'The only good Indian ...?'

Wednesday, April 10, 1991

The March 5 issue of Green Left carried a review of Dances With Wolves which called it "a refreshing alternative to the usual Hollywood stereotyping of indigenous Americans". In the United States — where the film has now collected a bagful of Oscars — there are some on the left with a different view. This review by ROXANNE DUNBAR-ORTIZ is abridged from the magazine CrossRoads.

Dances With Wolves negates that old Hollywood western theme of "The only good Indian is a dead Indian", and promotes a variation on it: "The only good Indian is a Sioux Indian" (and the rest are still better dead). And do we ever get some bad Indians in this film: those Pawnees are so brutal and mindlessly bloodthirsty that they take on a kind of macabre charm, especially in comparison with the film's version of the Sioux, who come off as the tribal equivalent of Gidget.

But the Pawnee end up dead, killed by the Sioux, of course, in self-defence. We see Indians killing Indians and Indians (those bad Pawnee) massacring whites. We even see whites killing whites, but not whites killing Indians. Which actually is what happened.

Of course, Dances With Wolves isn't about Indians at all; they merely form the backdrop for a young Euroamerican's self-discovery. Using a narrative voice-over, producer, director and star Kevin Costner places a Union officer and hero, Lt John Dunbar, on the Northern Plains, where he is completely alone for months.

Dunbar tells us all kinds of lovely things about getting to know the Indians (although they are pretty much on par with his horse, a wolf and the terrain). The Indians are Dunbar's teachers and, we are told, Dunbar's consciousness is transformed by them. He says: "I never knew who John Dunbar was, but as I heard my Indian name over and over [in a buffalo hunt with his Sioux friends] I knew who I was". But what we see is John Dunbar transforming the Indians, not being transformed by them.

History rewritten

By some remarkable and unexplained fate, the Sioux community in this film has managed to acquire horses, herds of them, but the people have never laid eyes on a gun. This is truly astounding given that the time period is the mid-1860s, a period that marked the continuation of generations of warfare on the Plains.

The Sioux and the US government had already signed six peace treaties, the first in 1805. Yet white settlers continued to invade Sioux territory, and the war flared over and over. How this one Sioux community managed to stay out of the fray is never clear, and a viewer would not be likely to ask the question if the historical facts were unknown. It is not that a dramatic film must be historically accurate, but Dances With Wolves claims to be, and its reviewers keep saying it is.

Even more remarkable than Dunbar introducing guns to the Sioux is his helping them to locate a buffalo herd. One night, Dunbar is awakened by the sound of a herd of buffalo. He rides immediately to the Sioux

I expected Dunbar to discover how stupid he'd been to think the Sioux wouldn't have detected the presence of a buffalo herd, given that their entire life and culture had depended on the creatures for centuries. This would have been interesting and told a lot about the Sioux as well as allowing our hero to go through some changes, but it soon becomes clear that these Sioux really didn't know that the buffalo herd had thundered through. The intent of the scene becomes crystal clear when Dunbar leads the Sioux to 'the trail'. Dunbar narrates, 'It was not that hard to find', and we are shown an impressive half-mile swath of trampled ground.

A Tarzan story

So, it turns out, the movie is not really even about individual and cultural transformation; it's just the old Tarzan story.

Some critics conclude that Dances With Wolves turns the tables and reveals the unjust and brutal behaviour of Euroamerica against the Indians. And they also believe that an accurate reflection of Indian life is portrayed in the movie. The evidence for this is based mainly on the Sioux language dialogue. The use of Lakota and Pawnee is praiseworthy, but the lines (subtitles in English) given the Indians are uniformly childish and idiotic. Dunbar's diary gets all the good lines.

During the period covered by the film, George Catlin, the realist painter who recorded Plain Indian life, stated in regard to the US military campaigns against the Indians: "God, perhaps, may forgive my country for such cruel warfare; and oh, for my country's sake, that there could be a solvent for history, to erase such records from its pages".

Catlin would surely be surprised if he could witness the historical amnesia that prevails. In part, our amnesia is made possible by the interpretations by popular culture, particularly the movies, westerns, as the most effective solvent. The positive reaction to Dances With Wolves reflects a hunger for reinterpretation, for a decent portrayal of the Indians, for truth about US policy and actions in relation to them. However, the positive response also reveals confusion as to how to go about getting closer to the truth.

Contrary to the notion that Dances With Wolves is unique, a number of extraordinary films have been made that succeed where Costner fails, Little Big Man the best and best known. I would rate Wolves with The Emerald Forest and The Gods Must Be Crazy as lightweight, gooey, paternalistic stories, however engaging and beautifully filmed.

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