The True Revenants of a Buried Past

What are the problems and possibilities of Hollywood history? ActiveHistory is pleased to feature a four-essay forum on The Revenanta 2015 Hollywood historical epic set against the backdrop of the early 1800s North American fur trade. As a primer, we recommend reading Stacy Nation-Knapper’s excellent review from earlier this year.

Michel Bouchard

Hugh Glass’s encounter with the grizzly bear was depicted in illustrations soon after it was first reported. Wikimedia Commons.

Hugh Glass’s encounter with the grizzly bear was depicted in illustrations soon after it was first reported. Wikimedia Commons.

The Revenant is the latest of ghostly resurrections of the Hugh Glass story, and in many ways the worst in the ways it distorts the history of the French-speaking traders, trappers, and boatmen who outnumbered the Anglo-American “mountain men” by a ratio of four-to-one in the era depicted. Each time the tale has been told, the purpose is nonetheless the same, to define the new American hero. This latest haunting is no different. The movie first and foremost glorifies the hyper-individualist hero. Not only does Glass kill a grizzly bear, he does so alone. The first telling of the tale in 1825 was a bit more modest as it was Glass’s companions that came to his rescue: “the main body of trappers having arrived, advanced to the relief of Glass, and delivered seven or eight shots with such unerring aim as to terminate hostilities, by despatching [sic] the bear as she stood over her victim.” Written shortly after the incident and having certainly met Glass or acquaintances of Glass in person, the 1825 account had to be a bit more restrained in telling Glass’s story. Nonetheless, since 1825, both historians and popular culture have contributed to denigrating then burying then denying the history of the French speakers of the West and on both sides of the 49th Parallel.

The reality is the colonial French were actively pushing into the plains a century prior to the 1820s. In the 1720s, the French had established the “Compagnie des Sioux” with the stated intent of trading with the Sioux in this very region of the world where the historical Hugh Glass was crawling. Continue reading

Hugh Glass: The Evolution of a Legend

What are the problems and possibilities of Hollywood history? ActiveHistory is pleased to feature a four-essay forum on The Revenanta 2015 Hollywood historical epic set against the backdrop of the early 1800s North American fur trade. As a primer, we recommend reading Stacy Nation-Knapper’s excellent review from earlier this year.

Claire Kaufman

Wikimedia Commons.

Wikimedia Commons.

The fur trader and mountain man Hugh Glass – the heroic protagonist of The Revenant – has been captivating audiences for almost two centuries. The first known publication describing Glass being left for dead in the wilderness was written by James Hall in the 1825 edition of The Port Folio. There was a boom of interest in 1830s and 1840s, with other authors repeating Hall’s account and adding new information to the story. Even Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2015 film (based on Michael Punke’s 2002 novel) is not the first cinematic depiction of Glass; another version of the story appeared as Man in the Wilderness (1971) starring the Oscar-nominated actor Richard Harris.

Given that the factual aspects of Glass’s life are spotty at best, ample room has been left for storytellers to embellish the details when weaving Glass into the historical tapestry of the fur trade. Of all chapters of his life, it is the brutal attack by a grizzly bear, subsequent survival against all odds and quest for vengeance that are the most captivating. Yet despite this core story, many elements of the legend have evolved over time. Continue reading

“Inspired by True Events”: The Fur Trade, The Revenant, and Humanity

What are the problems and possibilities of Hollywood history? ActiveHistory is pleased to feature a four-essay forum on The Revenanta 2015 Hollywood historical epic set against the backdrop of the early 1800s North American fur trade. As a primer, we recommend reading Stacy Nation-Knapper’s excellent review from earlier this year.

Ted Binnema

Jim Bridger. Wikimedia Commons.

Jim Bridger. Wikimedia Commons.

The Revenant’s trailer indicates that the movie is “inspired by true events.” True, the names of all of its main characters—Hugh Glass, Jim Bridger, John Fitzgerald, and Andrew Henry—are names of actual mountain men, and the movie is obviously inspired by William Ashley’s Rocky Mountain Fur Company’s brigade of 1823.

The claim that a movie is “inspired by,” “based on,” or is actually a “true story,” influences viewers’ perceptions of movies.  But in my opinion, moviegoers should assume that movies are works of fiction—not documentaries—regardless of any claims. I won’t belabor the fact that there is very little correlation between known historical events and The Revenant. Others have already done so.

