The Revenant Rabbithole and Minnesota's Missing History

[The Missouri River valley.]
A few months ago, I watched The Revenant.  Maybe you've seen the film? It's the movie where Leonardo DiCaprio gets eaten by a bear and crawls through the woods for two hours.

I keep thinking about it, and for an unexpected reason. It's not that it's about revenge, loss, and the necessary brutality of our relationship to nature, though that is certainly compelling.  And it's not that the film is meticulously crafted by an obsessive director with a massive budget, portraying impossibly sublime landscapes with a force that almost makes you want to look away. Few films I’ve seen have had such cinematic impact, and this is one of them. (The bear scene alone is worth the price of admission.)

Nope. None of those things are why I've been thinking about The Revenant, why the movie has been buzzing around my head like a moth trapped on a porch. Rather, it was the story’s historic-geography that led me down a rabbithole. 

The “True” Story

As I sometimes do, I Googled the history of the film after I watched it.  It’s based on the "true" myth of a fur trader named Hugh Glass. According to legend, Glass was was mauled by a bear in the 1823 and crawled over 200 miles to survive. At the time, it was a tall tale told around the campfire, and the screenwriters of The Revenant embellished the tale with additions, subtractions, and magnification.

Clicking through Wikipedia I began wondering about when and where the story was supposed to have happened. For example, Fort Kiowa, the fur traders' headquarters that is Glass/DiCaprio's endpoint, is located on the Missouri River near present day Winner, South Dakota.  That might be 400 miles away from where I live in Saint Paul, but at the time, when both places were at the very edge of European civilization, it likely seemed closer.

The other oddity of The Revenant's story was its time period. I'd always associated the fur trade with a pre-American age, before the Louisiana Purchase or something. But the film shows French and American fur companies wandering around the Missouri River in the 1820s, and it didn't fit at all with my mental story of the area. 

It got me wondering: What did Minnesota look like when The Revenant supposedly took place? If Leonardo DiCaprio had kept grunting and crawling past Fort Kiowa and the Missouri River and continued East to the Mississippi, what would he have found there?

[The 1835  Sibley House in Mendota.]
(There are a few 1840s and 1850s houses near where I live... Would something like these have been standing? Note that the answer is probably "no." The oldest standing house in the area is Henry Sibley's Mendota home, which dates back to the mid 1830s, about a decade after The Revenant. Still, it's not that far off; and Sibley was a fur trader too.)

The question guided me like a navigator's star, and I began learning about the history of where I live. For years, I've had a book on my shelf called The Assassination of Hole-in-the-Day, written by a well-known Ojibwe scholar named Anton Treuer, and I picked it up again. It tells the story of two Ojibwe chiefs (father and son) who thrived and struggled during the 1800s. Hole-in-the-Day II (the younger son) is a riveting historical figure who spent time around Saint Paul during the mid-19th century successfully negotiating with the US government, Minnesota leaders, and other chiefs. Eventually, he was killed by a group of men hired by corrupt "half-blood" Indian agents on his way to re-negotiate a dubious US treaty that was forcing the Ojibwe to resettle in the White Earth reservation.

I next picked up a copy of the Minnesota Historical Society magazine dedicated to territorial times, roughly 1845 to 1855. An anniversary issue, it detailed the time when Minnesota began its radical growth from European settler colonists, land speculation in the Twin Cities area, opening Minneapolis to settlement, and the beginning of the most forcible removal policies of the Dakota and Ojibwe tribes that lived in Minnesota.  There were little articles about what daily life might have been like for different people at different times, describing an early settler, an Ojibwe man, and some others.

The last book was the kicker. When visiting family last month, I spied the book North Country by a local writer named Mary Lethert Wingerd. (Her book on Saint Paul, Claiming the City, is a fascinating read, by the way.) It turns out that North Country is an indispensable history, focusing like a paleontologist on overlooked histories of White and Indian relations, precisely the things I was craving to find out. The book zooms in on the years 1700 to 1870, describing how European and (eventually) American capitalism, the fur trade, governments, and settler colonizers transformed Minnesota and Dakota territories into its modern American state.

[A prairie scene from The Revenant.]

What I Found Out: Accurate and Inaccurate Bits

I'm still not very knowledgeable about this history. Apart from these books, almost everything I know about Minnesota's pre-statehood history comes from our inadequate cultural narratives. (More on that later.) But here are a few broad-brush statements.

