The Treatment of Quotidian Life of the Sioux People
in Dances With Wolves
The old Hollywood Westerns that depicted the heroic cowboy and the evil Indian have past; they no longer sell out the movie theaters and are inundated with critique instead of cinematic favor. In the last thirty years, new Hollywood has attempted to correct this revisionist history, as embodied by Kevin Costner's "Dances with Wolves" (1990), a film sensitive to cultural differences and committed to reflecting the accurate lifestyle of the Sioux it portrays. While the technological prowess of the last century has given way to the planet-busting, Armageddon struggles between good and evil, Earth and Stars, many successful films of the recent past are carefully situation in precise time. Unforgiven (1992) chronicled the1881 assassination of President Garfield, The Patriot (2001) depicted the strife of revolutionary America in gory detail.
However, the films that deal with the disasters wrought by progress are far more infrequent. They demand a coherent and developmental approach to historical change that not only appeals to the average viewer, assumed to be not as historically well versed as he ought, and yet strive for an accuracy that might assuage the sins of historical revisionism and the concept of the Evil Indian pervasive in American popular thought since birth. The mythos of Dances with Wolves, however, is its ability to deal with important historical discussion posited inside an action-romance film that might serve to enlighten the greater populace with the detailed facts that Divine, Breen, Frederickson, and Williams attempt in America Past and Present to 1877. In its treatment of violence in daily life, language, cultural props, societal construction, and quotidian activity, Dances with Wolves ultimately achieved an appropriate representation of an historical accuracy all too frequently ignored.
"The Only Indian is a Sioux Indian" and Curtailing Culture
Historian-Critic Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz praised Dances with Wolves for its ability to "negate that old Hollywood Western theme of 'the only Indian is a dead Indian."
However, she says, it commits as near-fatal a flaw, promoting a new variation on the old theme: "The only Indian is a Sioux Indian (and the rest are still better dead)."
The film presents the Pawnee with bloodthirsty, macabre charm, brutal and mindless in their devotion to violence, ravaging not only the lands of their tribal neighbors, but thoughtlessly butchering the settler families with little mind to their innocents, children, or lives. While the film's portrayal of the Pawnee is assuredly lacking in its faithful dedication to history, its attention to the Sioux is far more detailed.
The attention to details committed by the historical accurate ideal fostered by the Hollywood executives leading Costner's team must be examined within the role of the movie; Dances with Wolves was never intended to be a documentary or even a historical cinematic debut, but a blockbuster. As such, in order to be able to even discuss the details of Sioux life the creators wanted to share with the American people, shedding the popular belief of the good cowboy and the evil Indian, they were forced to posit the discussion within a realm easily acceptable to an American audience. Dunbar criticques the movie's lack of white violence, but perhaps this was not so much an oversight but a deliberate olive branch. "But the Pawnee end up dead," she wrote, "killed by the Sioux, of course, in self-defense. We see Indians killing Indians and Indians (those bad Pawnee) massacring whites. We even see whites killing whites, but not whites killing Indians. Which actually is what happened."
Actually is an interesting term for historians to treat retrospectively; actually, all of those things happened. What can be depicted in three hours time needs to fit well within the concept of a generally-held standard of actually in order to actually achieve any broadening perspective for the average viewer.
Among the historical mistakes made in Dances with Wolves, its biggest flaw existed in its unexplained attribution of new tools to the Sioux tribe. Most important of this was the presence of animals in the film not native to the community. "By some remarkable and unexplained fate, the Sioux community in his film has managed to acquire horses, herds of them, but the people have never laid eyes on a gun."
During the temporal setting of the film, the native tribes were well aware of the strength of gunpower; generations of struggle with the Sherman-led Washington indoctrinated the Sioux community into this knowledgebase. The first treaty signed between the Sioux and the U.S. Government was established in 1805, and five treaties were to follow it as settlers and natives flared with violence during the coming years. "How this one Sioux community managed to stay out of the fray is never clear, and a viewer would not be likely to ask the question if the historical facts were unkown."
A second major faux pas committed by the storytellers was the role Dunbar played in locating a Buffalo herd in proximity to the Sioux village. When Dunbar is awoken, startled, by the sound of the herd, he immediately rides to the Sioux to warn them. While some critique this event as historical neglect, since the Sioux, who have devoted their entire lives and cultures to dependence on and synergy with buffalo, would clearly know that this herd was present before Dunbar, one must set aside the cultural mistake for the lesson beneath it: generosity and amicable reliance are important features in the movie, and being overwhelmed by an obvious curtail undermines the intelligence of the viewer and the effort on behalf of the producers to portray an accurate analysis of daily life for the Sioux. Even a high-school student understood the filmmaker's obvious plight. In his academic survey of Native American treatment in Hollywood, one Tenth grader commented to Peter Seixas that perhaps "the film seemed to be trying to elicit a pro-indigenous response from an audience which might translate into political action."
The film did more than revive old stereotypes about Sioux in new forms for the casual viewer, and despite its attempt to provide a factual historical account, it frequently fell short. One problem Costner's team faced was the recreation of the dictum of the spoken Lakota dialect used by the Sioux tribes in the 1860s. As divulged by the credits, the film producers hired Doris Leader Charge, a 60-year-old teacher at South Dakota's Sinte Gleska College and one of only a few thousand Sioux still fluent in Lakota. Leader Charge translated the script and served as a dialogue coach during production, also playing the role of Pretty Shield. Unfortunately, the men in the film generally speak Lakota in the feminine form, a result of having the script translated by a someone who either did not make allowances for the differences or was, in the years long after the use of Lakota as a pedantic dialect, unaware of any variations thereof.
Sioux historian and tribal leader David Seals states that a number of Indian leaders were angry about this error and found it infuriating in a film that purported its own authenticity. He relates the faux pas to another Costner film, railing, "Imagine if Costner and his baseball buddies in Bill Durham had spoken as if they'd stepped out of Little Women."
Cultural Truths: The Sioux in the Un-Settled West
Many of these failings, however, Seals accurately attributes to inter-tribal government relations when the United States of American in its most nascent form and the great Sioux Nation in its height converged. The relations between tribes governed all aspects of life, from the food available to be hunted (as limned by the areas accessible by treaty or force), to the roles of marriages between villages, to the greater family relations that were noted in Dances with Wolves. At the historical moment in which the film was set, the Sioux nations were struggling with Sherman under the leadership of Red Cloud, who led the tribes' armies to great victory throughout Wyoming. The Americans were suing for unconditional peace on the Bozeman and Oregon trails, seeking their own safety, for once, for transportation purposes inside the vein in which the Sioux had established with other First Nations.
"In a mood of great conciliation," Seals writes, "and general patriot pride, the Sioux and the Arapaho agreed to a cease-fire if the Americans would abandon their forts and go away forever; in turn, the victors would allow them to have their roads to the golden Elysian fields in California and Oregon and Montana."
The state of relations between the Sioux tribes and the American battalions were critical in setting the stage for the film, and through this more congenial relationship, the structures of daily life could be more carefully explored and represented without the revisionist attitude all too frequently embedded in Hollywood's depiction of the great American West and its first homemaker, the Native American.
Yet, at the same time in history, the greater leaders like Crazy…