I think it is more interesting to explore what historians know about actual events, so that viewers might be in a better position to review the movie as a work of serious fiction—something it was intended to be. Continue reading

Memorial Dissonance in the Garden of Remembrance

By Rachel Hatcher

[This is the fourth post in the Learning and unlearning history in South Africa’s public spaces series.]


The Garden of Remembrance at the National Women’s Memorial and Anglo-Boer War Museum in Bloemfontein was inaugurated at the end of November 2015.  It is located in the the Free State (former independent Boer, now Afrikaner, republic of the Orange Free State). The Garden is dedicated to “the more than 51 927 black and white woman [sic] and children who died in the concentration camps during the South African War (Anglo-Boer War) 1899-1902.” The names of about 35,000 of the over 50,000 who died in the camps were collected and the list of names that forms the focus of the

The concentration camps were created by the British in their effort to defeat the Boers and incorporate the different regions and their populations into the South African Republic. Significantly, this included the Witswatersrand gold fields located near Johannesburg in the then Boer Republic of the Transvaal. Given the Boers’ decision to engage to guerrilla-style warfare, and their reliance on Boer farmers scattered across the countryside for information, food, and other supplies, the British rounded up white women, children, and the elderly and all blacks in rural areas and re-located them to what turned out to be deadly concentration camps. The Women’s Memorial, inaugurated in 1913, and now the Garden of Remembrance, commemorate those who died, more often than not of disease. Continue reading

Was Laurier Canada’s Obama?

By Elsbeth Heaman

CaptureUntil 1887, the national Liberal party of Canada was led primarily from Ontario by statesmen hostile to the fiscal importuning of the other provinces. It bore a heavy impress from George Brown, who had largely based his political career on denouncing Catholics and French-Canadians for holding Canada back from its progressive destiny. But after Edward Blake lost yet another election that he should have won, given the strength of popular opinion against John A. Macdonald in other regions of Canada (especially in Nova Scotia and Quebec), the party leadership reversed its Brownian orientation and installed a Catholic French Canadian as its leader. Many Anglo-Protestant supremacists were shocked and appalled at the choice and they were more shocked and appalled when Laurier won the election of 1896. Sir Charles Tupper won a plurality of the popular vote and he held Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and much of Ontario and Manitoba, but Laurier won an overwhelming victory in Quebec that cemented other successes into a plurality of seats. The country would enter the 20th century, “Canada’s century,” with a French-Canadian Catholic at its head.

Laurier, were he alive today, would probably point to the parallels between his situation and that in the United States in 2016. The election of both Obama and Laurier signaled a new political era, where the old “race” hostilities could be turned into something more consensual and progressive. But in both countries, something different happened. In both cases the out party, which had a nativist base, stoked that base with more or less overt nativist attacks on the prime minister/president by yoking it to anti-establishment sentiment.[1] The result was to heighten rather than to diminish popular racism. Continue reading

The Rites of Dionysus: Live Performance, Pleasure, and The Tragically Hip

The Tragically Hip, Gord Downie centre, 1994. Credit unknown

The Tragically Hip, Gordon Downie centre, 1994. Credit unknown

Paul David Aikenhead

“Playing live is cool because it’s two hours of twenty-four that I can think about nothing,” Gordon Downie revealed in an interview from June 1991, with his signature rasp. “I have no worries, no insecurities; everything flows. It’s therapeutic every day to jump through that hatch in the roof and howl at the moon.”[1] For the lead singer and enigmatic frontman of The Tragically Hip – an upwardly mobile blues-rock quintet hailing from Kingston, Ontario – getting on stage and performing for a crowd was a beneficial release. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the band cemented its reputation in Canada as a righteous live act. Each show the group gave was a frenzied field of pleasure in and through which people could relish encountering liberation from the strains of life, if only fleetingly, while also enjoying the soothing confirmation of individuality. In essence, The Tragically Hip’s concerts were opportunities for both band and audience members to go beyond the ordinary limits of commonplace experiences, to enact their own brand of the rites of Dionysus.

The term “live” did not become a part of music appreciation vocabulary until the mid 1930s, nearly fifty years after the advent of viable commercial sound recording technologies. Continue reading

The Collaboratorium – University of Saskatchewan Launches Initiative in Community-Engaged History

By Colin Osmond

The University of Saskatchewan recently launched a unique and exciting initiative called the “Community-Engaged History Collaboratorium.” This is an extension of Prof. Keith Thor Carlson’s Research Chair in Indigenous and Community-engaged History, and is designed to be on the cutting edge of community-engaged scholarship (CES). In the Collaboratorium, faculty and students work in collaboration with First Nations, non-profit organizations, and community organizations to co-create knowledge that gives agency to historical voices, narratives, and interpretations that would otherwise remain submerged and eclipsed.

