From Enemies to Allies: Inside “Dances with Wolves”

There is no other ethnic group which has endured a more distorted and appropriated cultural identity than Native Americans have. From every origin whether it be on TV or in movies, children cartoons, comic books, to as far as scholarly publications, textbooks, and paintings these stereotypes depicted usually vary from idealistic to describing these people as uncivilized primitive men. Every author and director has tried their hand at creating an image of the Native American cultures. They almost are always tall men, with long braided black hair adorned with feathers and headdresses, copper-colored skin clothed in some dried animal hides and beadwork.

None of these images are created from having contact with “real” Native Americans. (American Indians: Stereotypes & Realities p15) Most people learn about cultures unknown to them through false texts and movies. Creating a cloud of ignorance and a long historical road of stereotypes illustrating what a typical western film Native American should look like never explaining that they are a simply a fictional Hollywood portrayal.

Instead, these images are taken as a concrete picture of Native Americans and fulfilling their noble savage schemas. Schemas allow us to build judgments about our environment without truly having to use much mental effort. Schemas help structure not only our knowledge of the world but also our expectations. Society categorizes the world for us and allows us to make judgements. We group Native Americans by basic characteristics of the information we’ve encountered and create real life expectations based on these schemas, never truly needing to operate on too much energy when trying to evaluate a persons authentic details. With continuous exposure to false Native American cultures, it’s likely that society unnoticeably perceives incoming information, although it may be true, and disregard it because of what our schemas have previously taught them. Dances with Wolves is a pleasant and classic western film to watch. It was seen as a great attempt to show a progressive insight on Native American cultures. This film is considered an influential film and has been recognized by the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant.” (Library of Congress) Indigenous peoples for so many years have been depicted as wild savages until Hollywood thought they could “help” humanize them. It invites not only Americans, but the world in to see the life of a white man who goes to live with the indigenous people of the frontier and learns their civilization at first hand.

However, Dances with Wolves although seen for its progressiveness still show the American ideals and stereotypes that aren’t truly negative but also don’t depict the Native American cultures accurately. John Dunbar is portrayed as the ultimate American soldier, heroic and loyal. For his reckless bravery in the opening scenes, he’s rewarded his trusty sidekick Cisco, and of course becomes a respectable and decorated Lieutenant of the Union Army. Although Dances with Wolves is a simple story, such a simple story thought of realistically would’ve probably never took place. Predominantly, the American culture was incurious and severely racist. Euro-Americans saw American Indians as a race full of ignorant, unintelligent savages which deserved nothing but to be executed.

Reviews of the movie documented that Dances with Wolves was “overly sentimental and romanticized the lives of the Sioux Indians.” (Wells 2015) This film creates another dimension of the western culture where whites are genuinely interested in learning about the Native American cultures, rather than engrossed in driving them from their homes and off their lands. As Lieutenant Dunbar deepens his discovery of the Sioux people, so do we. By asking the movies Native American cast to speak in their own language, entering into their villages, and acquiring their ways we are able to see Native Americans in a different light. We see them as people and not embitter terrifying savages. As watchers, we feel we’re a part of the journey of learning their names, purposes, and history. Native peoples were able to fight off the Mexicans and the Spanish, but now the Native Americans anticipate that the white men will be the ones to stay. This film hits all the highpoint’s of a classic western. There is an exciting buffalo hunt with triumphant and thrilling music, an action filled battle between the Sioux warriors and Union soldiers, and of course an inevitable love story between the two white characters, John Dunbar and Stands with a Fist.

With problematic dynamics intwined throughout the film that fail accurately portray Native Americans, as watchers we are shown insight into the somewhat true history of white settlers and the American Natives. It inadvertently reinforces the image that Native Americans are a thing of the past. Others call this film another prime example of a “white savior firm.” A film that goes through all the motions of telling the all “familiar story about a white hero who swoops in to save the helpless tribe from destruction.” (Wells 2015) The movie allowed the sacrifice of accuracy because it “was exactly the tale of the noble savage Europeans would find appealing” (O’Connor & Rollins p156).

Although critics had their piece to say, many of the Sioux were pleasantly pleased to be portrayed in such a favorable light. The film focused on their true ways of peaceful day-to-day life. The Sioux people even went as far as to honor the real actor who played John Dunbar as an official member of their tribe. (Wells 2015) Even with the films’ acceptance by the Sioux people, Native Americans such as Russell Means looked pass the glamorized depiction of Native American cultures and observed the discourtesy and disregard the movie has offered. Throughout the film, we can hear the authentic tongue of the Sioux tribes. Yet, Means points out at full length the film’s Lakota dialect is almost completely wrong.

Traditionally, western films required the cast of Native Americans to speak their lines in English and as groundbreaking as it was to have the Lakota dialect present it would’ve been considerate and vigilant to have it done accurately. Kevin Costner, director and the man who played John Dunbar hired Doris Leader Charge, a college professor who taught the Lakota language and culture to translate the films script. She was able to translate the script in as little as three weeks and since all but one of the actors couldn’t originally speak the Lakota language she was brought to set to assist with making the Native American cast and John Dunbar’s Lakota speech sound pure and organic. Doris Leader Charge was recognized as an important part of the films’ family, she is seen to be the piece of the puzzle that transformed the movies dialogue into true Sioux words. She was even offered a role as Pretty Shield, the wife of Ten Bears. The only odd aspect about having Leader Charge, a woman, teach a cast of majority men, is Lakota has a male and female gendered language. (Wells 2015) Russell Means made it a point to mention when he first saw the classic western film with friends they couldn’t help but laugh at the monumental misconception these silly white people have made, fliming an enitre movie with a bunch of Sioux warriors on screen speaking in the feminine way.

Other critics mention how Dunbar was so easily infiltrated into the tribe and so quickly became their primary protector with hearsay in their tribes council meeting. (Wells 2015) Dances with Wolves plays into the normalization of culture appropriation and white colonialism. A white man was stereotypically named with a nontraditional Native identity by other white men with great explorative imaginations. What some could’ve considered expressing respect for their cultures others considered cultural appropriation with the use of their clothing and meaningful dressings, use of their language incorrectly, and the adoptions of names that were thought to hold significant. “No one person speaks for all tribes, and often, no one individual speaks for all members of one tribe.” (American Indians: Stereotypes & Realities p17) Many non-native peoples still assume all Native Americans to be alike.

Native Americans share the same heritage, language, dress, and hairstyles. They are seen as a people of the past in movies that affirm a false image of their cultures to the general to a while new audience, some who may have little or no contact with tribal people.

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