Friday, June 16, 2006


"most people don’t know that the Flathead tribe requested the cavalry to come and defend them"

The movie Dances With Wolves was hailed as a masterpiece, but personally I found it long and often dull, which is the same reaction that David Adesnik had at the OxBlog in Cinematic Justice, Cinematic Guilt:

I just finished watching Dances With Wolves, which won seven Academy Awards in 1991, including Best Director (Kevin Costner) and Best Picture. Running more than three and a half hours, it certainly deserves to be known as a film that is artistically impressive and often rather boring.

In addition, the film is also extraordinarily political. In one of the most remarkable scenes I have ever witnessed, the film celebrates the death of American soldiers. The scene is a battle scene, a classic confrontation between the White Man and the Indian. I suspect it isn't the first battle scene in which the Indians have prevailed. Yet instead of an ambiguous or tragic act, the slaughter of the Americans is represented as a moral triumph.

This is a feature I saw as well: every white man (except the noble Costner) is portrayed as a thuggish murdering monster, and all the Native Americans are portrayed as noble, virtuous heroes. It is an expression of Rousseau's theories of the noble savage, where evils are caused by society, and people would be basically decent and good if they weren't so surrounded by the trappings of civilization. Degas tried to find and portray this in art during his trip to Tahiti.

Adesnik goes on:

Magically endowed with the moral sentiments of the late 20th century, Lt. Dunbar displays a remarkable sort of multicultural tolerance and curiosity. He gradually becomes a member of the tribe, thus fulfilling the historical fantasy that the White Man and the Indian could have co-existed in peace rather than waging relentless war. Ultimately, Dunbar renounces his American heritage and takes for himself the Sioux name, Dances With Wolves.

This is an effect I personally loathe in modern historical books and movies, especially about women. The writers all too often transport liberal ideals to their heroes, making women modern and feminist and "liberated." This injection of modern morals and values into the past turns the book into a fantasy rather than historical fiction and is jarringly out of place to the educated reader. Books such as Patrick O'Brian's sea novels succeed in showing people in their historical context as good or bad, virtuous or troubled without needing to cram modern values into the characters.

Commenters responded:
As an antidote of sorts, I recommend the films of John Ford. Perhaps The Searchers? Several others might also suffice. In any case, all of Ford's films are both artistically superior to Costner's agonism, and decidedly not boring.
-by Brian L. Frye

Your description of the film reminded me that it was the scion of "Little Big Man", where the entire history of the West was placed on its head (thematically, "everything you thought you knew about the West was wrong.") That was in 1970, near the height of our Vietnam discontent. I vividly remember how easy it was to embrace the themes of hypocrisy and skepticism, especially for a late teen. Unfortunately, since then, an entire generation of kids has been exposed to these themes, and view our history through its prism.
-by cakreiz

There are some excellent books out there that discuss the Army and the Indian Wars - Robert Utley's "Frontier Regulars," for example, or the now out-of-print but excellent analyses that Col W.A. Graham wrote ("The Story of the Little Big Horn" and "The Custer Myth," the latter a collection of interesting primary documents from participants). Evan Connell's "Son of the Morning Star" gives a pretty balanced version of the same event - debunking some popular myths along the way. The idea that the Indians were all about sustainable living (particularly the nomadic tribes) is just so much romanticization - the quartermaster at Fort Sill had to teach the Apache women not to cut down trees to get nuts when they were settled on the reservation there after the campaign against Geronimo.
-by Anonymous

There were plenty of Americans in the 19th century who deplored the Indian Wars and the breaking of treaties, including Sam Houston, who lived with a Cherokee tribe as a boy. Houston aside, the Indian sympathizers of the period often held the "Dances With Wolves" view of Native Americans as Rousseauian "Noble Savages". An essentially racist mindset despite the seeming positive tilt.

As far as Native Americans being victims of White America, I don't see anyone of any color rushing to give land back to the "natives". As I told a Chinese-American friend from Queens who, with her Italian-American boyfriend, tried to lay a white guilt rap on me for being a Mayflower descendant, "Someone had to make Long Island safe for all of the Chinese and Italian immigrants!"
-by Jeff

Genocide is genocide. Analyze it, spin it, wave dead chickens over it -- it's still genocide.
Killing American Indians is a value of 1776, but one of the values of '76 that I'm happy to repudiate. They believed some funny things back then -- that human beings could be owned, bought, and sold; that the color of a man's skin could determine his status under the law; that treaties made with Indians weren't legally binding; and other funny things in that vein.
I choose to believe that if America saw a nation today doing what the America of the 19th century did to the Indians, that it would, at the very least, use the bully pulpit of global hegemony to decry the evil, as with Darfur, or choose to militarily intervene, as it does from time to time.
Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.

