Courtesy 20th Century Fox
Leonardo DiCaprio and Grave Dove in "The Revenant."

‘Bring Me The Girl’: Why ‘The Revenant’ was Hard for My Friends and Me

Sasha LaPointe

When a friend brought over a copy of The Revenant I was more than willing to host a viewing party. I was thrilled at first for the typical reasons. It’s always a treat, as an indigenous person, to see First Nations or indigenous characters actually portrayed by indigenous or First Nations actors. Natives playing Natives. Kudos Hollywood! There’s been some slow progress there.

I was also ecstatic because one of my best friends was texting me from the red carpet. My friend, a fellow student at the Institute of American Indian Arts, an amazing artist, and indigenous activist was accompanying First Nations actress, Melaw Nakehk’o to the famous Chinese Theater for the Hollywood premier. I beamed with pride, “Look,” I’d announce shoving my phone into peoples’ faces. “That’s my friend! Next to Tom Hardy!” I was beside myself with joy. Two powerful Indian women were strutting the red carpet, getting their photos taken, answering the, “What are you wearing,” and, “Tell us about the dress,” questions. It felt like an important time in history.

I threw a movie party in my living room. With a fire in the fireplace, assorted appetizers and warm, winter-themed cocktails I buckled in with a roomful of friends for the snow drenched and violent ride through the Northwest Territories. Each frame was breathtaking, each panning scene striking. The presence of such astonishing nature helped to anesthetize the horror. And I’m not talking about the bear. It’s not about the bear. I’m not saying the bear was not horrifying. It absolutely was. Seeing Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, frontiersman Hugh Glass, flung like a broken rag doll by a grizzly was horrific. But it wasn’t the bear that made me flinch.

After seeing “The Revenant,” Sasha LaPointe and her friends captured these images of themselves. As LaPointe says “there is a power in visibility.” (Photo by Hotvlkuce Harjo)

Those haunting and dream-like moments where we are transported through Glass’s memory, portray the horror of a history of violence against indigenous people. While my friends squirmed and gasped at the grizzly bear attack, I found myself fidgeting in my chair and averting my eyes from those visions of bones piled to the sky, of villages burned to the ground. I flinched every time a Native person fell, having been stabbed, bludgeoned, or shot down. Something about the violence rooted in reality was nearly unbearable for me.

There is something massively different in these kinds of scenes compared to the Hollywood disasters that have attempted this in the past, but failed miserably. For example I felt nothing for the lanky, blue, fairy-aliens of Avatar when they lost Home Tree. Why? Because it was ridiculous. Because comparing my ancestors, my history, my emotional and historical trauma to Ferngully is ridiculous. It’s like Hollywood wants to dress up our very real pain in a magical costume. It’s like the world can’t take it otherwise. The Revenant didn’t play any tricks, use any gimmicks. The pain was real. The history and the reality of it raw and unfiltered. But this isn’t why The Revenant was hard for me.

After seeing “The Revenant,” Sasha LaPointe and her friends captured these images of themselves. As LaPointe says “there is a power in visibility.” (Photo by Hotvlkuce Harjo)

I forged ahead. I gasped. I Awed at the cinematic splendor. I desperately tried to make sense out of whatever Tom Hardy was saying. I enjoyed the film with friends. I anxiously awaited the screen debut of my friend’s friend, a woman I didn’t know, but felt some connection to based on the massive excitement we felt collectively. My friend’s friend played Powaqa, an Arikara leader’s daughter who has been kidnapped by one of the groups of French or American trappers. The movie spends a great deal of time in searching for Powaqa. With each failed rescue, the anticipation for her arrival grew.

I probably had a cracker smeared with brie to my lips or perhaps a mouthful of winter ale when I heard the Frenchman speak, when I read the English translation on the bottom of the screen.  Scrolling across the snow were the words: “Bring me the girl.”

