Melaw Nakehk’o on the red carpet at the premier of The Revenant in L.A | Image source: Jason Kempin/Getty Images North America
Director, Alejandro Iñárritu’s, The Revenant tells the gripping, often violent and nearly impossible survival story of Hugh Glass, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who is on a mission to exact revenge for the murder of his half Pawnee son. While The Revenant depicted the Arikara and Pawnee during the fur trade era around present day North Dakota in culturally appropriate ways, I left the film wanting to see more of the Arikara warrior storyline. After all, they did project a fierce presence whenever Glass encountered them and they impacted his storyline in a significant way.
In this exclusive MUSKRAT interview, Melaw Nakehk’o (Deh Cho Dene/Denesulene), who plays Powaqa, the Arikara warrior, gives us her take on the missing Arikara storyline, #OscarsSoWhite, and what it was like to walk the red carpet and work in her first Hollywood film. After landing the role of Powaqa, Nakehk’o also utilized her platform in Hollywood to make a statement on Indigenous issues and violence against Indigenous women. At the L.A. film premiere, she wore a Valentino dress co-designed by Métis artist Christi Belcourt, showcasing traditional Native design and bringing attention to the issue of cultural appropriation of Indigenous designs that occurs within the fashion industry.
MM: How did you find your first experience filming a Hollywood movie?
MN: This is a big budget movie so working with Leonardo DiCaprio and being able to witness director, Alejandro Iñárritu in the artistic process discussing scenes, lighting and where they wanted people was insane. There were hundreds of people that would just jump up and clear a whole entire scene and then they would just change their minds at the last minute. We didn’t even film a lot of the scenes in the script- they were just basing the story on it and being really creative.
It was really cool to witness how they got some of the shots. When we were shooting the scene where I was washing my hands in the river, Civo (D.P. Emmanuel Lubezki), the cinematographer was sitting on a piece of ice in this frozen river in Argentina and the piece of ice broke. He didn’t even say cut; so we were still doing this scene while he’s sitting in this frozen river.
I did a few scenes with Leonardo DiCaprio and he’s so amazing to work with. It was just this energy that he would exude. Even when we were rehearsing scenes his energy and presence sucks you into the moment and you’re there. It was really good.
MM: You’ve mentioned your storyline was different from when you filmed it to the finished product. How so?
MN: They cut a lot of my scenes. Everything that we filmed in 2014 was cut from my character and they changed her story a little bit. Her story didn’t seem complete when I saw the film. When I was reading the script and preparing for it, Powaqa was in all of the major battles in the movie. She had a badass tomahawk and was a very strong woman. I was in the first battle scene. Then I was in a few other scenes tracking Glass.
In the beginning, Duane Howard who plays Elk Dog is looking for his daughter, so we find out at the very start that I’ve been captured. Then he goes on this long trek to find me. Whereas before I was fighting with them and then in one of the battles I go missing and get captured.
MM: This was your acting debut. What did you do to prepare for the role?
MN: I was able to talk to Loren Yellowbird, who is Arikara, while on set. He helped with the Arikara language and cultural advising. I talked to him about women from the Arikara Nation. He told me that just recently they started bringing back songs that honour women and ceremonies within the Arikara Nation.
MM: At the premiere for The Revenant you wore a Valentino dress co-designed by Métis artist, Christi Belcourt. What sorts of reactions did you get?
MN: On the red carpet all the photographers were loving the dress. In interviews afterwards a lot of the fashion bloggers really liked the dress and were complimenting it. It was all really good. I was number five in the top ten best dressed for the week in Hollywood. I beat one of the Jenners. I beat a Kardashian- she was number seven!
MM: After the Oscar nominees were announced this year, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite started trending on social media due to lack of diversity, what are your thoughts on the subject?
MN: The Oscars are this awards show that was created in Hollywood which has a history of being very exclusive. It was created to entertain the American mainstream which is all catered to whiteness. We need to start creating our own stories and telling our own stories from our own perspectives.
There’s a lot of criticism about The Revenant not being about Native Americans. It isn’t. It’s based on the story of Hugh Glass, who was a real person in the 1820s and the beginning of colonialism in the West. There are Native people in the movie who were portrayed appropriately in the film with our language, Indigenous actors and talent; even the stunt people were Indigenous. It’s not an Indigenous story; it’s a United States of America story. I think that the story is true to that time.
MM: You are also one of the founding members of the community organization Dene Nahjo in the Northwest Territories. What kind of projects will we be seeing from that organization?
MN: Just recently Dene Nahjo piloted an Indigenous leadership workshop where we’re hoping to inspire emerging leaders and build leadership skills in our communities. The Northwest Territories are very vast. We hope we can train people from the community to be able to go out into all of the smaller communities. We have a huge amount of land and a very small population, so we’re trying to find ways of doing work in all of our communities.
Hugh Glass was an American hunter, fur trapper, trader, and explorer who lived around present day Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota. He gained notoriety for his epic survival story. While on a fur trapping expedition his party was attacked by the Arikara’s, killing off many and wounding Glass. On their way back to the fort, he got mauled by a grizzly bear and was left for dead in the wilderness by John Fitzgerald and Jim Bridger. After recovering from his wounds he sought out revenge on Fitzgerald and Bridger, but ended up forgiving them and sparing their lives. His involvement with the Arikara is different from the movie than in real life. It’s been documented that he was actually killed by the Arikara while on a hunting expedition in 1833. In the movie he also has a Pawnee wife and a half Pawnee son, but it is unknown whether this is true.
Melaw Nakehk’o’s professional acting debut in The Revenant is the natural progression of her distinguished career as an artist and community leader. Born in Canada’s north, and raised in the Liidlii Kue community, Melaw comes from a long line of tribal leaders of the Deh Cho Dene & Denesulene people. Melaw attended the prestigious Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, where she earned a degree in 2 dimensional arts. She is also recognized for her exemplary work in revitalizing traditional Indigenous artistic practices, with contemporary applications of ancient techniques. Her work in reviving and teaching moosehide tanning techniques has initiated a resurgence of the practice and shaped a broader community building movement within Canada. She is a Founding Member of Dene Nahjo, and is a regular instructor at the Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning, a land-based university program.
Dene Nahjo’s mission is to advance social and environmental justice for northern peoples while promoting Indigenous leadership by fostering emerging leaders. They strive to live, learn and celebrate the culture, language and Indigenous values on the land, guided by Elders, to strengthen relationships in the North. The goal is to accomplish this by advocating for sustainability and the incorporation of a long-term vision informed by Dene values for the future of Denendeh, and by researching and communicating on key issues to provide an informed, alternative voice on public policy issues of concern to Northerners.