'The Revenant' Is Actually Helping Me Solve a Family Mystery

February 27th 2016

Nicole Charky

We all live with mysteries — some of us more than others. For me, and my mother's side of my family, we have always wondered what life was like for our Native American ancestors, the ones left dead by an entire generation of people.

When I watched Alejandro González Iñárritu's "The Revenant" I finally had some idea of what it must have been like for my great-great grandmother, a Tonawanda-Seneca Indian, who according to my grandparents, was raped by a German man in New York state near the border of Canada. It's miles from where Hugh Glass, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, fought so hard to survive. And although there are varying tales about Glass on the frontier — and just how much of folklore kept his story alive — I can tell you this: The story of "The Revenant" is very much alive in many people today. I'm one of them.

The epic Academy Award-nominated film is a revenge saga set in the 1820s, and it is projected to win big on Sunday night according to Vox. But beyond the award shows, in real families, it's changing how Native American descendants like me view our history. It's forcing me to talk about a past I never really thought my family had, one we've been quiet about, or haven't always had a chance to imagine in mainstream films. It's creating opportunities for me to challenge what I was force-fed in my elementary school books, and giving me a chance to reach out to my family across the country.

For me, the film inspired me to revisit my great-grandmother's adoption papers and letters from the U.S. Department of Social Welfare that she received one day in the mail. A surprise none of our family expected.

My great-grandmother never knew, but her Seneca family was searching for her for years.

My great-grandmother, Mary Lus, who was adopted by an Italian family named Russo as an 11 or 12-year-old, was surrendered twice by her mother, who struggled to live on and off the reservation in the years after her unwanted pregnancy. Her mother had been assaulted, and as my grandparents have explained to me, my great-grandmother Mary Lus never heard from her parents after she was left at an orphanage in New York state.

This letter told her what really happened to her during her childhood:

Mary Lus Seneca adoption

I learned about my great-grandmother's adoption, the Italian family that raised her, taught her to cook everything for everyone and speak Italian, and what had happened to her. Although there is no written record or report for our family to turn to and understand what really happened those many years ago that drove us out of the reservation and away from our roots, seeing "The Revenant" forced me to seek out information about my lineage, what actually happened to the tribe and clan I come from that identified as Snipe, Turtle, and view some of the limited info I have. I have a feeling I'm not alone.

Seneca Lus family tree

I never met my great-grandmother. My grandparents and mother have told me she led a tough life, but a good one. She married a Sicilian man — a widower who fought in World War I and left a journal of his experiences during the battles there — and ultimately my great-grandmother, Mary Russo, became Mary Lus.

I decided to dig deeper into Mary Lus' life.

When I asked my mom to describe her grandmother, Mary, one of the last people in our family to live on the reservation, she explains this: "She was just surviving."

Mary Lus Seneca

Only the stories from my late grandfather and his siblings remain these days. They grew up in upstate New York and my grandfather remembers playing baseball against boys who looked just like him, with similar almond-shaped eyes and the same olive skin, only they led a totally different life on a reservation. I called my great-aunt Olinda West at her retirement home in Fredonia, a small town in western New York state, to ask her what she remembers about her mother, my great-grandmother:

"She didn't talk about very much, only about times after she was adopted as an 11 or 12-year-old. She never said much about her previous life. Just that she remembered being at Father Baker's, which is an orphanage in the Buffalo area."

My great-aunt said that she didn't even know she was Native American most of her childhood, even though her family lived just a few miles away.

"I didn't know until I was a senior high school. It was like a slap in the face when that came out. There was a letter sent to an adopted cousin of my mother's wanting to know more about mother at the time. That letter got to mother and of course I got it, too, and I was the oldest one, and she said, 'Here are the facts,' and she said she was in the orphanage twice as a baby. She spent time in the orphanage, she spent time on the reservation. Then she was adopted. then she was married and that was it."

Lus family wedding portrait

There wasn't much discussion about what it really meant to be Native American. In fact, they didn't really want to explore it.

"I found out that some of the people there had a hint about that. They sort of looked down on us. I always was ashamed of it because I was part Indian. I didn't want to pursue it any farther. There's really much to tell."

My great-grandmother didn't want to connect with her tribe again.

"I think she had blocked it out for so many years that she didn't want to talk more about it," my great-aunt told me.

"She never met her mother. We met her mother's sister. We went to aunt Agnes' house, her sister. She was a pleasant woman, she talked to us, but it seemed like she didn't want to be any more friendly... It was a strange, strange situation. We really don't have much written information."

My family's gradual departure from our heritage reflects some of the shame and assimilation trends that put native American history on the background in the U.S.

That's why this film mattered to me: It's so important, because it reminds those who were taught superficial accounts of the Native American experience in school and movies what it was really like and that we're not all really dead. That physical, breathy, drawn-out pain — the type of torture DiCaprio captures in his performance — allows people like me, or anyone who has departed from their heritage to feel a rekindled sense of culture and fully understand what the community and families, mine included, had to endure to get where we are today.

I'm now asking those difficult questions about cultural identity, and why our family tried to hide from who we really are and where we come from. Aside from "Dances With Wolves," there were no major films or stories before Iñárritu's to show me what this type of cultural rejection and stigma really looks like. I'm very grateful that there was a film like this that I could connect to, that there was a character like Hawk, the Native American character in the film, even out there.

As a viewer, Hawk, played by Native actor Forrest Goodluck, and his horrific murder by Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) in front of his father (DiCaprio) symbolizes the death of us all, what we all fear, the annihilation of our entire race. When I watched the brutal scene showing his final moments, I felt physically sickened by his death, something I don't usually feel when I watch most movies. It was a gut reaction, because I saw a little of me and my family in Hawk. And before that, there was nothing to really imagine or picture for in movies or on Netflix. There wasn't much for me to connect to. And because no one wrote the stories for me — for us, really — we'll never really know what actually happened to an entire lineage of people.

I like to think that this film exists to give people like me a little more hope, and remind me of the ancestors I had — who although I'll never fully know what they might have been like, or what their customs, foods, language, or struggles were — that they might stay alive with me.