Shifting Views on Native Americans in the Film, Dances With Wolves

Shifting Views on Native Americans in the Film, Dances With Wolves

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Shifting Views on Native Americans in the Film, Dances With Wolves


A wounded soldier lay on an operation table. The scene is surely not that unusual. 150 years ago, the medical field dealt with gangrene and infections by amputating any wounded limb. Now John Dunbar finds himself in almost the same situation. On a stroke of luck, as it would turn out, the doctor feels to tired to complete the operation on Dunbar and decides to finish for the day before taking his leg off. In the moments that followed, a frustrated, confused and disillusioned Dunbar pulls his boots back on and stumbles back onto the battle field. Feeling like there is nothing left to live for, Dunbar mounts a horse and charges the stagnant enemy line, bringing the battle to full fledged combat. Though his original intent I feel was not to start the battle, but rather to end his life, he becomes a hero, seeing that he wasn't shot or wounded. His cowardly actions in a twist of fate, ironically landed him as a decorated soldier.

Due to his position, Dunbar was given the option to go where ever he wanted. This was a customary option for war hero's of his time. Being the romantic type, as depicted in the film, he requested to be sent out west to become a US marshal. He felt a calling to see the Old West before it was gone. Upon his assigning to his post, it was understood that he was an Indian hunter. So, he was sent to a completely unmanned post in the west. Here is confronting with an interesting sequencing of events that would eternally change his life.

The American Indians, in the eyes of virtually everyone moving west, were considered the enemy. I didn't get the impression that Dunbar or his traveling counterpart felt any differently as they the stopped and carefully and with concern, inspected a human skeleton with arrows in it. I also couldn't help but feel some comradery with them. Moments later, a band of Indians notice a cloud of smoke rising in the distance. We see the paint and the scowls on their faces. They look like everything I've ever thought to be Indian. Savage, heartless, rough, mean and having no concept of rational. And sure enough, as the film would lead me to believe, the horrid Indian descends into the plains to find a white traveler cooking a meal.

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He relentlessly fires arrow at his legs and chest, and as the man is still screaming, cuts his scalp off; And what would this be without the whooping trademark Indian scream? Of coarse this was not left out. My first impression of the American Indians were not much different from what I know most people though of them as being back then.

I think that it was crucial to show this kind of Indian action in order for the purpose of this film to be fulfilled. It was especially in contrast to John Dunbar's first encounter with one of the Sioux Indians. I think we were all half expecting the Indian to lash back at Dunbar when he told him essentially to get away from his horse. I was surprised to see this "heartless, emotionless" Indian react in much the same way I would, by running away! What a different impression I was left with of Indians. Already my view of them was changing.

As time went on, some of the Sioux youngsters began to harmlessly bother and harass Dunbar by trying to steal his horse. Being the vigilant man he was, Dunbar sets out to find the trouble makers and to hopefully put a stop to their bothersome ways. As he headed out to find their camp he stumbled upon an Indian woman who was singing, rocking back and forth covered with blood. Dunbar, concerned and thoughtful, takes the woman back to the Sioux camp. Upon his arrival, I was somewhat shocked to see how one Indian woman reacted. Becoming frantic, she screamed for her children to run and hide. It was interesting to note that apparently the Indians felt the same about the whites as they did about them. With a bit of fear, Dunbar approaches the camp where the tribe has assembled to meet him. He slides off the horse and tries to show that he has one of their wounded members. I desperately wanted the Sioux to burst into applause and stick a feather in his hair, but that is far from what ended up happening. An Indian named "Wind in his Hair" violently dragged the woman by the arm back to camp all the while telling Dunbar leave.

That evening the Sioux gathered for a group meeting, as they did on most nights. It seemed that the consensus was that Dunbar was probably not dangerous since he had brought back "Stands with a Fist" and that it would be a good idea to visit Dunbar the next day to see what he was doing. Without getting into details, this sparked a friendship between Dunbar and the Sioux. Dunbar was frequented more and more. On one of their visits, Dunbar introduced coffee to them. The Indians were especially interested in the sugar. Having plenty of both of these things, and not having much need for either, Dunbar gave them away as gifts. In return, the Indians brought him a buffalo blanket and gave him an invitation to come back to their camp. This was an obvious big step forward for their friendship.

