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IU linguists provide Arikara and Pawnee dialogue for Oscar-nominated film 'The Revenant'

Feb. 3, 2016

IU linguists Douglas R. Parks and Logan D. Sutton with the American Indian Studies Research Institute helped provide authentic dialogue in two American Indian languages for the film “The Revenant,” which recently received three Golden Globe Awards and has been nominated for 12 Academy Awards.

douglas r. parks and logan d. sutton

From left, Logan D. Sutton and Douglas R. Parks lent their expertise on the Arikara and Pawnee languages both on and off the set of "The Revenant." | Photo By eric rudd, iu communications

“The Revenant,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, is the story of the survival and revenge of explorer and fur trapper Hugh Glass on the American frontier during the early 19th century. After being brutally mauled by a grizzly bear and left for dead by his hunting companions, Glass, as portrayed by DiCaprio in the film, struggles to survive as he embarks on a quest to exact revenge on those who betrayed and abandoned him.

Unlike earlier films of this genre, Parks said “The Revenant” is distinguished by its devotion to authenticity. He praised the film’s director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, saying he went to great lengths to recreate not only the vast wilderness and culture of fur trappers on the Northern Plains, but also the authentic culture and languages of its indigenous Arikara and Pawnee peoples.

It was this devotion to authenticity that compelled Iñárritu and his studio to call upon Parks and Sutton to assist in the post-production of Arikara and Pawnee dialogue for the film.

Parks, a professor of anthropology and co-director of the American Indian Studies Research Institute, began his linguistic field studies of Pawnee as a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley in 1965. At that time there were 200 speakers of the language. He continued work with native speakers until 2001, when the last one passed away. In 1970 he undertook a long‑term study of Arikara with elderly speakers, continuing his work with them until the last fluent speaker passed away, also in 2001.

Sutton began his study of Arikara in 2005 while working on a master’s degree in linguistics at IU, joining an Arikara language class offered by Parks for two native Arikara graduate students. Sutton then began a collaboration on the Pawnee and Arikara languages with Parks as he completed his doctoral degree in linguistics at the University of New Mexico, and the two have continued to collaborate to this day. Alongside Parks, he is one of only two specialists in the Arikara and Pawnee languages in the world.

Historically spoken in what is now Nebraska and the Dakotas, Pawnee and Arikara are members of the Caddoan language family and thus are quite different from English and European languages. Moreover, there are no longer any fluent native speakers of either language. So neither Parks nor Sutton were surprised to receive a call last fall from the movie studio looking for help in translating dialogue into these languages and coaching actors to speak their lines as accurately as possible.

Parks said Iñárritu wanted authentic Arikara and Pawnee speech to be used by the actors, not some form of broken English. For Parks, the request was different enough from his usual academic pursuits to pique his interest.

“I was just curious as the devil,” he said. “I had no idea how movies are created, and what people who make them are like. Everyone I met was very interesting. Plus, to my knowledge, this is the first time Pawnee and Arikara have been depicted positively in a movie, so it was an honor to be part of that.”

New Regency Productions in Los Angeles, Calif., contacted Parks and asked him to translate the actors’ dialogue into Arikara and Pawnee. Parks also was asked to come to the studio and assess exactly what needed to be done.

Subsequently, Sutton went to the studio as well, and spent two weeks working with various members of the audio production staff and the actors. He wrote and revised translations of Arikara and Pawnee dialogue to sync with the actors’ mouth movements in the film, working with the sound editors and a native Arikara collaborator to come up with best fit solutions. Sutton himself also helped to coach actors, including DiCaprio, in pronouncing their lines in Arikara and Pawnee.

Sutton was impressed by DiCaprio’s ability to reproduce his lines in Pawnee. 

“He was very polite, very professional, all business,” Sutton said. “And he’s an excellent mimic. I’d provide him with some written‑out notes, including phonetic pronunciations, but when I’d pronounce something for him, he imitated me pretty authentically on the first try.”

Although several other Hollywood productions have featured American Indian speech, their languages have only recently begun to be portrayed accurately, Parks said. And never before have Pawnee and Arikara been correctly featured in a major film production.

“For example, the Pawnee speech that played a minor role in ‘Dances With Wolves’ was pure gibberish,” Parks said. “Thankfully, the film’s director, Alejandro Iñárritu, is determined to represent the languages of other cultures as faithfully as possible.”

The work by Parks and Sutton aligns with several priorities in the university's Bicentennial Strategic Plan, including a vibrant community of scholars and catalyzing research.

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