Smudging, sweat lodges and cultural accuracy: On set of The Revenant

Hollywood has a long history of producing culturally inaccurate films. But Oscar-winning director Alejandro Iñárritu's new film, The Revenant, went to great lengths to honour the Arikara people and their culture — although that wasn't initially part of the plan.
Cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki (left), Craig Falcon and director Alejandro González Iñárritu. (courtesy Craig Falcon)

Hollywood has a long history of producing culturally inaccurate films. 

But Oscar-winning director Alejandro Iñárritu's new film, The Revenant, went to great lengths to honour the Arikara people and their culture — although that wasn't initially part of the plan. 

They hired Craig Falcon as a cultural advisor after he just showed up on set one day to offer his services. 

"I sat around in the cafeteria for the better part of the morning, talking to different people," Falcon explained. "Then I got introduced to the director… and we started talking about the script and my knowledge about native Americans … and how I can help them."

Falcon is a cultural education consultant who teaches across North America, including a recent stop at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. But his experience on set of The Revenant was the first time Falcon worked on a film.

Craig Falcon appeared as several characters in The Revenant. (courtesy Craig Falcon)
One of his first tasks was to review the script, and he had an immediate suggestion: Change the name of one of the characters.

"The lead native character, his original name was Elk Tongue. I went to the director and said 'Alejandro, what parent in their right mind would name their kid Elk Tongue?'"

Falcon explained how names are received in his culture and how throughout a lifetime, one can have several names. He told Iñárritu how he received and earned his own name, Elk Dog, while in high school.

Nuu-Chah-Nulth actor Duane Howard appears in The Revenant as Elk Dog. (Duane Howard)
"I thought, well this is cool. He'll go home, think of a cool name for this character, and tomorrow I'll have the right stuff to work with in the script," Falcon said. 

And sure enough, the next day when he received the revised script, the name had been changed. 

"He changed the name to my name, which is so cool."

Pride in authenticity

Falcon prides himself in the authentic feel he helped create for a film that has since been nominated for three Golden Globe Awards, including best dramatic motion picture.

"It was quite rewarding to see how closely the director and his crew wanted things to be authentic," Falcon said.

The 300-plus members of the cast and crew of did a smudge before filming began. (courtesy Craig Falcon)
Falcon knew they were on the right track when on the first day of production, Iñárritu wanted to start with a smudging ceremony and blessing of the cast and crew.

"The first day we had probably 300 people in the smudging and blessing ceremony that lasted a good two to three hours," Falcon recalled.

Some of the cast and crew, along with Iñárritu, smudged several times throughout the making of The Revenant, with the director even joining Falcon in a sweat lodge ceremony.

"I knew they had their own visions of Native Americans," Falcon said. "But I wanted to give them an opportunity to experience who we really are."

To hear the full interview with Craig Falcon and find out how he went head-to-head with the production team on the HBO miniseries Lewis and Clark, click the LISTEN button above.