As I watched their friendship grow closer and closer and the I thought of how much the preconceived ideas of each other began to disappear, one event sticks out in my mind. It was in a way the crowning moment for Dunbar, his initiation. It happened on the day they went Buffalo hunting. I feel that the fact that he was initially invited to go hunting with them was amazing, since this was something that the Indians considered to be sacred. In the last moments of the hunt, a stray, angered Buffalo began to charge a young Indian boy off in the distance. When Dunbar saw this happening, he took it on as his responsibly to save this boys life. He of course shot the Buffalo from a distance away just moments before it would've crashed into the terrified boy. Like I said it was a special moment for Dunbar. The Indians saw for first hand that he truly cared for them.

I feel that John Dunbar's marriage to Stands with a Fist was the ultimate bond and consummated moment made with the Sioux.

It was hard for the Indians to realize that though Dunbar had become such an important and intricate part of their lives, he had such a vastly different past than they did; And this would prove to be a testing factor for them. When winter came, the Sioux always moved to their winter camp. Of coarse Dunbar would be joining them. However, he felt that he shouldn't leave to a place farther away without returning to his camp and retrieving his journal. When he arrived, he was attacked and taken prisoner, and accused of being a trader. He new family was on their way to the new camp and he (Dunbar) was stuck back with the other US marshals. In a moment of true brother-hood, the Sioux attacked the party that had Dunbar captive. They, alone with Dunbar himself, killed the US soldiers and escaped back to the winter camp.

Dunbar tried to make clear the seriousness of killing US soldiers, especially since he used to be one. His concern was that they, (US soldiers) would hunt him down and when they would find him with they Indians, they too would be in a position of danger. Dunbar is then forced to make a very difficult decision. To stay and put his new Sioux family as risk, or to leave with his wife to a place where they wouldn't present a danger to anyone. The final decision was that Dunbar and his wife would leave the Sioux, and start their knew life somewhere else. Wind in his Hair spoke for everyone when he said to Dunbar as he was leaving, "I will never forget you. You will always be my friend!"

This film did such a wonderful job of contrasting the realities of Indian life on the frontier with the preconceived ideas we once had about them. Dunbar himself, after his first meeting with them, said that nothing he had heard about these people seemed remotely true; And I think for him this was true. As the viewer, I found myself strongly disliking the American army. I found myself looking at the US marshals in the way that the US marshals looked at Dunbar when they first saw him, "an Indian!!!!" The switch took place, from the Indian being the savage, heartless beast, to the American settlers as the savage, heartless beasts who didn't understand and seemed to have no emotion. They, (the US marshals) shot Dunbar's horse, beat him and took him prisoner and tried to get him to tell them where the Indians were so they could remove them. It was amazing how quickly the white people became the bad people to me. Dr. Paherman, history instructor at Stanford University, explains what would eventually become the fate of Indians everywhere:

The Indian Removal Act was passed in May 1830; it empowered the president of the United States to move eastern Native Americans west of the Mississippi, to what was then "Indian Territory" (now essentially Oklahoma). Although it was supposed to be voluntary, removal became mandatory whenever the federal government felt it necessary.(Paherman)

In many ways it's amazing to think that my paradigm can make such a shift so quickly. But on the other hand, when the facts present them self the way they did in this film, I can't see it happening any other way. I feel bad about what happened to American Indians. I think that I will have an indignance towards any film I see in the future that depicts an Indian as the bad person. Of coarse there were bad Indians. We can't lump any ethnic group into one category. However, I can say they all had one thing in common. Though the ways they dealt with their frustrations may not have always been the best, all Indian tribes, whether good or bad, were justified for their anger and frustration towards white people and for the way they were treated.

Sources Sited:
Costner, Kevin, dir. Dances with Wolves. Per. Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene, and Rodney A. Grant. 10190. Videocassette. Orion, 1991.
Paherman. "Indian Removal." "n.d." 21 August 2001.
 

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