In the stories of the Wild West, there is always a white man in a white hat who serves as the hero of the story. The villain is always the other white man in the black hat. Symbolically, the villain becomes a racial other because of the color of his hat. When a black hat cannot be found, the other villain of a western will be the Native American, more commonly referred to as the Indian, since calling them by the more politically correct term would be anachronistic. This is a tradition of American stories of the Wild West where the white man, no matter what his character is, will always be heroic in comparison to the villainous other. In the movie version of Larry McMurtry's novel Dead Man's Walk, the heroes of the story are intended to be the Caucasian Texas Rangers and the villains are the Native Americans who inhabit the same territory. Having said that, the film differentiates itself from the other stories of the rough and tumble cowboy era. In Dead Man's Walk, and indeed all the stories in McMurtry's Lonesome Dove series, the Native Americans are villains, but they are not shown as this exotic bloodthirsty other. Though still very much the villains of the story, the Native Americans are still portrayed with a level of respect and with an appreciation of this heritage.
The first scene of the film shows an elderly Native American woman using sign language to warn a young man of her tribe about the dangers of the white man. The old woman is seated by a fire. She does not speak, but her signs are narrated by a voiceover monologue. She warns the young warrior of his impending death and in his face, fear can be observed. He takes the words of this old woman very seriously because he has the utmost respect for her. Native American tradition demands respect for elders and their prophecies and warnings.
The aforementioned white heroes, McCrae and Call, are on a journey to track down a Comanche warrior who is bent on breaking laws. The year is 1842 and the two men are following the trail of the Comanche leader Buffalo Hump, who was the young warrior in the beginning, through the south of Texas, close to the border of Mexico. According to the discourse between the two male protagonists, Buffalo Hump has always been a danger to the white population of Texas and outlying areas. Lately however, it seems that Buffalo Hump has been crossing the border into Mexico. While there, he and his fellow tribesmen have been stealing women and children to use as their wives and sold into slavery. With this bit of information, the Rangers become not merely officers of their own lands, but almost super-human righters of perceived wrongs. The Native Americans are acting in ways that are subhuman and therefore any means necessary to stop their evildoings is perfectly acceptable.
The character of Buffalo Hump also takes on a superhuman quality in the way he goes about his travels. He is first seen by the white men "in a flash of lightning." One of the characters says that they only time he has seen Buffalo Hump was in flashes of lightning. Therefore, the man becomes symbolized by lightning, a powerful force of nature capable of causing innumerable damage. Given the Native American tradition of associating humanity with nature, this is an apt metaphor. Johnny asks the witness, "Is that Indian as big as they say he is?" Native American tradition is one of oral storytelling, with lessons being taught from generation to generation through narrative. Even in his lifetime, Buffalo Hump has become part of this tradition, extending himself beyond his own community to the point where he is a legend even in the white community. Buffalo Hump has vowed that some time in the future, he will kill both McCrae and Call. He is a hollow character, in comparison to that of the elderly woman at the beginning of the film. She is a spiritual being whose wariness of the white man comes from her visions. On the other hand, Buffalo Hump is concerned only with the destruction of a particular group of white men who he believes has done him some irreparable harm.
The Native Americans are portrayed as vicious in their attacks on the white men. However, they are also shown to be strategic and intelligent, not the angry savage monsters of some of the other examples of the genre. About thirty minutes into the film, there is a surprise attack on the group of white men by the Native American warriors. A small group ambushes the men by hiding under animal pelts. The white men are not aware of the presence of their enemies until the character of Major Chavallie played by Brian Dennehy has been shot in the chest by an arrow. An onslaught of arrows follows. The character Johnny says of the arrow that has pierced his leg, "It just fell out of the sky. I still ain't seen no Indians." In response, a character says, "Of course not. They ain't fools like us." In this moment, the white men acknowledge that they have been outsmarted by their foes. The Native Americans ambushed the group by hiding in the rocks on the high ground. One man aptly says, "We're running around like chickens with Buffalo Hump cutting our heads off." They are completely outmatched by the Native American's strategy and his accuracy.
Despite this apparent viciousness, the Native Americans are also shown as being men of honor. After scalping Nate in the daylight ambush, the lone female of the white man's group goes out to retrieve him. He has been scalped by Buffalo Hump but is not yet dead. The Native Americans watch from a short distance as she goes to get his body. Rather than attack the woman, Buffalo Hump allows her to take Nate back to their group to die among friends and then be buried by them. Although he is directly responsible for the death that is to come, the warrior chief will not take arms against a woman who is on a mission of compassion and not one of violence.
A later scene shows the group waving a white flag so that they may communicate with Buffalo Hump and his companions. The Native Americans honor that flag and rather than ride in with intent to perpetrate violence on the vulnerable white men, they agree to talk. In the discussion, Buffalo Hump's anger at the characters of Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call in particular is explained. McCrae has "cheated his lance." More importantly, his wrath is centered on Call who did not believe that Buffalo Hump had any reason to harm him and thus was confused that the man's anger was directed at himself. It is then explained to Call that he, unbeknownst to himself until now, murdered Buffalo Hump's son. This information was not known to the young man or to the audience until this moment. By killing the warrior chief's son, he has perpetrated a great wrong against Buffalo Hump. It makes both his pursuit of the group and his bloody actions all the more understandable. Not only is he defending the lands of his people against perceived invaders, but on a personal level, he is getting revenge on the man who killed his child and those who would assist that murderer.
After capturing another member of the white man's group Buffalo Hump is talking with one of his men. It is revealed that this captive has killed the man's family, his wife and sons. Buffalo Hump tell the man, to "Do what you want." He understands his own need for vengeance and accepts that other men in his party have similar experiences and similar feelings of anger and a need for revenge against the white men who did them wrong. Therefore, Buffalo Hump's situation is not a unique one. Many Native Americans have lost family members to white men. The Comanche are declared savage and bloodthirsty for kidnapping Mexican women, but the white men see themselves as the good guys, despite the fact that they have murdered Native American women and children.
Another example of the Native American's use of strategy is during the scene where Caleb Cobb's troupes are in their camp when the Comanche set fire to the grasses surrounding their camp. This was a very intelligent action from a strategic standpoint. The white men needed to flee their encampment in order to survive the flames. To do so, the rangers had no choice but to leap over the edge of a canyon. Those that made this jump over the edge, where almost immediately rescued by Mexican authorities. Not only do the Native Americans force their enemy into a defensive stance, they force them to be captured by the Mexicans. Not only do the Native Americans have the white men to…