After seeing “The Revenant,” Sasha LaPointe and her friends captured these images of themselves. As LaPointe says “there is a power in visibility.” (Photo by Hotvlkuce Harjo)

I don’t remember much after that. As is the nature of my trigger, my descent into emotional blackout is not something I’m usually conscious of. Later I was told I stood up when the rape scene began. I exited the living room calmly and silently. I texted a childhood friend. When my partner found me in the kitchen I was trembling over the sink, face streaked in tears, bottle of dark rum tipped back and pouring down my throat as I stood shaking in the moonlight coming in through the window. I remember almost none of this. I don’t remember if he held me, if he took the bottle from me, if he walked me back to the couch, or if I walked back on my own. I don’t remember the rest of the film, not one moment of it. I couldn’t make it through it, though I attempted or pretended to. I do remember concerned looks from my friends. And one of their attempts to console me, “Sasha,” he said, “It’s okay, she got him. She castrated that French bastard. She got her revenge!” I don’t remember if I was courteous or polite, I’d like to think I was. I’d like to think I was gracious for my friend’s words, his attempt at kindness.

“Bring me the girl.” That was the last clear thing I remember before falling into a downward spiral of bad memories and the nightmare of trauma. Powaqa enters the scene. She says nothing. When we see her she is bent against the trunk of a tree as the French captain violates her. Perhaps it is the nature of the assault. Perhaps it is just the right recipe of scene, of tree, of lighting, that has triggered my own memory of assault. Whatever it is, I am ruined, unable to finish the film.

After seeing “The Revenant,” Sasha LaPointe and her friends captured these images of themselves. As LaPointe says “there is a power in visibility.” (Photo by Hotvlkuce Harjo)

I spend the next day or two in a triggered state, a PTSD fog. I try to make sense of my own reaction. I text my friend. The one still giddy from her stroll down the red carpet, her brushing elbows with Tom and Leo. “The Revenant really messed me up,” I say. “I think we need to talk about it.”

“I know.” She responds almost immediately, “I know.”

My friend has tanned moose hide with the actress who plays Powaqa. They have attended Indigenous Women’s conferences together in the Northwest Territories. She’s held the actress’s children.

When we talk about it, the scene that has affected us both so intensely, my friend asks, “Do you remember her expression? It was her face…” She trails off and I struggle to remember the blurry parts of my viewing experience. Of course. It comes to me quickly. Powaqa’s face is empty as she is violated, as the French captain stands behind her, as she is shoved against the tree. Her face is wiped of any emotion. I have goosebumps and feel lightheaded when I think of it, the absence of fantasy. There is no Hollywood, choreographed rape scene. No big fight, no shrieking, no scratching, no scrambling to get free. There is only the reality of that expression. Those dead and empty eyes. The face of a woman taken over, defeated, if only for a moment.

After seeing “The Revenant,” Sasha LaPointe and her friends captured these images of themselves. As LaPointe says “there is a power in visibility.” (Photo by Hotvlkuce Harjo)

As indigenous women, we realize facing that scene was facing a mirror held up to ourselves. It was seeing the reality of our own trauma, the ways we have endured it. The ways we have survived it. It’s suddenly much bigger than myself. It’s bigger than my friend. It isn’t simply the connection to assault, to sexual violence that we share, but rather the portrayal of violence against indigenous women captured in just a few short seconds on the screen. That is what makes us hold our breath, tap our fingers in anxiousness, excuse ourselves to the restroom to avoid it, to wait until the scene is over. Her face reminds us that there is a highway in Canada known as the Highway of Tears, named after the many disappearances of women (mostly indigenous) reported along its vast expanse. It reminds us of the large numbers, the cases of assault against Native women. It is facing generations of surviving, of historical trauma, of memory distilled into a short scene and watching it release from within our bodies and float out into the world. All rape scenes are hard for me, but this one, this one is the raw and brutal truth that still exists today. There are no bells or whistles. There is no falseness to this scene. No dramatization. This one cuts to the bone and exposes us, because we are still being attacked, still being murdered, still going missing. We are still disappearing.

We decide we have to see the film again, together. We decide that together we can face it. The theater is packed and it seems an act of magic that the group of us, seven in total, are able to sit in one long row together. We make it through. In solidarity we face the violence, the sadness, the truth of it. In the dark of the theater I lean forward and sneak a glance at us: Gwich’in, Nooksack, Kaska, and Creek. All women, all together, all on the front lines of this moment and facing it with arms locked and strong.

This time I am able to be present. This time I feel the arms of my sisters around me. Together we face the mirror and together we are reminded of why it is so significant that we are here, in the world, and visible.

