“I had never really known who John Dunbar was. Perhaps because the name itself had no meaning. But as I heard my Sioux name being called over and over, I knew for the first time who I really was.”
I really love this movie. I saw it in the theater several times when it came out, and I am glad that Brian finally had to watch it with me. Whatever your thoughts about Kevin Costner’s acting ability, it’s incredible to see a movie about American Indians that portrays them as three dimensional characters, with the encroaching, genocidal whites invading their lands and destroying their culture, as the evil force we are/always have been.
Before I get to the movie itself, I have to say, I am not generally a fan of Westerns. I hate the idea that a “White Savior” is going to show up and save the day. In Western’s, white people are almost always portrayed as above the American Indian’s, looking down on their “simple” and “backward” ways. I hate movies clump all American Indians into one group, disregarding their vast experiences. So, I was primed to like a movie that showed the Westward-expanding whites as the murderous, destructive, evil force they have always been in the Native story of America.
So, Dances with Wolves. As the movie poster indicates, it won 7 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. And I believe they were well-earned. I read the book, which I also really enjoyed. It stayed fairly close to source material, but it was really amazing to see the vastness of this land and it’s people brought to life.
Kevin Coster plays a Union Army lieutenant, John Dunbar, fresh from the battlefield. He requests a Western posting, wishing to “see the frontier, before it’s gone.” At his remote posting, he is watched, then cautiously met, and then brought into the lives of the Sioux tribe that has been observing him. He discovers a true love of the land, including the titular wolf who becomes his friend. The Sioux people teach Dunbar how to communicate, and they slowly begin learning about each other. Dunbar is aware of the need to stay true to “his” country, while realizing that the harmony, love, humor, and closeness he is developing with his new friends is where he truly belongs.
The first hour of the movie is told in many voice-overs, as John Dunbar writes in his journal. As he learns the ways of the Sioux people he comes to love, his life becomes less insular. As changes from an Army soldier to a Sioux husband, friend, and confidant, he learns their language, and leaves his solitary journey behind. But he knows what is coming. He knows the white men and their selfishness, their treachery, their lies and murderous ways. He and his new wife, a white woman who was taken in by the Sioux as a young child, realize they must leave their life behind to keep their Sioux family safe.
Truly, it is a beautiful movie. The buffalo hunting scene, actually, so many scenes, were just breathtaking. Even if you find Kevin Costner’s monotone voice distracting, watch this for Graham Greene’s portrayal of Kicking Bird, Rodney Grant as Wind in His Hair, and Floyd Red Crow Westerman as Ten Bears. Beautiful acting. This was also the first time many of us had seen Mary McDonnel, and it was unusual to see such an untouched woman on screen. She is amazing, and I loved how she showed so many emotions, so close to the surface.
I am sure there are countless essays about what is incorrect and wrong about Dances with Wolves. I am quite certain that as a white person with no personal lens to view the genocide of the Native people on their own land, I am mistaking many scenes in this scene as good and right when they are offensive and incorrect toward the people they are supposed to be representing. I can see that. Native activist, Russell Means, reports that the language was all wrong, written in the Lakota female-gendered dialect, with all the male actors using the incorrect language. The “White Savior” narrative criticism is totally valid. But it is really the only Western I have ever seen that shows different tribes with different values. It showed their daily life, carrying water, tending to hides,teaching their children, being married. No stony-faced Natives, intent on scalping any white intruder on their land. Well….there were a few, but it was well placed within the story.
Near the end of the movie, Ten Bears, the Chief of this tribe, said to Dunbar, “The white man the soldiers are looking for no longer exists. Now there is only a Sioux named Dances with Wolves.”
I think that Kevin Costner and this film deserved all of the accolades his movie received. He told a story that no one in Hollywood had ever tried to make. I doubt it could be made today. We have lost any desire to understand ourselves and the crimes perpetrated against non-whites. The crimes committed against the rightful owners of this land we call America reverberate today. There are no reparations we can make for the slaughter of an entire people. I see this movie as a small service to showing that although nearly all is lost, all is not forgotten.