And The Searchers is a damn good film. Highly recommend. Racist towards the red man, yes, but a lot better than Dances With Wolves.
-by Anonymous

See the movie Black Robe, screenplay by Robert Bolt, for a much more nuanced account of the white-man's encounters with native-Americans. It is about a Jesuit's encounter with the Huron Indians. I had the same reaction to Dances With Wolves when I saw it, and Black Robe provided the antidote.
-by Anonymous

They believed some funny things back then -- that human beings could be owned, bought, and sold; that the color of a man's skin could determine his status under the law; that treaties made with Indians weren't legally binding; and other funny things in that vein.
Of course, the Indians believed those things too. They owned slaves, butchered opponents wholesale, broke treaties they didn't feel like adhering to -- you name it.

What you're describing aren't "funny beliefs", but aspects of human nature.
-by Revenant

Fast forward to today. The Native Indians have more enlisted personnel in the armed services than any other U.S. minority. Says a lot.
-by Anonymous

Growing up in western Montana—indeed, an odd place to be for a son of a first generation Punjabi immigrant—has given me an interesting perspective on the “Native American” subject. For instance, most people don’t know that the Flathead tribe requested the cavalry to come and defend them. Why? Well, because they were sick and tired of the raids that were carried out by the Blackfoot tribe, who, shortly after the raid, but before the next, would return with gifts made out of the skin of the women they captured previously—gifts from an antagonist to put it mildly wouldn’t you say. It’s also safe to say that the original owners of the skin were alive when it was required of them. The Blackfeet were an exceptionally cruel and violent nation; to be beheaded would have been a merciful death.

Two of my closest friends, whom I grew up with, are Native American. Both of my friends lean to the left to say the least. Whenever we get together, a percentage of the time (depending on number of beers etc) is spent talking about politics. The only thing we could ever agree on was that I was Indian, and they were Native American. However, sometime ago one of my friends was railing against: white men, the west, thuggish cops (which is all of them naturally), genocide against the Indian nations etc. To which I responded by listing the horrifying savage atrocities (that were not the practice of just a few of that tribe, but a matter of normal occurrence from the whole) of the always-trying-to-expand-their-borders-by-whatever-means Blackfoot tribe. My friend looked at me with surprise, sadness, and regret, he then cast his eyes away and said something along the lines of “…yeah, I know, I know… “ . Only later did he tell me that he was Blackfoot.

All man is fallen, and some are just evil.
-by S. Singh

A great book "The Mystery of Capital", gives a history of Native Americans from an outsider's perspective. At least according to the author, a lot of the "genocide" of the American Indians wasn't sanctioned so much as the fed government wasn't strong enough to stop it. There were exceptions to this of course.
-by Anonymous
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Unknown said...

While it is a given that the Indians or Native Americans were not totally blameless (who is) I dont think it is wrong to feel a little bit of guilt about what went on during the indian wars. When America started looking west there were several independant soverign nations to deal with and we went to war with them. Much like the Romans or the Vikings or the English or the I could go on and on. There are several generations of Irisman that have grown up in the sugar/rum islands of colonial England due to them being shipped over as slaves during the "Troubles". No country is innocent and as long as we fail to see one's humanity in others then wars continue along with the enslavement and the subjification(sp) of humans. We may be from differing countries but we are all human and to treat others as they are not is morally wrong in my opinion. I will climb down from the soapbox now.

Christopher R Taylor said...

Hey, this is all about soapbox preachin! Certainly no people can claim innocence in how they treated other peoples. I just agreed with his assessment of Dances With Wolves - perhaps it's just a reaction to how poorly Native Americans were portrayed in movies earlier but I don't see how lying in the other direction really helps matters any.

Unknown said...

I agree with you lying in the other direction doesn't help. But is there anything that will help? I am not sure that a almost completly free college education is the answer to guilt.