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Commentary On Dances With Wolves

The invention of the motion picture over a century ago provided a new means for stories to be told on a large scale. Many different types of stories, both factual and fictitious were made and presented to the general public. Stories of past history (or at least a romantic view of what was believed to be “history”) were often very popular subjects in this medium, and many films concerning past events were made. Over time however, due to changes in society at large, the style and presentation of these films has also changed. The evolution of a largely “politically correct” pluralistic American society has led to the creation of many contemporary films that attempt to portray stories from periods of history that previously had been viewed through exceptionally stereotyped biases.

Specifically, the film Dances With Wolves is an attempt to portray Native Americans (represented in the film by the Sioux) as being just like “us”(“us” being white-centric mainstream American culture) even though they were badly “misunderstood” by the earlier barbaric American culture of racism and expansionism. This film attempts to show that they were in fact as “civilized” as the white man, if not more so, and that the white man never really knew this during his historical interactions with the Native Americans. (“civilized” being defined through family relationships, diplomatic behavior towards others who are not “us,” and having specific long established cultural norms and traditions) By showcasing this civilization, the film conforms to the politically correct hyper-tolerant standards of contemporary American mainstream society.

Kevin Costner’s Film Dances with wolves tells the story of the Union Soldier John Dunbar. The film opens with his suicide attempt by riding his horse right in front of enemy lines during a battle of the civil war (he is driven to this because he doesn’t want to have his wounded-leg amputated). This attempt goes “awry” in a way when it serves as a diversionary tactic and allows the union soldiers to rush the Confederates and wipe them out. Dunbar is subsequently given medical treatment, a commendation, and his own choice of post. Given this newfound freedom, Dunbar requests a posting on the frontier because he “wants to see it……. before it’s gone”. Upon reaching the final town before the last stretch of his journey to the fort he has been assigned to, he is instructed to ride with “the foulest man” he’s ever been with and they set out. When they reach the fort, its deserted and against his driver’s wishes, Dunbar unpacks all of the supplies and decides to man the fort alone. His guide sets out to return to the town and is killed by a group of militant Natives.

Dunbar mans the fort on his own for quite some time and brings it into good repair. During his time there, a wolf comes whom he names two socks. Two socks basically becomes his pet and by the end of the movie eats from his hand. Unfortunately, this taming of the wolf ultimately leads to two socks demise at the hands of soldiers because he as no fear for humans. However, the partnership between two socks and Dunbar prior to this tragic turn of events is touching.

During his time of solitude at the fort, Dunbar begins to keep a journal that becomes the audience’s main way of knowing his thoughts. This journal becomes a focal point of the film at the end. Eventually, a Sioux man comes to explore the fort and naturally Dunbar is frightened. He proceeds to chase the Sioux guy away but writes in his journal that the Sioux looked “magnificent”. Since he knows the natives have discovered his presence, he begins to prepare as much of a defense as is possible. However, despite a few low level contacts, they never come in force so he decides to go out (dressed in his finest uniform) and meet them. On his way there he finds a young woman who appears to be attempting suicide and he carries her to the Sioux camp. This act of kindness helps open diplomatic relations between himself and the Sioux people. The Sioux and Dunbar exchange various visit with each other and eventually, the young woman whom Dunbar rescued is used as an interpreter. It turns out she was actually a really tanned white woman who had been rescued by the Sioux as a child. Naturally, a romance develops and she and Dunbar are married.

During his time with the Sioux, Dunbar has several escapades in which he learns about Sioux culture and in which the Sioux use him to learn about White culture. It is during a period of play with two socks the Sioux give Dunbar his Sioux name “Dances with Wolves” (providing the eponymous title of the film). He even joins them on a buffalo hunt. An especially powerful episode occurs when Dunbar gives army guns to the Sioux to help them defend their camp from a war party of Pawnee. Eventually, Dunbar himself is completely accepted into the Sioux camp and decides to abandon his life at the fort. However, he left his journal at the fort and decides to return to get it so that the soldiers cannot follow his path. Upon returning to the fort, he finds it manned by an entire unit of soldiers who attack him because he is out of uniform. The soldiers beat him and demand that he tell what happened. He tells the commander to check his journal, but an extremely ignorant soldier had stolen it (which meant he really didn’t have to return to get the journal in the first place) and so he’s shipped off to be hanged for treason.

However, on the way back to town, the Sioux attack and rescue Dunbar. They then head off to winter camp where he meets up again with his wife and they decide to leave with the Sioux since the soldiers will be hunting for Dunbar. Dunbar and his wife part ways with the Sioux just as the Soldiers begin to catch up. The film ends with a short paragraph telling of the final demise of the Sioux nation at the hands of the federal army.

Throughout this entire film, the fore-defined aspects of being civilized are very prominent in the Sioux interactions with each other and with Dunbar. When the Sioux discover Dunbar, they decide to neither attack or kill him. Rather, they merely react to his infringement of their territory by attempting to steal his horse and telling him (despite the fact that he can’t understand their language) that they do not fear him. This was an exceptionally civil response when taken in light of the fact that the Sioux had been harassed and attacked for centuries by white men. Although the hot headed younger men wished for a more belligerent response, the wiser elders and leaders approached the Dunbar situation with clear-headed pragmatism. They hold a council in which different points are debated and discussed, and a resolution eventually reached. They send a diplomatic envoy to him to open relations with him. During one of the meetings, their patience with Dunbar’s attempts to communicate through gestures leads to a robust means to communicate ideas. It is the Sioux leadership that makes use of Stands With A Fist (Dunbar’s future wife) as an interpreter which greatly increases the ability of the parties to communicate. The Sioux even have some trade with Dunbar, although it is initially a bit strained because of cultural differences.