Probably the biggest discrepancy in the film is the absurd geography. Hugh Glass’ actual path took him through what is mostly short-grass prairie landscape, the rolling hills of Western South Dakota. But the film was shot all over the Western Hemisphere, in places as far away as Southern Argentina, and make it seem like the fur traders are climbing Mount Everest.

It's defensibly expressionist I suppose. The scenes of the bison herd with the wolves, and some of the wide-angle establishing shots, offer probably the most accurate rendering of Glass's landscape in the film.

[Somewhat ridiculous landscape.]
Another strange detail is the idea that French fur trade companies were worse than the Americans. In the 1820s, the fur trade was still dominated by French-speaking (“Canadian”) companies like the Hudson's Bay or the Northwest Company. Glass’s company was a smaller, speculative "start-up." The difficult economic landscape meant that these companies were competing fiercely for Indian allegiance and access to game.

The part that seems inaccurate, as far as I can tell, is that the French become the "bad guys" while the American trading company is led by an idealistic Captain. The way that Wingerd describes it, the Canadian fur traders were more likely to be aware of Native cultures and customs than the more recently-arrived Americans. (Not that they didn't exploit them; they did, and often with alcohol. Métis settlements like Pembina spurred tensions with the tribes over hunting rights.)

But the newer American arrivals were generally worse. Wingerd describes in her book how the delicate relationships between Dakota and Ojibwe and white and half-blood traders that had existed for almost two centuries were erased in favor of an "annuity culture" where White settlement and logging increasingly exploited the land base, and promises of Federal compensation were almost never just. (For example, "Indian agents" often skimmed up to half of the annuities off the payments for themselves, to settle alleged and ginned-up debts.) It seems a bit of a cop-out to tie the most extreme racism and violence in the film to the "foreign outsiders" in the Fur trade relationship.

(That said, the casual racism of the French traders, hanging the wandering Indian man who helps out Glass/DiCaprio, seems entirely accurate for the time. Reading accounts of Whites describing Indians is revolting; for example, well-known missionary Harriet Bishop was terrible!)

One interesting detail is that, in general, according to both Wingerd and Treuer, half-blood, métis, and mixed-race people were the dominant culture of White Minnesota territory at the time. Guides like DiCaprio's Glass were more likely to be métis or "half-blood," and served as go-betweens who worked as fur traders. Like Glass, they often had Indian "wives" and children who blended the lines between worlds. 

Ambiguous figures like Glass appear all over the history books for hundreds of years, and deeply complicate Indian/White narratives. Treuer's book describes how half-blood people became a force that eroded the stability of Ojibwe society, especially once reservation removal took place and they rose to positions of economic power as intermediaries. For her part, Wingerd describes how, once European settlers began arriving in Minnesota in great numbers, the distinction between White and "non-White" was re-written. (See also, the Irish.) You were either White and therefore civilized, or you weren't.

[Approaching Fort Kiowa, surrounded by native homes.]

Uncovering a Different Story

So often the story of Minnesota simply focuses on the settlement period, just after the Civil War and the 1862 Dakota War. Instead, despite its Hollywood embellishments, The Revenant touches on a different geography that I've begun calling Minnesota's "missing history," the period before the displacement and removal of Dakota and Ojibwe people, before white settlement had taken off unencumbered. Before Lake Wobegon.

[A recent Scott Seekins painting.]
It's a time that I want to learn more about, to see more accurate depictions, etc.  (For example, here's what not to do.) But the historical record is so troubling, especially the role that White Minnesotans played in destroying existing cultures.  There really are no good guys on the Euro-American side, at least not ones that made it into the history books. Even someone like Bishop Whipple, about whom Wingerd says generous things, becomes an object of castigation for Treuer, who blames him for the intensification of Ojibwe cultural erasure.

Learning about Minnesota’s missing history is a rich and terrible experience, and I couldn't put any of these books down because I was learning how much I don't understand. As Wingerd describes it, the time period that follows The Revenant's story was a watershed.  The fur trade and the complex reciprocal relationships between Indian tribes, traders, and early settlers were grinding to a halt thanks to the increasing settlement pressures and speculation. What happened next to the Fur trade, the Dakota and Ojibwe tribes in Minnesota, or the whole culture of diverse Native American/White relationships is both very complicated and very simple.

