Leonardo DiCaprio had been nominated four times by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences before this year’s selection for his lead role in The Revenant. As one of the iconic Hollywood actors of his generation, DiCaprio’s long losing streak, going back to his first bid for 1993’s What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, became itself iconic.
At last month’s 88th Oscar Awards ceremony, DiCaprio finally won a golden statuette for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his portrayal of American fur trader Hugh Glass. His gritty, physical performance, which contained few spoken lines, was boosted by a stunning backdrop of raging rivers, snow-capped mountains, and flooded woodlands – a landscape which Chief Ernest Wesley of the Stoney Nakoda First Nation says deserves partial credit for DiCaprio’s victory.
“I believe our movie set helped Leo win his first Oscar,” Wesley said. DiCaprio thanked the Stoney Nadoka people for their contributions to The Revenant in an understated acceptance speech which he used as a platform to warn against the dangers of climate change.
The Revenant is the latest production to shoot primarily in Stoney Nakoda territory, which is centered 20 miles west of Calgary, Alberta in the eastern foothills of the Canadian Rockies along the Bow River. The relationship between the Stoney Nakoda and Hollywood began in the 1950s; dozens of producers have sought out the First Nation’s pristine landscape, which evokes the pre-industrial American West.
When contacted by The Circle for this story, Chief Wesley extended greetings to his “Sioux relatives in Minnesota.” While Wesley says that the Stoney Nakoda people are well aware of their connection to the greater Sioux Nation, he says Sioux people in the U.S. are often surprised to learn they have relations as far away as northern Alberta.
Wesley says Sioux people have always called the area home. “When you look at the Sioux Nation as it was before contact with Europeans, we were a very big country. Within our borders were all or parts of Alberta, Manitoba, Montana, North and South Dakota, Saskatchewan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Nebraska.”
While Sioux people had established themselves north and south of the present International Boundary long before contact, Wesley says it was following the 1876 Battle of the Greasy Grass (Little Bighorn) that their population in Canada swelled. Bands following leaders such as Sitting Bull, seeking shelter from the U.S. armed forces genocidal campaign, moved north. While many, including Sitting Bull, eventually returned to the U.S. (where he was murdered December 15, 1890), others decided to remain, establishing new Sioux communities and expanding existing ones along the outer reaches of their traditional homelands.
In his 24th year as leader of the Wesley Band of Stoney Nakoda, Wesley, who holds a degree in Political Science from University of Calgary, is the longest serving chief in the province of Alberta. He has seen many Hollywood productions come and go. Wesley says Stoney Nakoda lands are attractive to filmmakers because of their breathtaking beauty and the responsible way the Nation has cared for them.
“We have long contributed to the film industry by being good stewards of Mother Earth,” Wesley says. “We have long recognized that if you take care of the Earth it can translate into a strong economy, and a good life for everyone.”
Wesley says filmmakers know they can find plenty of hard working people with the skills they need to pull off a successful production in the rugged conditions the area offers. “We have people experienced in all aspects of filmmaking. Our people work supporting movie sets, providing horses and cattle, furnishing lots and lots of actors, and in many other roles,” Wesley says.
Roughly 100 members of the Stoney Nakoda Nation appeared as background characters in the award-winning film.
“We work with the band administration and try to make it as easy as possible,” Alyson Lockwood, background casting agent for The Revenant told Alberta’s Cochrane Times. Lockwood said about 500 indigenous actors auditioned for background roles, though only about one in five had the look the producers were after.
“The great thing about the director was that he wanted the raw acting ability, so anyone with the right look got the chance to audition for different parts,” said Lockwood.
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Unforgiven, Into the West, DreamKeeper, and The Assassination of Jesse James, are some of the more recent productions to use the area for filming and draw upon the skills and expertise of the Stoney Nakoda people.
Several Oscar nominated films have shot on Stoney Nakoda territory including 1970’s Dustin Hoffman classic Little Big Man (Chief Dan George was nominated for Best Supporting Actor). The Revenant, nominated for 12 Oscars – won for Best Achievement in Directing (Alejandro G. Iñárritu), and Best Achievement in Cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki) in addition to DiCaprio’s best actor nod – is the most celebrated of these films.
Chief Wesley is currently involved in efforts to bring more Hollywood films to Stoney Nakoda lands. The Nation’s economic development campaign touts the area as “Mother Nature’s movie set.”
Wesley has seen the treatment of indigenous people in films change dramatically in the six decades Hollywood has been shooting on Stoney Nakoda lands. “It used to be our people were shown as stereotypes. But [1990’s] Dances with Wolves [shot primarily in South Dakota] changed all of that. It was one of the first times our language was captured in a feature film. That not only enhanced the quality of the film, but it helped preserve our language for future generations.”
The Revenant has been similarly praised for its authentic portrayal of Native peoples. Director Iñárritu painstakingly recreated Native American lifeways of the Great Plains and Northern Rockies in the early 1800s. He scripted appropriate Native languages, including several lines of Arikara spoken by DiCaprio’s character to his half-Arikara son. Iñárritu presented his characters as complex, sensitive, thoughtful human beings, the kind of treatment Indian people have rarely enjoyed in Hollywood movies.
Wesley says that while the Revenant and other films in the wake of Dances with Wolves have done a good job of portraying Native characters, only films financed, written, produced, and acted by Native people can “tell our stories as we see them.” He points to an Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) dramatic series called Mohawk Girls as an example of Native stories told entirely by Native people. The show is directed by Mohawk film producer Tracey Deer and filmed on the Mohawk First Nation’s Kahnawake Reserve in Quebec. It is available on Canadian television systems and online streaming services.
Native filmmakers, says Chief Wesley, would also be likelier to share the Stoney Nakoda’s conservation ethic when it comes to post-production restoration of “Mother Nature’s movie set.”
Stoney Nakoda citizen and background actor for The Revenant, Adeline Marks, appeared in many scenes. She says she had a great time working with Iñárritu, whom she noted was “a very nice man, until he got on set,” at which point the actress found him to be an uncompromising perfectionist.
As much fun as it was to be on set and watch the movie making process unfold, Marks was disappointed that Iñárritu’s perfectionism didn’t extend to cleaning-up after the film crews left Stoney Nakoda territory. “The producers went to all the work of finding untrodden land. But then they left the area covered in sand, trees spray painted black, mud pits where trailers sat, and gouges in the hills where equipment had to be wrenched up.
“The amount of footprints they left was overwhelming,” said Marks. “If they spend that much making a movie they can spend a little more setting it right.”