Dances With Wolves: Adding Humanity to Heritage

Intro by Brandon

Think about the last Native American character you saw in film. Got it? Alright. Chances are, the character you’re thinking of fits one of two stereotypes: a bloodthirsty savage attacking white settlers or a stoic character devoid of all emotion—a force of nature or a set piece. Throughout film history, these two stereotypes have dominated portrayals of Native American characters, and it’s hard to find an indigeneous character who’s actually allowed to be, you know, a normal person—someone with a real range of emotions, who has flaws, and is relatable to us despite obvious cultural differences.

As much as people today think of Native Americans as this far-away culture without much relevance, we’re still out there, and we’re still struggling to connect with our cultural heritage. Yes, I’m part Native American—I’m a member of the Tlingit tribe from Alaska, and I too struggle to connect with that part of my past. That’s why today’s movie, Dances with Wolves, is so important for people like me.

Dances with Wolves was probably the first film to pay such respect to Native American history and culture in the way that it did, not by having Native sets and side characters, but by making them the stars of the show and really striving for accuracy. You see Native characters have real emotional reactions to things, you see them make mistakes and learn from them, and you really get a feel for how they lived. The film did have some struggles and flaws, which we get into, but it’s very important in film history for giving viewers a real taste of Native American life and culture.

Does the film have much to say about mental health? Well, directly, not very much, but things like searching for your cultural heritage and finding a disconnect with modern popular culture can cause some mental health issues, and we talk a bit about that. All that, plus another clip of Maria singing the film’s soundtrack, are coming up in this episode of Peculiar Picture Show, the podcast that talks about movies, maladies, and mental health!

Corrections

During this episode, we cannot remember the Native American language that was used during World War II as code. We thought that it was the Lakota Sioux language (featured in this movie), but later research shows it was Navajo.

Show Summary

General/Intro

M: First time seeing this as a Coloradan, and it was nice to relate to this movie on that level (as I live in what was once the Western frontier).

B: Movie is meaningful because of its accurate portrayal of Native Americans; this movie almost didn’t get made because no one wanted to put money into Westerns; this is Kevin Costner’s first film as a director, and he won best director Academy Award.

Likes

M: First 15 minutes was excellent in forming John Dunbar’s characterization; we also get well-rounded Native American characters; tone is right and consistent; great acting; I love really long historical drama/fiction.

B: I am Native American, and this is the most respectful film towards Native Americans; Native American characters are real in this film; buffalo hunt scene was phenomenal; a lot of research was done to “get things right”; some dramatic elements can come off as cheesy, but it totally works.

Dislikes

M: Small inconsistencies, especially when the “crazy” guy shoots himself with no explicit explanation and how John Dunbar can understand that he will be visiting the village in a few days (even though he cannot understand any of the language); the ending is very abrupt and fools me every single time I watch it.

B: Costner’s inexperience as a director shows, because there are some sloppy scenes, including the music for the intro (which doesn’t match what is being depicted); this movie is kind of a white savior film, and I wish the Native Americans moved the plot forward more than the white savior.

Mental Health

M: This movie portrays three different types of suicide: the Kevin-Costner-in-the-beginning-and-sacrificing-himself suicide; the mourning-wife/ritualistic suicide; the typical-“crazy”-Hollywood suicide (very negative).

B: There is a designated mourning period for Stands with a Fist, and everyone understands, but in white culture, we are not really “allowed” to grieve—the concept of taking any time off for mental health is seen as weak and unstable; when you can only connect with a part of none of your heritage, it can feel like a huge part of you is gone.

Quotes

M: So we meet this protagonist, John Dunbar, and he’s hurt, he’s in pain, he’s been shot in the leg, and there’s nothing the doctors can do. They even go so far as to say there’s no ether, which means they’re going to have to amputate his leg and he’s going to have to endure it. This character just refuses to have his leg taken…He grabs his boot and puts his boot on, and it’s so painful, and he would rather die. And I think that shows a lot of who he is.

M: I got that a lot after the brain tumor, people said, “I don’t know what I would have done if I had a brain tumor, I would have just died.” I don’t know how to take that. I know you’re trying to compliment me, but at the same time, I am not handicapped.

B: This is really the first film to take a deep dive and a respectful look at Native Americans and their culture. This is meaningful for me because I am biracial; I am part Native American….until then, in Westerns, Native Americans just showed up, and they were this force of nature—they were just these evil barbarians that would just show up and massacre people. And that’s kind of how films had always portrayed Native Americans.

B: How many times do you see a Native American in a film that’s not just a caricature or a cardboard cutout? Historically, Native Americans in film were required to be one of two things: They were either the warrior barbarians that just killed everything—the blood thirsty Native Americans—or they just sat stoically, smoking a peace pipe and not having any emotions. The most powerful scene in this for me was that right after Dances with Wolves (at the end of the movie) says, “I need to leave,” Kicking Bird goes into his tent and is so mad he just starts throwing things around. And I have never seen a Native American in film react like that. How many times do you see a Native American react like that? He is allowed to have real feelings. He’s allowed to be sad because his friend is leaving. Or the scene where the kids go out to steal the horse. How many times have you seen Native Americans, and they are just dumb teenagers and do something dumb? That’s the mark of a real character—they are allowed to have flaws, and they are real flaws, not just, like, we-need-this-for-the-sake-of-the-plot flaw but real character, human flaws.

B: It is significantly easier to connect with my white past because there’s so much history available there…but if I want to see what has happened to my tribe, there’s very little information out there, and there’s very few films that show me what it’s like because Native Americans can only be a caricature of themselves. In America and a lot of other places, like in Europe, white is the default—if you’re white, you can have whatever emotions, whatever traits and mannerisms you want. And then the further you stray from that normal, the more society expects you to conform to what it expects you should be. And so society has very few expectations of white people, but if you’re a Native American, there are a ton of expectations because it’s so far off the beaten course. So Native American culture and heritage is sort of a joke in modern culture. It’s a costume people put on—people don’t consider it a real culture. And so I feel like that part of my past is being stolen from me from traditional culture.

Next movie: Dead Poets Society

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