After seeing “The Revenant,” Sasha LaPointe and her friends captured these images of themselves. As LaPointe says “there is a power in visibility.” (Photo by Hotvlkuce Harjo)

At the end of The Revenant, Powaqa returns. This is a detail I overlooked during my episode of PTSD, when I first watched the film. She appears on horseback, reunited finally with her father and her tribe. She sits tall and regal, looking down at the bloodied Hugh Glass, and rides on, to safety, to surviving.

My friends and I find this scene both healing and devastating. It is cathartic, in a way, to see this woman survive, to see her ride to safety. It acts as a tonic to the wounds we carry, a thing that makes the hurt endurable. But as we file out of the theater, quiet in the wake of the film, we all feel it, the absence of our own resolutions, our missing happy endings. The missing endings of the women never found, never rescued. Where are our fathers? Are they scouring the lands for us? Are they burning villages to the ground for us? Where are our warriors now? Now, that we are slowly becoming visible?

Sasha LaPointe, Coast Salish/Nooksack, is pursuing her MFA in creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts.

The images in this piece were taken by Hotvlkuce Harjo, Mvskoke (Creek), a student at the University of New Mexico.

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Alamosaurus's picture
Submitted by Alamosaurus on
I haven't seen the REVENANT yet. But the worst depiction of violence against native people I ever saw was in a movie that came out in 1970: SOLDIER BLUE; the movie ended with a reenactment of the Sand Creek massacre. Scenes depicted included a young woman being decapitated; a young boy having his brains blown out; a woman being raped and then having her breasts cut off while she was still alive--she was screaming in pain and terror; another woman hung up by her arms and then cut open; mounted cavalrymen dragging around heads of native people they had cut off; numerous scenes of women and children being shot down; soldiers displaying arms and legs of native people they had killed; and an American Flag being trampled by the hooves of the cavalry horses. All these atrocities were carried out by our gallant boys in blue uniforms. There were some inaccuracies in historical details; the movie put the attack in 1877--it actually took place in 1864; it showed a brief firefight between native people and the cavalry--which never took place, and it showed the commanding officer, Colonel Iverson (his real name was Chivington) being slightly wounded in the firefight which didn't happen. But all of the atrocities depicted were testified to by eyewitnesses--in many cases by some of Chivington's own men who were horrified by the massacre.

LMTR_Scot's picture
Submitted by LMTR_Scot on
Thank you for writing this and sharing the harrowing effects this film had on you and your friends, and for going into the reasons why. Beautifully written and deeply moving. Blessings and healing.

