self-identify according to tribal affiliation(s) and reject “pan-Indian” signifiers such as “Native American,” “American Indian,” and “Indian.” One objection to such terminology is literal: anyone born in the Americas could self-identify as Native American, regardless of ethnicity or nationality, the term American Indian sublimates the pre-Colonial indigeneity of Native people to the postcolonial order, and anyone born in India is quite literally an Indian. Another objection deals with history and culture, the term Indian recalling Christopher Columbus and the painful legacy of settler-colonialism, including the legal definition of Indigenous people according to the US government (e.g. Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Museum of the American Indian), and Native stereotype and caricature in western dime novels, movies, and television, particularly “stock Indians” like the noble and ignoble savage, interloper, vanishing Indian, and reservation Indian. (In Fugitive Poses, his 1998 book of literary criticism, Gerald Vizenor rejects such stereotypes by using indian.) As a result, members of Indigenous communities across the US tend to reject the terms American Indian and Native American on the grounds that they attempt to erase this history so as to ease white guilt. The American Indian Movement (AIM) of the late-sixties and 1970s, however, sought to (re)claim the word Indian and subvert its pejorative connotations, and it is from this context that Native American studies as an academic discipline grew, Native Americanists often using the term Indian as a signifier in their scholarship and teaching. As a result, perhaps to limit unnecessary repetition, Native Americanists tends to use the terms Indian, American Indian, Native American, “Native,” and “Indigenous” interchangeably. This practice follows those members of Indigenous communities across the US who choose to self-identify in pan-Indian terms, a choice that often depends on individual generational affiliation and evolving social mores: members of older generations use Indian, members of younger generations use American Indian, members of even younger generations use Native American, and currently there is a movement towards simply Native or Indigenous. It should be noted that the aforementioned signifiers refer to the US, as those Native people of Alaska and Canada who choose to self-identify in pan-tribal terms prefer “First Nations.” The Revenant prominently features First Nations actors, notably Duane Howard (Nuu-chah-nulth), who plays Elk Dog, Melaw Nakehk’o (Dehcho and Denesuline Dene), who plays his daughter Powaqa, and Grace Dove (Shuswap), who plays the dearly departed wife of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio). Because of the various tribes, cultures, dialects, and written, visual, and spoken methods of storytelling in North America, literary critics tend to use “Native American Literatures” when referring to Native writing in macro terms and specifying tribal affiliation and nationality when necessary.

2 Hundreds of miles: Horatia Harrod catalogs the development of the Hugh Glass legend, reporting that in subsequent retellings “his crawl swelled from 80 miles to 100 miles to 200 miles.” See Harrod, “Best Served Cold: The Terrifying True Story Behind The Revenant,” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group Ltd., 9 Jan. 2016.

3 Hawk’s murder: Critics achieve consensus on the strength of DiCaprio’s primarily wordless performance, especially the actor’s method of playing the scene in which he witnesses Fitzgerald stab Hawk to death. In addition, Dargis argues that Hawk’s murder, which leaves Glass totally alone, suggests the influence of D.H. Lawrence and his literary criticism about the solitary nature of the American hero as constructed in US literature.

4 The existence of Hawk: The creation of Hawk and his mother constitutes Inàrritu and Smith’s major adaptation to Punke’s novel. Both Nancy Peterson and the website maintained by the Museum of the Mountain Man and Sublette County (WY) Historical Society note that Hugh Glass indeed lived with Pawnee Indians for a short time, Peterson recounting his capture by and subsequent adoption into the tribe. However, there exists no historical evidence that Glass married a Pawnee woman and fathered a child with her. See Nancy M. Peterson, “Hugh Glass: The Truth Behind the Revenant Legend,” Wild West Magazine (Jun. 2000), History, World History Group, 12 Jun. 2006 and “The Revenant (Movie) Fact vs. Fiction,” Hughglass, Museum of the Mountain Man/Sublette Co. (WY) Historical Society.