Simply put, it doesn't end well and Euro-American society is to blame. But what's troubling to me now is how much of that history was quickly erased, leaving most Minnesotans without much semblance of our tragic multicultural past.

[The Fort Snelling concentration camp that killed hundreds of Dakota after the war.]

Seeing Minnesota's Past in New Light

Maybe that's one reason why this film so surprised me. Its story muddled my easy sense of history, the story of how "progress" arrived in this part of Planet Earth. It left me feeling a uneasy about the prairie tales of emigration, farming, and gradual urbanization that mirror my own ancestral lineage.  The more I've thought about it, the more I'm simply grateful for the moment of awakening, that the film led me to a place of nagging curiousty, sadness, and ignorance about where I live and what it means to be here.

A few things that look different: I grew up in Mendota Heights, right off Highway 13 (Sibley Memorial Highway) a few miles from the small historic town of Mendota, where the Henry Sibley house and historic site is located. I attended Henry Sibley High School, which was also named after the state's famous first governor. At the time, the name of the school mascot was the "Warriors," and when I was there back in the 1990s, the image on our letter jackets was the side profile of a Indian man's head. When you're a kid you don't think about these things.

[An old Mendota historic marker.]
One day, my 11th grade Economics teacher, Mr. Reed, delivered an impromptu lecture about Henry Sibley and his role in the 1862 Dakota War (something I had never heard of). He told us about how Sibley hunted down and hung 22 Dakota men, and implied that it made the "warrior" image a problem, and that he felt it should be changed. Again, when you're young you don't think much about these things. But within a year or two, the school had changed the mascot to a "griffin," which it remains to this day. Apart from relating it to contemporary mascot debates, I hadn't thought much more about the incident.

Now of course it seems much more important. Sibley's role in Wingerd's history isn't easy to categorize. He'd been living in Mendota since the 1830s and at various times alternately defends and undermines the ability of Dakota people to keep their land. By the time the 1860s come around, Sibley's conduct is pretty abominable. Though even then, according to the book, he remains someone grasping for middle ground. (The genocidal attitudes of Saint Paul's newspaper editors and the general public during the 1862 Dakota War were worse than anything Sibley was proposing.)

[The Minnesota governor's office, with 19th c. paintings showing treaties.]
Needless to say, there remains a great deal to unpack about Sibley's legacy and his place in Minnesota's history. The same can and should be said for practically all of the iconic figures and symbols of the state. It's one reason why I've increasingly found the racial messages of the Minnesota state seal troubling (though honest!), or the paintings on the wall of the governor's office celebrating the treaty ofTraverse de Sioux.

There are other remembrances that made me wish that I'd known more about our state's complex history. My mother had a aging friend growing up who had spent years working with the Ojibwe tribes. About ten years ago I interviewed her about her remembrances. She collected Dakota craft work and her father (IIRC) had known Bishop Whipple himself. Her collection is now housed up at the Grand Portage Ojibwe museum, part of the National Monument center.

Another moment where, in retrospect, I am ashamed of my ignorance is when I interviewed a local Dakota writer named Jim Rock about the history of wakan tipi, a Dakota sacred site just East of downtown Saint Paul. The more I think about it, the more I'm grateful to Jim and his partner for sharing that afternoon and their perspective with me. They said and did a lot of things that I wish I can better understand.

[The remnants of wakan tipi, the center of the universe, near downtown Saint Paul.]

Where does the Revenant Rabbithole lead?

[Minneapolis sidewalk sign.]
Of course there's much more to learn. North Country ends in 1870, when almost all Minnesota's tribes had been either displaced, eradicated, or moved to remote reservations. But what happened next?

I know a few small snippets: forcible schooling, native languages being banned, the Dawes Act that allowed reservation lands to be subdivided and sold off to whites. I hear things about urban communities like Little Earth, and understand that many Indians live in cities these days. I know that fishing rights are still debated and undermined, that wild rice is threatened by mining and genetic engineering. I know that communities like Red Lake or White Earth struggle deeply, and that the US and state governments still want to ram pipelines through Indian land. For even these small fragments, I'm grateful for friends or writers who have shared their perspectives to help me understand these things.

Mostly, though, it's a dark hole: Minnesota's missing history. I want to learn more about it, and especially how these stories can be brought into the present day. I'm going to try harder to pay attention to debates, read The Circle, or listen to KFAI's indigenous programming like First Person Radio (Wednesday, 9 – 10:00 AM). There are other movies, too, like Smoke Signals, Sherman Alexie's excellent late-90s tale of coming of age and acceptance. The rabbithole leads many places, into caves and down impossible tunnels.

