American Indian, Avatar, Dances With Wolves, Film, Graham Greene, Kevin Costner, Lakota, Last Samurai, Movies, Pawnee, Stereotypes
Bet y’all didn’t notice!
I am one short on my promise of 10 Little White Indians. Well, it turns out that my three-part series on White Indians has four parts, and there is surely a good Monty Python reference in there somewhere, but maybe we’ll save that for another day
Let us start with a brief consideration of the near misses.
WIND TALKERS (2002): I remember when this movie was on its way to the theaters, rumor had it that the flick was about the Navajo Code Talkers. Working as I did then on the Navajo Nation, I was (like a lot of my students and colleagues) really excited to see this part of American history portrayed on screen. My enthusiasm waned considerably when I realized it wasn’t about a Code Talker so much as a white guy who might have to kill a Code Talker if things took a turn for the worse. I don’t think I was the only one who sank in my seat when I realized where this was going.
…not quite a white Indian, but definitely the same sort of bait&switch one normally gets with this theme.
THE LAST SAMURAI (2003): Don’t act surprised. You know this movie is about a white Indian. I mean, the Indians are Japanese, but let’s not get too worked up about the details. It’s the same story, just transplanted to a different setting. Tom cruise goes to live with a strange and seemingly savage people. He comes to know their ways and love them. Finally, he leads them in a battle to revitalize the way of life that is so brilliant, it needs an outsider to save it.
What separates this from A Man Called Horse? Geography.
AVATAR (2009): I owe this reference to simplycarola as she mentioned it in another discussion. But the story of a human who enters an alien world filled with nature-loving creatures is just too much to pass up. Jake Sully, our hero, in this film struggles to survive among these savages, finds them wonderful, and leads them in war against his own people. Yes, this is a white Indian on another planet. …and the ease with which ‘white’ transits into ‘human’ while the role normally reserved for Native Americans morphs into an altogether alien species, …well that takes icky to infinity!
Okay, so what about it? Why does it matter that Hollywood makes so many stories about white Indians?
Truth be told, I don’t see anything wrong with this kind of story. In fact, the subject of white Indians (or any other non-Indians going native) is fertile ground for storytelling. The problem lies rather in the way this persistent theme seems to marks an inability to venture into stories about Indians themselves, a sort of hesitance at the threshold of another interesting subject. We want to know about Lakota, about Cheyenne, about all of these people! But in the end it seems that they prove too strange, their world too foreign to deal with on its own terms, so we end up with a story about someone else, someone who knew them.
That is the problem; in at least some of these cases, the white Indian is a confession of sorts, an admission that certain movie-makers, and perhaps certain audiences are not quite up to the subject at hand.
Non-Natives seem to better appreciate film depictions of Native Americans if we get to see that depiction through the lens of another non-Native. That in itself certainly isn’t a crime, but it does skew the details of the story in odd ways. The frequency with which the white guy gets the red girl is a bit disturbing, as is the myopic celebration of a romance in the midst of a world that is rapidly falling apart around the fair Indian maiden. Are we really supposed to be happy for the hero that he gets the girl, devastated though she must be? And doesn’t the loss of her family and her people merit a little more than a brief moment of regret. Hell, I can’t help wondering if her story isn’t clearly the more dramatic one in every single one of these films. That the Indian maiden is so often portrayed as a kind of princess should drive the irony meter all the way to 11.
And then of course there are the men who come to lead their adopted native communities. It isn’t enough to imagine one’s white self as an Indian, one has to be their leader too! The characters have to out-Indian the Indians (or in the case of Tom Cruise’s, out-samurai the samurai). As far as self-indulgence goes, I have to admit this theme makes me a little ill.
It’s not that these movies are terrible. Okay, some are. (Pathfinder was dreadful!) Others are really quite wonderful.
And some are both at the same time.
Which brings us to the 10th and final white Indian. You guessed it, DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990). The narrative is familiar to most by now. This is the story of a white Indian made larger than life and then some. Disturbed by his experiences in the Civil war, John J. Dunbar (Kevin Costner) asks for a post on the frontier and soon finds himself quite alone on the great plains.
In time, Dunbar will befriend a local band of Lakota. He will hunt buffalo with them, help to defend them against Pawnee raiders, and fall in love. His love interest (“Stands-with-a-Fist” played by Mary McDonnell) is herself a white woman, adopted by kicking Bird (Graham Greene), the village Medicine Man. Dunbar soon finds himself on the Indian side of hostilities with the U.S. Army. It is a role he embraces willingly.
