Meet the man who taught Leonardo DiCaprio to speak the Arikara language in The Revenant

(Craig Falcon worked on the set of The Revenant with star Leonardo DiCaprio. Photo courtesy Craig Falcon)

Brandi Morin
APTN National News
One of the most anticipated films to come out of Hollywood as of late, includes Indigenous characters and content the likes of which haven’t been depicted since 1990’s epic film Dances With Wolves and a lot of that has to do with Craig Falcon.

With the goal to portray authentic Indigenous peoples and cultures in the film, The Revenant, movie producers sought the help of a cultural advisor early on.

That advisor was Falcon who spent a year working on the movie alongside big name actors Leonardo Dicpario and Tom Hardy.

A cultural education consultant originally from Montana, Falcon met the movie’s producers in Calgary where they expressed interest in his work. They soon offered him the job to be the cultural advisor on the movie.

It was Falcon’s first experience working in the entertainment industry. And it was a whole different world coming from travelling Canada and the United States teaching Indigenous culture in a classroom setting.

“It was really amazing,” said Falcon recalling his first encounters on set. “It was quite an experience watching this army of people running in all different directions.”

Falcon with director
Falcon (centre) with Cinematographer Emmauel Lubezki (left) and Director Alejandro Inarritu (right) Photo courtesy Craig Falcon

Director Alejandro Inarritu is the force behind The Revenant. Inarritu won an Oscars for his movies Birdman and Babel.

Falcon developed a friendship with the two while working on the movie and said both were fascinated by Indigenous culture and took his advice seriously.

“They were really intrigued about Native culture. Alejandro and Chivo even came and had sweat with us. I sent them home with all kinds of different smudges and medicines that we use. They were really focused on who we were and very respectful,” said Falcon.

One of his assignments included reading through the script to look for discrepancies or inaccurate Indigenous representations.

An odd looking name of a character quickly caught Falcon’s eye, he said.

“The main character, his name was Elk Tongue. I went to the director and said, ‘What parent in their right mind would name their kid Elk Tongue? It’s like naming your kid ‘dumb ass’ or something,’” laughed Falcon, who went on to give Inarritu an explanation on how First Nations people receive their traditional names.

“I used an example of how I got my name, Elk Dog- it means horse. He thought it was pretty neat. I thought, ‘he’ll run with it and find a new name with his writers to give this character’. The next morning I woke up and got a new script and he gave the new character my name! So that was really cool to put my stamp on the movie,” said Falcon.

Falcon as character
Falcon, in costume as an extra, on the set of The Revenant. Photo courtesy Craig Falcon

The Revenant tells a story of survival and revenge centered on a former real-life European trapper named Hugh Glass, played by Leonardo Dicaprio.

Set in the 1800’s in the uncultivated and vast lands of North America, it was filmed mostly near Calgary, Alta., amid the stunning backdrops of the Rocky Mountain wilderness. Due out Friday, reviews reveal it’s a visually striking film that is thrilling, violent and not recommended for the faint of heart.

“The movie is so bloody, it’s bloody from head to toe,” said Falcon.

However, the production crew, including the directors and actors, prayed and smudged together at Falcon’s lead at the start of each day.

“The first thing that they wanted to do is make sure that everyone is alright,” said Falcon. “So they’d want to smudge every morning and they’d want a blessing for everybody.”

Crews worked during the winter months in frigid temperatures with erratic mountainous weather patterns. Conditions that have prompted media headlines to hail the actor’s commitment and resiliency inciting Oscar worthy performances.

“There was a lot of people almost freezing to death. When you’re from this area and you’re an outdoors person, it wasn’t really that bad,” chuckled Falcon.

Falcon’s influence ran deep throughout the making of the film.

His knowledge was utilized to help guide the construction of an Indian village to match the time period the movie is set in. He also helped with props and costuming like decorating horses with war paint. His research and expertise on various tribes of North America proved integral for the accuracy of creating the scenes.

“The horse and the warrior of this tribe were one. The markings on the bodies of both were the same. The different hair styles on the horse would sometimes match the hairstyles on the warrior himself. We would match the paintings on each actor to each horse. We’d paint about 30 horses a day.”

In addition to working as cultural advisor, he taught the Arikara Indigenous language to Dicaprio and Hardy. A language he himself learned in just three weeks.

“Leo (Dicaprio) was a good student. He would really get himself into character when he was speaking Arkikra or doing sign language,” said Falcon who added he was impressed by the skills of the two Hollywood leading men.

Falcon praying
Falcon leading a prayer on the set of The Revenant. Photo courtesy Craig Falcon

The film’s nemesis, John Fitzgerald, is played by Tom Hardy who attempts to kill Dicaprio’s character Glass, who then spends a good portion of the film hunting Hardy down.

“It’s pretty amazing to see how they focus on things and how they set their mind into the period,” said Falcon. “It was amazing watching Leo and Tom transform themselves psychologically into these characters.”

He also got a shot at appearing on the big screen in background scenes and working as an extra.

The film includes hundreds of Indigenous extras from Alberta and British Columbia while featuring several Indigenous main characters.

Vancouver based actress Grace Dove plays Dicaprio’s wife, Vancouver based actor Duane Howard plays Chief Elk Dog, Yellowknife actress Melaw Nakehk’o as the chief’s daughter and Saskatchewan’s Isaiah Tootoosis as Dicaprio’s son.

Overall, Falcon said the production team portrayed Indigenous culture in a legitimate way.

Falcon said the effort The Revenant team put out to make a movie that was culturally accurate was refreshing given the cultural appropriation often seen in media.

“They hit it right on about 97 per cent of the time. There was a couple things that I didn’t agree with, but you know the director does have his artistic vision in his head of what he sees. We bended on a few things but it wasn’t anything that was really troubling,” he said.

Film production wrapped last summer, but Falcon has been making a career in the movie business ever since. His skills are now in high demand. He spends his time between Calgary and East Glacier, Montana working on various film projects.

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4 thoughts on “Meet the man who taught Leonardo DiCaprio to speak the Arikara language in The Revenant

  1. Well if Craig knew an thing about his own tribe he would know that Elk Tongue was a great Beaver Bundle Man and is the teacher to Bad Marriage who taught Swims Under and then passed the songs on through his son to the current owners of our oldest bundle.

  2. Omg…..sorry for being offended but Falcon is a “DUMB ASS” He is basically calling my Grandmother a dumb ass. She was one of the wives of Son of Star, one of our last Chiefs. Elk Tongue was the mother of my mother’s line. Oh……and by the way…..Elk Tongue and Son of Star we’re or “are” ARIKARA. Who, IS that guy? Why haven’t our people heard of him as a fluent speaker?? I think my grandmother’s name was beautiful.

  3. You are very wrong, Iñarritu didn’t direct Gravity, that was Alfonso Cuaron and he won the Oscar for that. Iñarritu won the Oscars for Birdman last year. Check your facts!!

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