When Dances With Wolves came out in November 1990, audiences throughout the country cheered as Kevin Costner and his Lakota friends killed U.S. soldiers in one of the final scenes of the film. The Lakota in this film were decent (perhaps noble?), and the soldiers had been as contemptible as any character could be. More than that, the soldiers were emissaries of an aggressive nation bent on taking everything Costner’s Lakota friends had. Nothing could have been more obvious than our loyalties at that point in the film. Of course we rooted for the Indians!
Two months later, American troops and attacked Iraqi forces that had taken Kuwait, and Americans cheered as bombing attacks appeared on CNN just about all day every day. Iraqi treatment of the Kuwaitis had been cruel and Saddam Hussein posed a threat to world peace comparable to that the great Hitler (as some would have it anyway). Nothing could have been more obvious than our loyalties at that point in history. Of course we rooted for the American forces!
The transition always appeared to me rather seamless. It was a very disheartening moment, an indication of just how powerless the left wing critique of American imperialism had been. For once, the American public seemed to have gotten the message, at least one some level, and then it went right out and repeated all the same mistakes over again. Just as sensationalist accounts of Indian atrocities had once fueled military aggression against them, lurid stories of Iraqi conduct fueled support for military action in the Gulf War. And once again, America expanded its military presence in the world, to what end, we are still learning.
There are differences between these stories of course, and we could haggle over the details, but I’m not particularly interested in debating the Gulf War here. What concerns me is the question of which difference made the distinction matter? I can’t help but think that difference was time.
I would say that the critical difference is also a question of entertainment versus reality, but of course few war movies have provided near the entertainment value that the Gulf War presented to the American public. Whatever else that conflict represents, it was also a tremendous achievement in the theatrical violence. Plus, the conflicts depicted in Dances With Wolves have real world analogs. The specifics may have been fictional, but the issues in question were quite real. no, the difference is time. Dances With Wolves depicts a conflict most Americans believe to be over, and that makes it safe to flirt with critical appraisal providing it isn’t going anywhere.
Dances With Wolves was a story about America’s past. Cheering for the Indians in a fictional skirmish about an event long ago didn’t pose much of a personal cost for the average American. Sure, there may be some jingoists out there who really couldn’t stomach the thought that any aspect of American history had been anything short of a gift from God himself, but any discomfort they might have felt at the final scenes of Costner’s epic was surely the price of their own extremism. More folks could flip loyalties for that one brief moment, and then flip them right back again when push came to petro.
That’s hardly an unusual transition. It’s as easily done as shifting from present to past tense when the topic of Indians comes up in a conversation, or shifting from particular issues to a great big general narrative about the history of Indian white relations. The hat trick is of course the phrase; “what we did to the Indians.” What continually fascinates me is its appearance in otherwise focused conversations. You could be talking about some specific policy and its impact on some specific native community, and the next thing you hear is someone telling you that they really think it’s sad what ‘we’ did to the Indians.
…except the past tense undermines the ‘we’ part. Those saying this know very well they aren’t including themselves in the damned ‘we’ of that sentiment, not really. A good portion of the times I’ve heard this, the impact of the utterance was precisely to shift the conversation away from anything that ‘we’ really could be do anything about today. And that is of course my rather long winded point; it’s easy to root for the Indians in Dances With Wolves, much easier than it is to support them in present, and much easier to support them than it is to question attacks on any prospective enemy we have today. Whether it be casinos, tribal mascots, or tribal jurisdiction, the same folks who will happily root for the Indian in a fictional battle set in the remote past are much less likely to support the native side in present day conflicts. As to foreign policy? Well…
But let’s stick with Indian-white relations for a bit. You can see the whole transition in a stanza from one of Alice Cooper’s more obscure songs, but to get the full effect, you have to listen to the full tune. (Don’t worry; it’s one of his less shocking pieces.).
In case you missed it, the relevant lines are as follows:
I love the bomb, hot dogs, and mustard.
I love my girl, but I sure don’t trust her.
I love what the Indians did to Custer.
I love America.
There they Come. There they go.
- Alice Cooper
The line about Custer fits with the rest of Cooper’s rhyme scheme, but the line about Custer is a bit of a twist. The over-the-top jingoism of Cooper’s song seems inconsistent with the celebration of a set-back to the march of American history. We wouldn’t expect Cooper to root for the other side. And then suddenly, he isn’t cheerful at all, or at least the song isn’t, as we hear an Indian war-party come and go accompanied to faux-Indian music right out of the movies. He drops his rhyme scheme and sings almost as an aside, “There they come,” and then “there they go.” And thus a line about the demise of Custer and his troops becomes a comment about the proverbial vanishing Indian.
It’s safe to root for him, because he’s vanished.
Cooper’s song celebrates an Indian victory in order to mourn a Native loss, and of course that loss is precisely what the voice of the song calls for, the removal of an obstacle to the America cooper loves so much. And then of course the song picks up again as Cooper continues to celebrate all-things red, white, and soldier blue. It seems likely that Cooper’s treatment was deliberately ironic; it seems equally unlikely that he appreciated the full depths of that irony.
I don’t think Cooper’s attitude is at all unusual. I’ve heard similar sentiments many times. I understand why my old professor, a Choctaw celebrated the Custer’s last stand, and I understand why Lakota and Cheyenne do today, but they are celebrating a victory, something their people did right. Folks like Cooper are celebrating a loss, and one has to wonder just what they think that loss means?
As with any other great cultural icon, what is said of Custer is often really said of other things. At this point he seems to stand in proxy all of western history. The man has always had his critics, but it was probably the movie Little Big Man that taught the public to think of him as a raving lunatic. The Custer of this film is as ruthless as he is incompetent, and he is clearly the voice of western expansion. In the real world, it was Horace Greeley who advised young men to go to the West. In Little Big Man, it is Custer who tells the main character, Jack Crabb, to go West. It is Custer who carries out the most horrible atrocities of the film, the ones which make that migration possible, and ultimately, it is Custer (along with his troops) who will pay the price for Western expansion.
I grew up with that vision of a Custer in mind, one shared by multiple sources of popular culture in the 70s and 80s. I can’t recall meeting anyone personally who defended Custer in my youth, not once. From time to time, I heard or saw echoes of Custer’s previous incarnations in popular culture, the heroic Custer of Anheuser Busch or the onion-loving Custer of some old movie whose name I’ve long since forgotten. I could easily think that heroic vision as deluded, but of course that was a Custer who belonged to someone else, one who had been slain literally and figuratively on the screen of Little Big Man.
While we can haggle over the facts of Custer’s career and the details of his final battle, the successful caricature of Custer doesn’t facilitate a pro-native view so much as a an easy dismissal of the larger problems of American expansionism. This is where Little Big Man fails in its politics. (It was of course also a commentary on Vietnam.) In framing the horrors of American Indian policy as a reflection of personal lunacy, the movie invited us all to feel far too much relief at Custer’s ultimate defeat. It’s simply easier for all of us if Custer can take responsibility for all the horrors of America’s Indian policies, easier because he lost, and in his loss, folks can well imagine that he carries those horrors with him into the grave.
All of which brings to mind the title of Vine Deloria’s old classic, Custer Died for Your Sins.
To be sure films like Little Big Man and Dances With Wolves call attention to larger problems, but they also point to a way out which all too many Americans seem to have taken, the belief that the ugly side of American military can be laid at the feet of the occasional lunatic clad in buckskin.
Or perhaps to a cigarette puffing soldier who lost her moral compass somewhere along the way.
Because surely the problems don’t go any further than that!