I’m a true Indian now: I finally saw Dances with Wolves

In Dances with Wolves, Hollywood stereotypes, imperialist nostalgia, reel injun by Adrienne K.9 Comments

Last night marked a historic day in the continuing education of Adrienne K. I finally saw Dances with Wolves. How, you may be asking yourself, did I survive 24 years of life and 6 months of blogging about Native images in pop culture without seeing this piece of American history? Your guess is as good as mine. Frankly, I just never got around to it.

So I won’t do a play-by-play analysis of the movie, there is a lot of good and bad throughout, and most of you probably saw it 20 years ago when it was released (20 years! can you believe it?). But one thing that struck me, after sitting through all 3 hours and 4 minutes? Nothing happens. There isn’t some elaborate plot line, there are two or three pockets of action, but that’s it. Yet, it was a critically-acclaimed film that won several Oscars. In the words of my friend H., “It won the Best Picture Oscar because it was 3 hours of straight-up imperialist nostalgia.*” and I agree.

If you needed any proof, remember the final text of the movie? I.e. the last image movie-goers have in their mind as they leave the theater?

“Thirteen years later, their homes destroyed, their buffalo gone, the last band of free Sioux submitted to white authority at Fort Robinson, Nebraska. The great horse culture of the plains was gone and the American frontier was soon to pass into history.”

Yeah. What about all those Native actors that you used to make your fancy movie? What about the Lakota language used throughout that obviously someone had to teach you? While the movie made some important steps (for its time), that final screen negates it all for me. Solidifying, once again, that “real” Indians don’t exist anymore, that we are a part of history and not the present day, etc.

I kept thinking back to the trailer for the documentary “Reel Injun” (I’ve mentioned it briefly before, and I can’t wait to see it). The film explores the origins and history of the created “Hollywood Indian”, but the trailer has a bit of analysis about Dances with Wolves (starts at about 1:04):

I love when John Trudell says “It’s a story about a white guy. And Indians are just the T and A.” So very true.

Next on my list of “important” modern movies about Indians I haven’t seen? Last of the Mohicans.

*Imperialist Nostalgia: a mood of nostalgia that makes racial domination appear innocent and pure; people mourning the passing or transformation of what they have caused to be transformed. Imperialist nostalgia revolves around a paradox: A person kills somebody and then mourns the victim; or someone deliberately alters a life form and then regrets that things have not remained as they were. . . Imperialist nostalgia uses a pose of “innocent yearning” both to capture peoples’ imagination and to conceal its complicity with often brutal domination (R. Rosaldo, Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis) (AK note: embarrassingly I have this book within arms reach right now)

  • Remember not to view the past through the eyes of the present. DWW’s value even with its many flaws was providing a reminder to mainstream audiences throughout the World that Indians haven’t gone away. It also gave a few Indian actors a chance to be in a major movie. At the time, the media picked up on some Indian issues such as NAGPRA and brought it to the general public. Its sad to say, 20 years ago (and today) it was still tough for Indian actors to find work in the industry and as many are familiar with it films depicting Indians were played by whites. There is some good that came out of this movie.

  • The most heinous part of the film is the fact that the story is actually about the Comanche!

    When Costner was looking to film the movie he was convinced by the Lakota that they were better horsemen and more of a horse culture than the Comanche, who are “The Lords of the Plains.”

    I always thought the scene where the elder brings out the conquistador helmet was not right, and I was right. The Spanish never made it far enough north for that to have happened. I always thought it was just a bad piece of history in the movie (among many) until a respected Comanche elder told me the story about the background of the story.

    Ten Bears was a real historical Comanche. When I visited the Comanche Nation Complex in Lawton, Oklahoma…the elder showed me the buffalo robe and winter count of Ten Bears.

    For more information about the original book…set in and among the Comanche, see here http://www.amazon.com/Dances-Wolves-Michael-Blake/dp/0972475303/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1278611515&sr=1-3

  • Rob

    Is the final text really that bad? The “great horse culture” and “American frontier” refer to tribes hunting and crossing the Plains without interference from settlers or the US Army. That era did come to end.

    But the text didn’t say the tribes came to an end. The “great horse culture” ended by transmuting into a reservation-bound culture of homesteaders, boarding schools, and government oversight. It didn’t end, period.

  • @Rob, I agree, but think about the average movie viewer, already filled with stereotypes about Native culture, and how THEY would interpret the text. That’s where I was going.

  • I hadn’t seen that movie until a friend of mine who’s Lakota told me about it. He thought it was stereotypical. Adrienne, have you seen Follow the River? I’d like to hear what you think about it and the Last of the Mohicans. I love reading your blog!

  • Rob

    I agree with you, Adrienne. The text is misleading and leaves a negative impression. But technically speaking, it’s more or less accurate. Your references to today’s Native actors and languages don’t exactly contradict it.

  • 20 years. Wow.

    That film was very influential as I was a young teen. I remember a few things, how knock-down sexy Rodney Grant was and how much I enjoyed Graham Greene. I also liked seeing actual Native actors and I felt there was a bit more nuance and respect affording Native culture than I’d seen before.

    However. I didn’t realize how terrible that end text was or the T&A point and didn’t recognize the “quarterback phenomena” for what it is (I.e. all about a white hero leading supporting poc characters ala Last Samurai, Last of the Mohicans, 10000 BC, etc). I can absolutely say that as an ignorant viewer I took away the problematic views Adrienne is commenting on.

    We are stil making lauded White Savior movies (*cough!* Avatar, The Blind Side) hand over fist. 20 years after DWW in “post-racial” America.

    I am very excited to see Reel Injun.

    Thanks again for a great post.

  • 1) when i was a little girl i had a crush on graham greene
    2) i only saw dances with wolves for the first time a few weeks ago

  • “soonerscotty said…
    …When Costner was looking to film the movie he was convinced by the Lakota that they were better horsemen and more of a horse culture than the Comanche, who are “The Lords of the Plains.”

    Really? Which white guy did you get that version of reality from? Oh, yeah, the big bad Lakota came & stole the movie from the Comanche by conning poor innocent Kevin Costner.

    Yeah, the original story is about the Comanche. But the movie has little or nothing to do with the horse culture aspect.

    Maybe, just maybe the state of South Dakota gave them the best deal for filming (massive tax break, free locations, his own casino). And since they were going to use the Black Hills of South Dakota, which is part of (I kid you not) Custer State Park, they decided to use the population from that actual area. Plus they had a Lakota language coach all set to teach & a whole lot of extras lined up. Do you know for a fact that the Comanche & their home state(s) had all that on the table when the film was proposed & the Lakota just swooped in & screwed them over?

    No? So you’re basically maligning a whole tribe with no proof because a respected Comanche elder told you the background story.

    Oh, and the Lakota didn’t live in the North. Like all tribes they followed the buffalo herds. If the Navajo & Pueblo people had interaction with the Lakota, I bet they were pretty far South – even in areas where the Spanish were.

    And the Navajo would counter your claim that the Comanche were the best horsemen. You kind of have to take any claim of being the best with a grain of salt since every group is going to claim they were the best.