You may call it an action flick, but for one citizen of the MonDak, a certain movie opening this weekend in Williston theaters is much more than that.
It’s history of a rather personal nature for Loren Yellow Bird. He is a modern-day member of the Arikara tribe, which is prominent in the life and times of Hugh Glass and the other mountain men depicted in the movie.
Yellow Bird is a professional historian, with degrees in history and anthropology, and he is an interpreter at Fort Union.
In his free time this summer, he also served as a technical advisor for the movie that’s garnering considerable Oscar buzz, including a first Best Actor nod for its star, Leonardo DiCaprio.
While the film doesn’t dwell on it, Glass was a prominent figure at Fort Union during the last years of his life. He was the head trapper, which at the time was a highly paid, highly respected position at the fort. Indeed, the fort’s general at one time sent a letter ahead of Glass on a mission to another fort, explaining that the trapper was not a man as others were, and, as such, would be worthy of special treatment.
Yellow Bird had heard through the grapevine about the upcoming Glass film, as well as the director’s desire for real life Native Americans to play as extras in the film. Still, he didn’t put his name in the hat right away. He talked to friends and family, who cajoled him into it. Finally, a few days past the deadline, he sent in the required materials.
His application may have been late, but interest was rather immediate. A casting director called and wanted to know more about him. At first it seemed he was in the running for for the lead role as the lawyer of the Arikara.
Fort Union’s long-time interpreter does re-enacting and is a published historian. He also speaks the language well enough to hold a conversation. And he is a Sun Dancer, following traditional ways. While talking to the casting director about all this, things got a bit quiet all of a sudden.
Then came these words: “The director wants to meet you. Can we get you up here tomorrow?”
Yellow Bird couldn’t quite believe his ears.
Tomorrow? He was working. He couldn’t get away until next week.
The casting director hung up, but called back a few minutes later.
“How can we get you up here next week? Who do we need to talk to?”
A schedule was worked out, and suddenly Yellow Bird was in Calgary on the set with all of Revenant’s many players, shoulder to shoulder with the likes of Tom Hardy, Will Palter, Forest Goodlock and DiCaprio.
Yellow Bird was more than just an extra, however. As technical advisor on Native American language and culture, he had the ear of director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. He had the ear of costume designer Jacqueline West. He had the ear of production designer Jack Fisk.
And he had the ear of DiCaprio, too. At one point, the star handed him a script and told him to read it all, telling Yellow Bird, “If you see anything in there that you’re concerned about, let me know. We’ll take care of it.”
In addition to language and culture, Inarritu was also very interested in Yellow Bird’s input for the battle scenes and the way the Native Americans would have fought, as well as his take on how natives of the time would have viewed the trappers’ activities.
“The director had a very interesting vision of what he was going for,” Yellow Bird says. “He asked me what I felt about the way the changes came for the Arikara. How would they feel about these trappers coming in and just taking.”
They also talked about a variety of points of interest in the history.
“We did have a trade system in place at least 50 years before Lewis and Clark had come here,” Yellow Bird said. “So we’d had that contact already before them and then when we met with Lewis and Clark and all that, our encounters were way different as well.”
In the time period, the various European cultures talked down Americans and sometimes each other, making the case that other parties were not as trustworthy as themselves. The French, in particular, were big on “You don’t want to deal with Americans,” propaganda.
That propaganda was reinforced, however, when an Arikara chief was taken to Washington D.C. and fell sick and died. In the time period, no one could get any direct information about their chief’s fate. They had no way to know if they were being told the truth.
While the director took pains to ensure that the details of history would be true, there were certain plot elements that were fictionalized for effect.
The eventual killing at the end of the movie, for example, isn’t what happened historically.
There is no written record of Glass having a son. But that’s an element, which, while not documented, is nonetheless common enough to ring true for the time period, Yellow Bird says.
A raid on an Arikara tribe in 1823 may have contributed to Glass’ eventual demise, something that’s not shown in the movie. The mountain man had been involved in the raid 10 years before he would meet his final end before an Arikara party on the icy Yellowstone River, coming back home to Fort Union.
Bluffs in the area are named after Glass, who was a prominent figure in the area at the time. Any Arikara who encountered him would have recognized him, and it’s likely he’d be remembered for his role in the raid.
“There weren’t a lot of these guys here,” Yellow Bird says. “These were the guys who were known, and it was OK for them to be known for their reputation. They could go back and forth and trade with tribes and do what they needed to do.”
Alejandro wanted to make sure people could relate to and understand the various viewpoints, to really see the culture clashes that lie behind the history of how the west was won, and that’s what appealed to Yellow Bird the most.
“In terms of getting our story out there, this was huge. Such a huge, huge stage in terms of who we are,” he says.
One thing many people don’t realize about the Arikara tribe, Yellow Bird said, is how agricultural they actually were and not the savages portrayed in European journals.
“We cared about lives; we cared about people,” Yellow Bird said. “We cared about what our environment was like. We didn’t want to destroy everything, but we didn’t want things to be taken from us.”
When the Arikara came to the Plains from the south, they brought their life-giving corn and shared it with their fellow Plains Indians, along with knowledge of how to manage such a crop long-term.
“We rotated crops; we were smart that way,” Yellow Bird said. “It’s very fascinating in early times for the ethno-botanists. We had a very powerful structure. Our people had done a number of things.”
Perhaps the biggest thing to know, however, is just that the history of the tribe is still going today, and still improving through the effort of both tribal elders and youths, despite at one point almost being wiped out. Their tribe was down to 384 people at one point.
“We are lucky to be around as long as we are,” Yellow Bird said.
He hopes when people see the film they’ll want to learn more about Fort Union, about the Arikara, and about the period in history, and that it will spark a new appreciation of the nation’s history and the hardiness of the people who lived at that time in the West.
“The film is not the answer,” Yellow Bird said. “It’s the beginning.”