Westerns traditionally portray Native Americans as either vicious antagonists or sidekicks for the hero. Even though it stars a white Hollywood movie star in the lead role Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves (1990) must be credited for being one of the few films in which Native Americans are portrayed as a group of people with their own culture and customs. When a technologically advanced civilization encounters a less advanced culture, the less advanced one always ends up being absorbed by the more advanced civilization, but if there is only one member of that advanced civilization facing the less advanced one then that one member must either fight them and lose, or actually learn about them and adapt.
Seeing the movie for the first time it really plunges you into the old American west. With a 180 minute running time it may come off as slow moving at first, but that is actually the point. When Costner’s character is isolated on the American plains he has no one to talk to so the arrival of Sioux tribesmen comes off as not just a possible threat, but also a relief from boredom and loneliness. I must have been in high school when I first saw this movie, a time when I had been reading about the American West and Indians as part of my Social Studies class, but seeing Native Americans portrayed onscreen with the depth of Dances with Wolves helps put a face to the people in the history books. My mother told me that when she was in school her teachers told her there were two types of Indians in Canada: the good ones who helped the French and the bad ones who helped the English. Life is not nearly that black and white.
This is what Costner’s character learns following his near-death experience in the American Civil War. Pulling double duty as director and star, Costner plays Union army First Lieutenant John J. Dunbar who receives his choice of posting following the end of the war. He chooses the western frontier so he can see it while there is still something left to see. The posting takes him to an abandoned fort where a series of circumstances leads him to be forgotten by his superiors. Now all alone, Dunbar has no one to talk to except his journals and his horse.
Dunbar’s horse is part of the reason for the break in his solitude as the neighbouring Sioux tribe tries to steal it and intimidate him. At first they see him as just another white man invading their territory and Dunbar sees them as just another enemy he must face as a soldier even though he has no one backing him up. Yet a chance encounter with a white woman (Mary McDonnell) who has been adopted by the Sioux leads to a communication channel between Dunbar and his perceived enemy. Costner did not only hire a cast of actual Native American actors to portray the Sioux, but has them speak Lakota and Pawnee, and Dunbar ends up talking to the tribe with McDonnell’s character acting as a translator and language teacher.
The more time Dunbar spends with the Sioux the more he starts to take a liking to their culture and way of life, and the more they start to see him as more than just a soldier. They even give him a tribal name, Dances with Wolves, because of the way he plays with a wolf he has befriended. In one of many gorgeously shot sequences that highlight the beauty of the plains, Dunbar helps the tribe locate a buffalo herd and participates in the hunt.
A later sad scene highlights the differences between the Sioux’s way of life and the culture of mass consumerism that is yet to come, when Dunbar and the tribe find a herd of dead buffalo that were shot and left to rote by the army. It is not as though Costner and screenwriter Michael Blake are simply saying all white people are bad and native people are good, since the Sioux people also have the capacity for war and have to fight off a rival Pawnee tribe. Dunbar is white and a soldier who has fought in a war, but having experienced the culture of both white people and the Sioux he ends having to make a decision as to which tribe to fight for.
Dances is With Wolves is great movie not just for it superb direction, cinematography, and performances, but for the way in which it shows how no matter what tribe we below to, we are all human beings with our distinct languages, culture, and flaws. It is unfortunately a message that needs to be repeated time and time again.