5 The New World: The cinematography of Emmanuel Lubezki in both films likely accounts for the parallels between the two.

6 Consensus memory: Julie Buckner Armstrong argues that popular conceptions of the modern civil rights movement in the US (1954–1968) are highly influenced by consensus memory, which she defines as “a story about the past [that] . . . continues to dominate popular culture . . . [and] leaves out stories of grassroots efforts, economic justice, self-defense, radicalism, and connections to other movements nationally and internationally.” Although set long before the modern civil rights movement, The Revenant depicts both the emerging consensus memory through Toussaint’s lecture to Elk Dog—that Indians are to be only understood as ignoble savages—and counters such notions through Elk Dog himself, whose ambush of the Rocky Mountain Fur expedition amounts to self-defense. See Armstrong, ed., “Introduction,” The Cambridge Companion to American Civil Rights Literature (New York: Cambridge UP, 2015), 1-16, especially 6.

7 Fort Kiowa: The website maintained by the Museum of the Mountain Man and Sublette County Historical Society (WY) suggests that the fort in the film is a composite of the historical Fort Kiowa and Fort Henry. See “The Revenant (Movie) Fact vs. Fiction.”

8 Blanket: It seems anything but coincidental that the film depicts an elderly Arikara man wrapped in a blanket while mourning departed tribesmen, especially considering the history of Indian-white conflicts such as the French-Indian War, which included the English conducting germ warfare with smallpox-infected blankets.

9 Inàrritu: Although the director no longer practices the Catholicism of his youth, he remains spiritual, and he perceives Glass’s story as a hagiography of sorts. See Romney.

10 Sparing Fitzgerald: Lawrenson observes that an avalanche “seen briefly in the distance” behind Glass signals this “moment of crucial revelation.” See Lawrenson 26.  

Works Cited

Burr, Ty. “Revenant Is Both Savage and Beautiful.” Boston Globe. Boston Globe Media Partners, LLC, 7 Jan. 2016.

Dargis, Manohla. “The Revenant Welcomes You to Paradise. Now Prepare to Fall.” New York Times, The New York Times Co., 24 Dec. 2015.

Dowd, A.A. “The Revenant’s Spectacular Highs Deserve a More Focused Vision.” The A.V. Club. The Onion, Inc., 16 Dec. 2015.

Filgate, Michele. “‘There’s Nothing Worse than a White Liberal Who Thinks They’re Doing the Right Thing’: Sherman Alexie on Hollywood Diversity, The Revenant and Why He’s ‘Not the Proper Kind of Indian.’” Salon. Salon Media Group, Inc., 7 May 2016.

Fleck, Richard F., ed. “Introduction.” Critical Perspectives on Native American Literature. Washington, DC: Three Continents Press, 1993. 1-11.

Hornaday, Ann. “The Revenant Stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a Man Fighting for His Life.” Washington Post. The Washington Post Co., 7 Jan. 2016.

Jacobs, Alex. “DiCaprio and The Revenant: Remaking Movie Mythology.” Indian Country Today. Indian Country Media Network, 19 Jan. 2016.

Killsback, Leo. “The Revenant Is a Game-Changer.” Indian Country Today. Indian Country
Media Network, 14 Jan. 2016.

Lawrenson, Edward. “Call of the Wild.” Sight & Sound 26.1 (Jan. 2016): 22-26.

Lundquist, Suzanne Evertsen. Native American Literatures: An Introduction. New York: Continuum, 2004.

McMahon, Ryan. “Indigenous People’s Stories Need More than Just Leonardo DiCaprio’s Speech.” Vice. Vice Media, LLC, 11 Jan. 2016.

The Revenant. Dir. Alejandro G. Inàrritu. Perf. Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Duane Howard,
Grace Dove, Arthur RedCloud (Navajo), and Forrest Goodluck (Navajo-Hidatsa Mandan-Tsimshian). 2015. Twentieth Century Fox, 2016.

Roemer, Kenneth M. “Introduction.” The Cambridge Companion to Native American Literature Eds. Joy Porter and Kenneth M. Roemer. NewYork: Cambridge UP, 2005. 1-24. 

Romney, Jonathan. “Alejandro Gonzàlez Inàrritu: ‘When You See The Revenant You Will Say “Wow”.’” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, Ltd., 3 Jan. 2016.

Ruoff, A. LaVonne Brown. American Indian Literatures: An Introduction, Bibliographic Review, and Selected Bibliography. New York: MLA, 1990.

Wiget, Andrew. “Telling the Tale: A Performance Analysis of a Hopi Coyote Story.” Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature. Ed. Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat. Berkeley: U of California P, 1987. 297-336.