There is no happy ending here. Realizing that his presence puts the people in danger, Dunbar leaves with Stands-with-a-Fist, and the movie ends with an epilogue telling us that the Sioux were subjugated 13 years later.
This movie has all the elements one might expect from a story about a white Indian, and it presents those elements in truly majestic fashion. The Buffalo-hunting scene alone is enough to warrant at least three viewings of this wonderful movie. And the Indian characters around Dunbar come through with a richness seldom seen in Hollywood productions. Greene proved himself to be especially brilliant.
But Dances With Wolves also has all the vices of a movie about white Indians. Dunbar’s girl is not quite an Indian princess. At least the facts of her life story seem to complicate that theme, but then again she is still the daughter of the most prominent Indian in the story, and Stands-with-a-Fist is fully assimilated when Dunbar finds her. White or not, she occupies the role of an Indian princess to a T (…or maybe a P), helping us to tread old ground in this awful movie.
Do I need to comment on Dunbar’s role as a leader in the battle scenes? He never quite becomes a chief, but Dunbar rallies the troops (…pardon me, warriors) to great effect during a battle scene with the Pawnee. If he lacks a crown (or rather a feather), it is clear enough that Dunbar has already begun to assume the role of a war chief when the final plot twists interrupt his happy ending. As far as the out-Indianing-the-Indians theme goes, Dances With Wolves would have to be considered among the worst offenders.
But of course this magnificent film is best remembered for its nuanced treatment of Indian characters. The film rightfully received much praise for getting past stern warriors and stoic expressions to show us real people with complicated lives and rich personalities living in that Lakota camp. Dances With Wolves did a lot to dispel the Hollywood Stereotypes and introduce people to a fuller sense of the humanity in Indian peoples.
…unless, of course you are a Pawnee. If you are Pawnee, this movie takes all those stereotypes and dumps them right on your shoulders. Don’t get me wrong. Dances With Wolves does not make any overt statement that Pawnee are evil; it just consistently portrays them as the aggressors in every major conflict of the film. (The historical irony is, well a topic for another post.) It is Pawnee that orphaned Stands-with-a-Fist, and it is Pawnee that attack the Lakota village forcing Dunbar to become the white Indian hero that he was meant to be. The closest we get to any indication that Pawnee might not be a uniformly homicidal indigenous nation is a line from one Pawnee warrior questioning the wisdom of his aggressive leader. That one moment, aside, Pawnee appear largely to exist in this movie for the sole purpose of making other people miserable.
In its treatment of Pawnee, Dances With Wolves carries forward a Hollywood tradition. It seems that so many films sympathetic to Indians deal with Cheyenne or Lakota, indigenous peoples that went to war with the Pawnee. Not surprisingly, Pawnee come out bad in the resulting narratives. Even Jack Crabb didn’t have much use for them, as he told us. But if Little Big Man’s treatment of the subject was nuanced, qualified through use of an obvious frame, the treatment in Dances With Wolves seems flat-footed. One cannot help but to think that we are invited to think of Pawnee as the bad Indians in this awful movie just as its main character would.
After all, we do need some sort of villain don’t we?
And here is where I come to wonder about the real significance of Dances With Wolves. I remember the rave-reviews when it came out. I remember the gushing praise from folks happy to finally have a movie that portrays Indians in a positive light. And I wonder how the Hell so many people could have forgotten about Little Big Man? The stereotypes had already been kicked around quite a bit back in that old flick. So, why didn’t people remember the last time someone went out of their way to introduce us to the rich characters living in those tepees? Why did the stereotypes need a fresh thrashing in 1990?
It might well be that those characters faded with time, and what we were left with was the story of the white guy who lived among them.
And therein lies the problem. However wonderful the part, a supporting role is still a supporting role. And that can be a wonderful thing. But one must remember the difference.
When done well, stories about white Indians may give us a glimpse of life in Native American communities, but that glimpse is always filtered through the significance of a character whose role in that world is tenuous at best. At their worst, such films celebrate Native themes only to subordinate them with a (hopefully unintended) message of white dominance. Even at their best, however, one should always remember the real subjects of the story-line are NOT the indigenous people. Whether the treatment of Native American subjects in such films is sympathetic or hostile, nuanced or crass; either way the treatment is filtered through the eyes of the white characters.
The limitation is rather signifcicant.