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NDSU landed key role, albeit off-screen, keeping 'Revenant' authentic

FARGO -- Loren Yellow Bird fielded what proved to be a fateful telephone call one day while working as an interpretive ranger at the Fort Union National Historic Site.

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Loren Yellow Bird, center, with Alejandro Inarritu, the director of "The Revenant," and star Leonardo DiCaprio. Shown here at a post-production sound studio, Yellow Bird was a consultant for the hit movie. Photo Special to Forum News Service.
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FARGO -- Loren Yellow Bird fielded what proved to be a fateful telephone call one day while working as an interpretive ranger at the Fort Union National Historic Site.

The call turned into an audition of sorts, and Yellow Bird would land a supporting role off camera in a blockbuster film.

The caller was one of the producers for the Academy Award-winning movie "The Revenant," which stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Hugh Glass, a legendary mountain man who survived a grizzly bear mauling.

"He was basically fishing for information," Yellow Bird said, including details about the fur trade and the Arikara, a tribe on the upper Missouri River that is central to the story.

Fort Union, located near Williston near the confluence of the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers, was a major hub of the fur trade in the 1800s, making it a logical place to go fishing for information.

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As the conversation progressed, producer Alex Scott was startled when Yellow Bird told him he was an Arikara, one of the tribes on the Fort Berthold Reservation in western North Dakota.

"Arikara? You're an Arikara?" the producer asked, more than once, just to be sure.

Yes, Yellow Bird answered, an Arikara, who sang traditional songs and knew some of the language, which his father spoke fluently. Not only that, he had studied history and anthropology, and was a senior ranger at Fort Union.

A quick series of phone calls ensued, and Yellow Bird was soon on a flight to Calgary, then on the film's location in the Canadian Rockies. He quickly was introduced to DiCaprio and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the director, and other crew members.

"It was like a whirlwind," Yellow Bird said.

After that initial two-day visit--all he could spare from work at Fort Union during the busy summer tourist season--Yellow Bird later was hired as a consultant. He would spend a total of 14 weeks on the set, in bits and pieces.

"Everything just clicked," he said.

Yellow Bird, a North Dakota State University graduate, will speak about his experiences as an indigenous cultural expert for "The Revenant" at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 5, at the STEM building, room 122 on campus.

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Much of his work involved advising the costume and props crews as well as the dialogue coach for tips on Arikara and its pronunciation.

Inarritu had an unusual language request for Yellow Bird when the two met. "He said teach me something dirty," a joke to welcome him to the set. "I told him something kind of stupid and he laughed."

To add authenticity, he advised the costume director to add a piece of corn cob to the shirt of the lead Arikara warrior in a scene in which the Indians attack Glass and his fellow fur traders. Traditionally, the lead warrior wore a corn talisman to honor Mother Corn, an important deity.

"I just told her what I knew," Yellow Bird said.

Although his father was a fluent Arikara speaker, and Yellow Bird has been studying the language and songs of his tribe for 20 years, he cannot speak the tongue fluently. A few years ago, with support from the National Park Service, he went to Indiana University for immersion instruction in Arikara.

He had to simplify the language, a linguistic cousin of the Pawnee language, so some cast members could pronounce their dialogue.

"It was a mouthful for some of the guys," he said. "A lot of them struggled with it."

DiCaprio, who won the best actor Oscar for his performance, proved a quick study, Yellow Bird said. The actor stopped by for a chat from time to time on location.

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"He'd just come up and see me at times and say, 'How are you doing buddy?'" he said.

Yellow Bird also got a voice actor credit for the film. His voice was part of a voice over, and he voiced the scream of an Arikara warrior shot out of a tree by Glass.

Although the movie took dramatic liberties with the Hugh Glass story, as it's been passed down, largely through lore, Yellow Bird was pleased with the pains the filmmakers took in striving for authenticity.

Fortunately, Yellow Bird said, the film seems to be well received on Fort Berthold. He grew up in White Shield, the reservation's Arikara community.

"I think they did as well as anybody could," he said.

Patrick Springer first joined The Forum in 1985. He covers a wide range of subjects including health care, energy and population trends. Email address: pspringer@forumcomm.com
Phone: 701-367-5294
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