[Arriving at the fort.]
On a recent restless night, I stepped onto my porch at 4:30 in the morning, the time of night when the city is asleep and its technological din all but fades away. The bluff that I live on is called "Cherokee Bluff" (a geographic error; Cherokee were in the Southeast), and for a time the Dakota chief Little Crow's village was located along its base. Each time I go to a meeting at the Planning Commission, I walk past a giant 1930s onyx statue of an Indian called the "Vision of Peace", that stands dominating Saint Paul City Hall. That night, and in other small moments of quietude, it seems almost possible to feel a connection between this land and its hundreds of years of inhabited history. But how do you reconcile these conflicting stories, images, monuments, or times?

I wish it was easier. There is no answer or end that I can find. The Revenant proved discomfiting, which makes it a fascinating movie even if you find yourself bored by revenge or Leonardo DeCaprio's incessant gasps.

Wingerd ends her important book by calling out the state's centennial celebrations of the 50s and our cultural ignorance of our own history. Here’s the ending, beautifully written:
In recent decades, the scholarly tide has turned. Historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, and geographers have produced a veritable library of work that challenges the popular narrative of Minnesota's past. And public historians, led by the Minnesota Historical Society, have mounted exemplary exhibits that re-create the complex world whose last remnants were swept away by events in the 1860s. More important, Native people themselves have insisted that their voices be heard, their ancestors honored. Still, despite all these efforts most Minnesotans remain unaware of the rich history the flows beneath their feet, like veins of precious metal. The lived experience of the world as it is creates a sense of inevitability, making it difficult to imagine a radically different ordering of society in the past. The refrains of popular history, once memorized, are familiar and comfortable and not easily displaced.
[The cottonwood.]
I'm grateful that a minor question from The Revenant opened my eyes just a little bit. In the middle of the night, I'm not sure that this rabbithole has a bottom. It seems like it could swallow anything.

The cottonwood tree behind my porch rustles in a small breeze, the flat stems of a thousand leaves catching the wind and rocking back and forth. It often sounds like an ocean, and the tree towers so far above my three-story apartment building that it must be a well over hundred years old. Jim Rock told me that cottonwoods were considered by the Dakota to be bridges between the sky and the earth. That if you look closely at their branches, you can find a star inside.

By the time the sun rises and the city wakes again, it’s easy to forget where we’ve been and how far we have to go.


Adam said...

There's so much in that rabbit hole that I should learn.

In the meantime, if you want to approach the Revenant from a less meritorious perspective, comedians Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynold did the story of Hugh Glass on their podcast, The Dollop: http://thedollop.libsyn.com/dollop-x-hugh-glass

Anonymous said...

This blog continues to deliver, for me.
Also, The Revenant is probably worth watching just for Tom Hardy's excellent performance and beautiful scenery.

karen said...

Very interesting. Thanks so much.

Now as I reflect one what you have discovered, it occurs to me that in o really U.S. history we get very little anywhere bout the time between first European settlers and almost complete conquest by European nations and later the westward expanding independent U.S.

Even where I think of the contact and interactions between the two (European descendents and first peoples) was minimal and then sudden - say in 1840s gold rush areas, truth is Russians and Spaniards and later Mexicans had be settling, trading interacting for generations.

The 100-150 years of mixed contact, partial settlement in most areas of expanding U.S. prior to first people being forcibly settled on reservations, often involving other nations than Britain and U.S (French, Dutch, Spanish,Mexican etc) seem particularly ignored.

Our cultural history is: native people lived here, then white people were tourists and mapped area, then 100 -150 years later white people showed up on one huge mass, fought some battles, or more honestly, committed genocide and stole land, and it was done.

There were 3-6 generations in between first real contacts and formal U.S. state being established and whit people tlaing control. There was a lot of contact, trading, mixing, cultural influences over those generations living in these transitioning areas.

We forget that 100 years of contact and several generations lived between the time colonists on east coast were throughly settling and U.S revolution in that area. That between time was no doubt important influence on politics and culture of the colonist. They loved, worked, traded and fought with first peoples for generations.

Thanks for making me consider this.

I'm guessing the best source for these between times is native Americans oral history - it has proven over and again to be quite accurate.