Another mark of the ‘civilized’ nature of the Sioux people is seen through their family interactions. The parent child relationship is strongly defined. This is seen through the specific scenes in which Stands With a Fist consults her mother about the love she begins to feel for Dunbar. This scene is shot in a way which is highly reminiscent of the talks that occurred on sit-coms; the only difference is that the characters were Sioux rather than white or black. The mother and daughter are shown interacting with each other in a room in the home with an unimportant menial task as the background of their discussion. In this case the home is a Teepee rather than a nice suburban house. The daughter is hesitant to discuss her problem with the mother, but in the end relents, a scene played hundreds of times between parent and child in sit-coms ranging from “My Three Sons” to “Family Matters”. The depiction of this type of interaction is something that the general American public not only is comfortable with but expects.

The strength of the family relationships is also demonstrated through the fact that it is up to Stands With A Fist’s father to determine her period of mourning. The concept of having a true system and hierarchy in the household is quite apparent and this is traditionally a very important part of being civilized. The concept of marriage between men and women and the creation of a true nuclear family structure is also given importance. The importance of the family is again highlighted through the fact that it s the woman’s father who conducts the ceremony. An appreciation of the family and strong family ties are hallmarks of a traditionally civilized culture, though values that are being abandoned in our present decadent society.

The Sioux also have a strong community outside of the nuclear family with well-defined cultural norms. Their camp moves as a unit. The men go and fight to protect the women and children, but the women also defend themselves when called upon to do so. When the time comes, the group works together to hunt the huge, strong buffalo that provide food, clothing and building materiel to sustain the life of the village. The village comes together to celebrate quite often and Costner is able to demonstrate this through both dialogue and cinematic scenery. Sweeping views of the village and village life as well and the movement of the village and the village hunt are used to demonstrate this point.

The ideological shift in the way race and culture are viewed in the United States has occurred over the past half century is the driving force behind the creation of films such as Dances With Wolves. During this past half century, strong movements for the increase of civil rights of groups have taken place. Before these movements, discrimination was law in this culture. Discrimination in basically any form has now become utterly illegal, and this culture of forced tolerance produces many films that show aspects of it. When it first released, Dances With Wolves was reviled by some for being overly politically correct and pluralistic, which it is. It is an attempt to increase tolerance and to increase diversity awareness. It showed a minority group in an exceptionally positive light, a rare occurrence on the silver screen. The highly intolerant union soldiers are demonized in the portrayals of their actions which affirm the highly politically correct driving force behind this film. Although it was not specifically intended to be a manifesto or the left wing, it bears many of the hallmarks that the left wings has left on society and it is this greater connection that’s gives the portrayal of the Sioux as being just like “us” such great importance.

In the article Whose home on the range? Finding room for Native Americans, African Americans, and Latino Americans in the revisionist western, Donald Hoffman says “The real story is that of Dunbar, who, like a mythic culture hero, descends into the realm of the Other to rescue us from the dead ends of our present selves.” Hoffman is trying to say that this film is in fact in not about the lives, trials and tribulations if the Sioux people but in fact about the benefits a white man can gain from exposure to them, an argument quite counter to my claim. The author is saying that this film is about the growth and development spiritually of the white man through contact with a different, foreign, “other” group or culture.

While this seems like a valid way of interpreting this film, I do not agree with it. I believe it is more about the similarities between white and native culture (represented by the Sioux) and that it attempts to show their differences as trivial. Dunbar is exiled as well as the natives gets hunted down as a way of showing the injustice done to the Sioux was done to “us” as well. I believe the intended purpose of the film was to make the audience feel more a part of Sioux life. As a member of the common audience, especially being a minority, I felt a sense of camaraderie with the Sioux, and I believe other’s had similar feelings Sioux rather than thinking to themselves “wow, white people really redeemed themselves through Dunbar and combined the best of Sioux culture with the greatness of “our” culture”. Analysis at such a deep level just generally isn’t carried out in the cinemas of the United States.

Dances With Wolves attempts to show that the Sioux (thus native Americans in general) were in fact as “civil” as the white man, if not more so and that through this fact they really were not very different or other-worldly as they have stereotypically been portrayed in the past. Through different portrayals of family, diplomacy and community, the civilized nature of the Sioux is shown. Their passion and love for each other is shown through their self-defense, and their loyalty for their own is shown through the rescue of Dunbar. Some might argue that this is a classic story of White culture merely assimilating another culture which s in some mystically better than it, but I strongly have to disagree. There are many blatant attempts to show that the Sioux and white culture have many parallels and a feeling of camaraderie in the viewer is intentionally created. This intention is driven by strongly pluralistic and politically correct forces within this society that demand utter tolerance and a promotion of diversity.


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