Dances with Wolves (1990)


Speaking on behalf of white people, I can say that if there’s anything we white people love, it’s pretending to be just like a non-white person but without any of the inconvenience of actually living their lives. The Oscars seem to be particularly big on the white-person-being-non-white narrative. I’d say that choosing this as my theme this week was random and unrelated to the controversy around this year’s nominations – but to be honest, any two Best Pictures could as easily illustrate the lack of diversity in Oscar history.

As in Lawrence of Arabia, non-white characters – even those with some degree of development – exist primarily as tools for the white man to find some sort of deliverance. Lawrence’s tribal leaders essentially ceased to exist for us once he left the desert. And do we know anything about Wind in His Hair now except that he will always be Dunbar’s friend? No, because he is not Kevin Costner.

I first saw Dances with Wolves in an anthropology class in college called “Native America Today.” One component of the course was to watch a series of movies spanning several decades and discuss how Native Americans were portrayed, and how that differed over time. I don’t recall most of the films besides this one – except that most were Westerns because that is the only acceptable genre in which a Native American can appear.

At the beginning of the semester, we were assigned an essay in which we had to describe our impressions of Native Americans based on our encounters with them in the media – movies, TV, whatever. I really struggled with the assignment, and to this day, I’m not sure why. Perhaps in part because I recognized that we were being asking to be reflective about stereotypes and acknowledge that real Indians weren’t like Chief Wahoo, which seemed too obvious a thing to say. I knew that I should admit to having perceptions in defiance of reality, but I couldn’t find the “right” way to reflect on that idea.

I grew up in upstate New York, where there are small reservations made up of Iroquois tribes. I’d learned about the Five Nations of the Iroquois in school, and was actually interested in learning about their history (hence, why I was taking that class), but I didn’t know any Native Americans personally. Was my interest nothing more than a fetishized fascination with whatever I’d constructed as a modern Native American, that mystical figure who held a special bond with nature?

My professor had suggested we talk about the popular movies of the era – modernized Westerns were kind of big in the nineties – but, as you’ll recall if you’ve read my introductory blog, I didn’t grow up watching many movies. Instead, my impressions of Native Americans came from disparate sources: old comics from my dad’s childhood featuring the bright red people in feathers saying “How”; the children’s book series The Indian in the Cupboard that literally objectified Indians as little figurines that came to life; the Indian Village at the New York State Fair, where tribe members across the state gathered in some mix between authentic and tourist-trap that I still don’t fully understand. I didn’t know how to put all that into one 3-page essay.

I don’t recall exactly what we discussed when we watched Dances with Wolves. Now it’s blatantly obvious to me that Dances With Wolves (the man) is this white hero figure, who even beats the Lakota at their own game. He rescues wounded women, he kills buffalo, he battles U.S. soldiers and Pawnee warriors alike (let’s not even get into the good/evil dichotomy of Lakota and Pawnee). At least there are a few Native American characters with some depth, but this is ultimately not about them: it’s about the white man who only “found himself” by adopting (appropriating?) another culture.

To be honest, I was expecting to be more disappointed by the film than I actually was. In terms of the three-hour films I’ve watched so far on this journey, it definitely dragged less than most. And it’s neat to Graham Greene in this role compared to what he’s been in recently. I’ve been watching Longmire, which has gradually been exploring interesting, nuanced characters on an Indian reservation in Wyoming. Granted, the show’s still named after a white guy, but there’s some hope that we’ll continue to see more Native actors in solid roles.



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