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White Americans’ prejudiced and tainted views of Native Americans lasted well into the 1980’s after the Civil War brought them fully into the crossfire and virtually destroyed the Great Plains as they were once known.  Kevin Costner’s 1990 film, Dances with Wolves, seeks to repair those harsh and uninformed views of Native American culture and society in both the past and present age.

Throughout this three-hour film, director, producer, and star Kevin Costner leads the audience through the journey of a white Union Lieutenant John Dunbar who finds himself completely alone at an army post out in the plains of the Western Frontier.  During his time there he encounters the local Sioux tribe, at first in fear and ignorant hostility, but eventually in peace and equality.  He becomes assimilated into their culture, learning the Lakota language, sharing in the buffalo hunt and the resulting spoils, and even marrying one of the members, a white woman called Stands with a Fist who was captured by the tribe as a young girl and raised as one of its members.  However, more white Union soldiers soon arrive and set up camp at Dunbar’s abandoned post.  As the tribe beings their journey to the winter camp away from the soldiers, Dunbar is attacked and captured by the soldiers, who now seem to be the barbarians and savages of the frontier.   Dunbar eventually escapes from the help of his Lakota friends and is reunited with his wife.  They then set off alone in the hopes of leading the soldiers away from their tribe.

The release of Dances with Wolves led to the breaking point of a culmination of views of inferiority toward Native Americans.  The Sioux Nation prided the film for its portrayal of Native Americans in the frontier in a positive light.  This was a completely new perspective after the John Wayne Westerns that only showed Native Americans at face value and without any insight.  Traditionally, Native Americans have only been viewed one-sidedly, that side being predominately white.  Dances with Wolves beautifully done in that it fully incorporated the Sioux culture and Lakota language, which was the dominant language used in the film (with subtitles).  Upon viewing the film, the Sioux Nation adopted Kevin Costner as an honorary member for his honest portrayal of their people in a time where would have only be perceived as savages and uncivilized brutes.

After the release of the film, Dances with Wolves became instantly popular, affecting the nation’s view on Native American in both positive and negative ways.  Though racism against Native Americans virtually ceased, and they became respected as equals rather than inferiors, many people laid false claims that they were somehow related to Native Americans through their ancestry, though they were not and had no proof.  Native American customs and ceremonies became commercialized through non-Native Americans, who hoped to buy into the Native American culture.  As much as Dances with Wolves helped improve the views and treatment of Native Americans in white society, it also slightly debased their culture into nothing more than snake oil and teepees to those who will never understand what Dances with Wolves really teaches us:  “of all the trails in this life, there are some that matter most.  It is the trail of a true human being.”[1]

-Grace


[1] Kicking Bird, Dances with Wolves

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