While much of the Internet has been discussing #OscarsoWhite, French Canadians and Franco-Americans have been airing their own concerns about one particular movie, The Revenant. The plot of the film centers on Hugh Glass, an American fur trader in the 1830s, who seeks revenge on his former comrades after he is left for dead following a bear attack. The controversy centers on one particular scene in which Glass, played by Leonardo DiCaprio (a role for which he received the best actor statuette on Sunday), comes to a Native American village and witnesses the rape of an Indian woman by French-Canadian traders.
(Disclaimer: I have not seen the movie myself, so this post will focus more on the history than the cinematography)
There are plenty of unsavory characters in The Revenant – an attitude summed up by the words nous sommes tous sauvages which appears in one scene (the phrase loosely translates to “we are all savages”, although the French word sauvage is closer to “a man of the wilderness”, and was commonly used to refer to American Indians in the colonial period). The portrayal of French Canadians in the movie is particularly troubling, however, for a couple of reasons – firstly, there are very few depictions (and fewer accurate ones) of French Canadians or Franco-Americans in American television or Hollywood, so a negative depiction unfairly tips the balance. Secondly, many English-speakers don’t know that attitudes towards the indigenous population in New France were much different than in New England or New Spain. While British officers like Lord Jefferey Amherst sent smallpox-infected blankets to Native American villages, French officials generally respected the rights of their Indian neighbors. The Great Peace of Montreal (1701), is an example of the mutual respect between the French and Native Americans.
So what does the history tell us? To start with, it’s important to remember that the intentions of governors and superintendents didn’t always translate into the actions of individuals – especially fur traders (voyageurs) on the frontier:
It should be the duty of the Commandant to employ [the French colonial garrisons] in behalf of the missionaries; on various occasions when the latter are frequently obliged to go to beg the officials to be pleased to repress the misconduct and public acts of Insolence of the dealers in brandy, and of the fugitive voyageurs — who go from one mission to another, making the [Indians] drunk and seducing the women in all the Cabins where they lodge; or they go to visit them, entertain them, Caress them, solicit them, and purchase the enjoyment of their Bodies. The only answer to these prayers that we get from the Commandants is, that they have not enough men to allow of their doing so, — either because the garrisons are not sufficiently numerous; or, even if they were larger, they would not be of much more help to the Commandants, because the voyageurs and the garrisons have an understanding together, to support one another against the missionaries both in their common misconduct, and in Evading all the orders that the Commandants might give them, should the latter choose to take the Missionaries’ part.
Jesuit Relations, Fr. Etienne de Carheil to Gov. Louis-Hector de Callières, Michilmakina, August 30, 1702. Trans. R. Thwaites, 1899
What about the events upon which the Revenant is based? Hugh Glass himself didn’t write an account of the expedition or the attack (he may even have been illiterate), but others did. As is the nature of such things, the story of the man who survived a bear attack and travelled hundreds of miles quickly became a legend and embellished in different retellings. The earliest account, published in 1825 (two years after the bear attack), does indeed mention a group of voyageurs, but in a different light than the movie:
Before his wounds were entirely healed, the chivalry of Glass was awakened, and he joined a party of five engagés [men under contract with a fur company] who were bound, in a piroque [a pirogue, or riverboat] to Yellow Stone River…when the party had ascended to within a few miles of the old Mandan village…On the following days, all the companions of his voyage were massacred by the Arickaw Indians.
Letters from the West, No. XIV, “The Missouri Trapper”, The Port Folio, Philadelphia, March 1825
Far from being villains, the French encountered by Glass in this account help him on his way. The use of French words throughout the piece is typical of writings of this time. The French had been so instrumental in the western fur trade, and continued to be so throughout the early 19th century, that not only were French Canadians still heavily involved in the trade, but they lent their terminology to the profession, and the landscape. Elsewhere in this particular account, Glass survives by eating grains des boeufs – known in English as buffaloberries. The chief of the Arickaws has a French name – Lange de Bicke (Elk-Tongue). And the characters encounter landmarks like the Cotes Noires (the Black Hills) and the Platte River. Glass and his companions set out from Fort Kiowa, which had been constructed in 1822 by Joseph Brazeau, Jr., of the Berthold, Choteau and Pratte Company. Berthold, Choteau and Pratte was known as “the French Company” and owned by three French Creole families based in St. Louis.
So in the balance of history, The Revenant gives French Canadians the short straw. They appear in the movie only as marauding villains; yet in the historic narrative, French fur traders were both more visible and more complex. The simplistic treatment in The Revenant is typical of the way in which the French-Canadian history is either ignored or given only the most cursory nod, and Hollywood is as guilt of this as most US textbooks. It wouldn’t be a huge stretch to say #OscarsoWhiteAngloSaxon.
By the way, there was one prominent award that went to a Franco-American, born in California to French-Canadian parents – Brianne Desaulniers. You may know her by her stage name – Brie Larson, which she chose because her birth name was “too difficult to pronounce.”
Thanks to Rhea Côté Robbins for the information on Brie Larson, and to the Museum of the Mountain Man for its copious historical information on the real Hugh Glass.