Submitted by WINTERWINGS on
Why The Revenant was hard on me and my friends. Thank you for your moving account, Sasha. I too will try to tell you why this movie disturbed my friends and me. I am not as indulgent as you towards this Hollywood fantasy. 1. The biggest lie, of course, is that the trailers, the posters, every bit of publicity about the film tell us that it is “based on a true story” or “inspired by actual events”. Which means that the millions of viewers who will watch this movie will do so entertaining the notion that what they see is actually what happened. That this story is History, that “The Revenant didn’t play any tricks, use any gimmicks. The pain was real. The history and the reality of it raw and unfiltered.” At least, Indiana Jones’s adventures are not presented as a «true story”. If you put aside the websites and accounts that only copy and paste and recopy what had been told in the “historical biography” based on the previous one, based on a newspaper “true account” etc. and take the time to follow the trail and dig to the roots of the Hugh Glass story, on which both the book and the Revenant are based, (or Man in the Wilderness, another film about Glass with Richard Harris and John Huston in 1970) you discover after peeling off one true story after one true story and another one true story based on non-reliable sources (even when these books dare pretend that there are papers concerning Hugh Glass), you will ultimately find out that the only TRUE fact about all this nonsense is what we know from a letter written by an army officer, a few lines about a frontiersman named “Hugh Glass, mauled by a grizzly bear during Gen. William Henry Ashley’s expedition of 1823 in the Dakota Territory, who survived the bear attack, that summer”.(YES SUMMER). That’s it! And even that piece of information, the first ever to appear about Hugh Glass, the first to capture the public’s imagination in 1825, was printed in a Philadelphia LITERARY journal. The very first account of the story was embroidered then. It has been embroidered many times since. To the contrary of what “historical biographies” will tell you, the details of his life have been handed down through stories and not through public or private records, so they're just IMPOSSIBLE to corroborate. (The first biography even tells of a younger Hugh Glass kidnapped by French-American pirate Jean Lafitte, a fate he allegedly escaped after a couple of years by jumping ship and swimming ashore…what a guy!) Sound historians commented on this. Anything published in the Literary Journal, (the account of 1825, 1833, etc.) comes from clues that come from…anyone’s guess. They embellish the already unbelievable tale. It is the most enduring of the campfire’s tales about frontiersmen. The 1915 epic poem "The Song Of Hugh Glass" by John Neihardt opens with a description of the man that sounds like something straight out of an American tall tale: “Deep-chested, that his great heart might have play, Gray-bearded, gray of eye and crowned with gray Was Glass.” But it was Glass's run-in with the grizzly and subsequent survival that captured the imaginations of poets, songwriters, authors, and, of course, filmmakers. The film trailer writes: “Inspired by true events, The Revenant is an immersive and visceral cinematic experience capturing one man’s epic adventure of survival and the extraordinary power of the human spirit.” The Human spirit!?! In the book story and the original scenario, Hugh Glass resurrected and went through this unbelievable (in every sense of the word) ordeal driven solely by the will to get back his GUN, not to exact vengeance on the murderer of his Native son. (Am I the only one to see that the idea of a white American trapper bringing a boy and more so a Native boy alongside in such expeditions is beyond silly and simply just impossible?) A 1922 article about the attack in The Milwaukee Journal posits that Glass's story "has survived in the annals of the fur days because of the amazing facts involved in it that have to do with treachery and a man's grim fight to live to be revenged." In short, humans are interested in betrayal and the only response to it: revenge. The Human Spirit eh? 2. The clash of two cultures!?!?!?! What two cultures do you find here? Am I the only one to see that this movie is a string of clichés? Am I also the only one to see that to Indigenous people in that kind of movie are used as décor, as the ingredient of a recipe and that those portrayals are once more stereotyped in the Revenant, inserted into the script for the sole reason of exotic romance? Since movies with BAD Indians don’t sell anymore and get crap press, Hollywood now makes westerns with GOOD Indians! But two­dimensions characters, same old plot devices, roles and minimal dialogue. Wounded Knee was real, Dakota Brando was real, but Hollywood has a way to use real events and turn them into fashionable ones. Hugh Glass’ child being the symbol of a o so pure love affair with a beautiful romantic EXOTIC and very dead Native woman, the symbol of an innocent world lost to the madness of this new world. All this taking place so conveniently in the PAST. Historian, Jon T. Coleman before the film, came out made this interesting comment: “I am eager to see if they show the fur trappers leaving St. Louis and for them to give a nod to the complexity of the place at the time. We think of Hugh Glass as a western figure, but he emerged from the social environment and labor system of the Mississippi Valley. He belonged as much to a history we now consider southern as the West. Race and slavery were a big part of his background in that they shaped his definition as a white working man.” For me, there is nothing “Massively different” in the Revenant’s ways of dealing with “this”. I just can’t believe my eyes when I read that “The Revenant didn’t play any tricks, use any gimmicks. The pain was real. The history and the reality of it raw and unfiltered.” I just don’t know what to say. I am speechless. I can’t find any “raw and unfiltered “reality” and history” in this Hollywood movie. And as someone who has seen and endured more than my share of pain and violence, I found the one I see in this movie very thin and dealt with as symbolic more than “raw”, and with the only purpose of “visceral” sensationalism. “The visions of bones piled to the sky, of villages burned to the ground, stabbed, bludgeoned, or shot down Natives”, are horrific but for me they are still clichés, because they are presented as warlike situations of which the public of films has been widely (to my constant dismay) accustomed. Much more effective would have been SCENES FROM DAILY OUTRAGES that one could contemplate in the likes of JOHN SUTTER’s FORT. (“Something is broken inside” by Alan Wallace acknowledges this).That would have been violence “rooted in reality”, in daily reality, not war reality. The public expects violence in war and even sanctify it as something wars are made of and justify it by saying the other party was as violent. 