Building relationships with the community strengthens the position of the University in the broader communities in which they exist. But working collaboratively does much more – it helps give people whose history is contested by the interpretations emerging from powerful corporate and government institutions a voice to challenge these narratives. Collaboration helps reinforce for communities that Universities are important institutions that need to be protected and valued, for the simple reason that they can help serve community interests and provide meaningful scholarly services. It teaches students to think beyond the classroom, and of the real world implications of their work. It reminds universities that they are not institutions of their own and that they are part of the communities in which they exist.

Screen Shot 2016-07-18 at 10.31.39 AM

Working Collaboratively: From L to R: Zachary Carreiro, Katelyn Finlay, Kristin Enns-Kavanagh, Anthony Meyer, Courtney Bowman, Hannah Cooley, Jenna Casey.

Continue reading

The Robert Harris group portrait

This is the fourteenth post in a two week series in partnership with Canada Watch on the Confederation Debates

By Ged Martin

The founding, in 1880, of the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts no doubt represented a landmark in recognition and encouragement of the visual arts in the Dominion. Unfortunately, it was not easy to advance its cultural agenda, especially the central aim of creating a National Gallery. A cramped room on Ottawa’s Bank Street was designated as the Gallery’s first home in May 1882, and it may be that the idea of acquiring a large picture of national import was attractive as a means of forcing the issue of a permanent location. In April 1883, the Academy’s president, Lucius R. O’Brien, submitted a wordy memorandum to the government calling for artistic commemoration of “the meeting of the Conference at which the foundation was laid for the Confederation of the Provinces constituting the Dominion of Canada.” O’Brien did not specify which conference he had in mind, and the project began as a tribute to the meeting in Charlottetown. However, wherever it happened, O’Brien argued that it was “an event of such importance in the annals of the country” that a monumental canvas was required to keep alive the memory of the participants. O’Brien added two further points. One was a hurry-up reminder that the delegates were already dying off. The other was that Robert Harris, “a Canadian artist of ability,” had recently returned from Europe and was “fully competent to paint such a picture.”[1]

Sir John A. Macdonald’s Cabinet was apparently uncertain about how to respond to O’Brien’s plea. Continue reading

History on TV: Political Drama in the 2010s

Alban Bargain-Villéger

Still from Borgen, 2010.

Still from Borgen, 2010.

In recent years, serial political dramas such as House of Cards and the Danish series Borgen have enjoyed quite a bit of success in North America. Although one might argue that the genre is more of a child of the 1990s, since the original House of Cards trilogy (set in a fictional post-Thatcher Britain) came out in 1991, and The West Wing ran from 1999 to 2006, the four series that I intend to examine in this post are all products of the 2010s. A comparison of Borgen (“The Castle,” Denmark, 2010-13), Les Hommes de l’ombre (“The Shadow Men,” France, 2012), House of Cards (USA, 2013-present), and Okkupert (“Occupied,” Norway, 2015) is not only useful in providing an overview of how western European and American politics are being imagined (even fantasized about) in our day and age, but also yields precious information of a historical nature. In their own way, each of these series tries to make sense of a different political history. Of course, it should be acknowledged that these four series reflect the views of the writers, directors, consultants and producers who created and shaped them. Nonetheless, the commercial and critical success that they have garnered as well as the themes they address raise several questions about the ways western democracies and their histories are perceived today.

SPOILER ALERT: be warned that plot points will be given away. Continue reading

Creating the Canadian Mosaic

Ryan McKenney and Benjamin Bryce

John Murray Gibbon’s image of a Czechoslovakian immigrant in his Canadian Mosaic

John Murray Gibbon’s image of a Czechoslovakian immigrant in his Canadian Mosaic

Canadians often describe their country as a “mosaic.” This idea is present on government websites and in many contemporary articles in the media (on outlets such as The Globe and Mail, Macleans, and the Huffington Post), and most importantly in the minds of people across the country. Though used in different contexts and with different goals, the mosaic almost always describes Canada as a multicultural landscape and symbolizes a national ideology of inclusion and diversity. Canadians hold great pride in this idea, placing it on the progressive end of a spectrum opposite to the American melting pot. Yet Canadians rarely question where the term comes from.

Many Canadians would likely be astonished to find that the first person to use the term “mosaic” to discuss the national character of Canada was in fact an American. Continue reading