3. The rape scene WAS disturbing. The “reality” of the rape scene resides in the rendering by the talented actress who plays it and yes in the fact that the woman submits to it with dull eyes. I am a scriptwriter, and I can tell you that for the last twenty years films have portrayed women being raped with “empty faces,” a dead look submitting to an ignoble act that they are resigned to, submitting to an ineluctable horror that is the of ANY woman being raped. Jessica, my girlfriend, was raped. In the woods. Yes, this is a scene I couldn’t stand (but who in her/his right mind can watch quietly a rape?), Yes, this is also a choreographed scene put there for the main purpose of the so-called “visceral sensationalism” and to make us see Leonard DiCaprio as the Native woman’s savior, not so much to denounce what was going on on a daily basis not outdoors, but in the civilised American world of slavery. But what infuriated me was when I saw the portrayals of French Canadians trappers in revelry near the corpse of a Native they had hung holding a “We are all savages” sign! This is SO RACIST and one more specious free demonstration of violence! Violence as still another ingredient of a best­selling AMERICAN movie. The fact that Americans who see that movie will thing and say “Of course WE didn’t do those things only the FRENCH BASTARDS did that kind of things… There is a highway named like that in CANADA. At least, there is one. How many should be named like that in the States? Movies like The Revenant keep alive the notion that these horrors took place in a galaxy next to yours when they took place on the very grounds where Hollywood stands. The Red Carpet on which your friend walked hides another red carpet that rolls under it. I was outraged by the fact that the rapist was portrayed as a French-Canadian. But nor only because I am a French­Canadian. I made extensive historical research a few years ago for a script about Pierre­Esprit RADISSON, a French Canadian trapper who led an extraordinary life. He was captured by Mohawks when he was seventeen. They adopted him when he lived a few years with them. I went through archives and miles of documents/data with the help of three historians, one of which was a Cree. Well, I can tell you this. The French soldiers in the colonies and the French Canadians born over here are two different entities. Whereas the English settlers never mixed with the Native population, the French Canadians did so. The Frenchmen from France stationed here wrote to their king that the French population born here was no more to be considered French since they had all been “naturalisés,” living with Natives and marrying Native women, to the great disapproval of the Catholic Church. Samuel de Champlain arranged to have young French­Canadian men live with the Natives, to learn their language and customs and help the French adapt to life in North America. These men, known as coureurs de bois (runners of the woods), Relations between the coureur de bois and the Natives often included a family dimension; Marriage (Wedding) was common. As wives, indigenous women played a key role as translators, guides, and mediators- becoming "women between". Although the term "Coureurs des Bois" is most strongly associated with those who engaged in the fur trade, the most prominent coureurs des bois gained fame as explorers. Up North, the French Canadians “coureurs des bois” got along fine with the Natives, since both were nearest to Nature. Watch the movie “L’Empreinte /The Imprint, with the great Innu poet Josephine Bacon. Through this documentary, she explains how it is really the imprint of the indigenous referred to as First Nations that makes the QUÉBECOIS nation so different from the others. But French Canadians are victims of pure racism from Hollywood. In Hollywood movies not one of them is good. They are all portrayed as terrorists, criminals, and now thieves, rapists, and murderers. They were the ones who mixed freely with Natives. A vast percentage of the Québécois population has an indigenous ancestor! I am a French Canadian, and my great­grandmother was a Cree. Sasha, Your very name LA POINTE is a French Canadian name! But of course, it is convenient for Iñárritu that those rapists be other than Americans. 4. The end of the movie with the Chief and his daughter returning home is yet another romantic lie bringing an epiphany and an Hollywood “all ends well” that makes everybody forget that Native Chiefs of that time did not behave in the manner of some romantic Middle Ages white kings and missing daughters didn’t make it back home, no more than the missing daughters of today. I’m sorry if my comments are so negative, but I didn’t enjoy this bull movie script. I just hope I didn’t hurt or offend you. The Canadian North West Territories ‘scenery, locations are great, and I saw some magnificent photography. I think I read the words “slow progress” in your opening paragraph… WINTERWINGS Hochelaga

nanmon's picture
Submitted by nanmon on
Thank you for this enlightening essay, it was very moving and the photos are so beautiful and powerful.

Jaxy's picture
Submitted by Jaxy on
Are you seriously kidding me right now?? This movie is based on things that actually happened. Bad things, yes. Not showing them would be an insult to Native and Indiginous people. The FACT is that our people were treated worse than badly. It happened. Sugar coating it (by not portraying it accurately) would be an insult and an injustice to those who experienced. The fact that this film doesn't take a soft approach to some reprehensible acts, shows that the writers/producers/people involved actually had some resepct for the victims.