Through a Native Lens is a new column from film critic and citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma Shea Vassar, who will dive into the nuance of Hollywood’s best and worst cases of Indigenous representation. This first entry examines the use of Native identity in the 1991 Best Picture winner Dances with Wolves.
Dances with Wolves tells the story of John J. Dunbar’s mental, emotional, spiritual, and romantic awakening after spending some time in the disappearing American West in the 1860s. The epic film directed by Kevin Costner was a surprise success upon its release, with positive reactions from both critics and viewers. It even walked away with multiple Oscar wins, including Best Picture, and a worldwide gross of $424 million. Despite these accolades, the movie remains the subject of deserved criticism due to the focus on a white male protagonist who enters the pre-Americanized world of the Lakota.
Articles all over the internet call the film out for its “white savior complex,” and rightfully so. The brave white man in question, played by Costner himself, experiences supernatural enlightenment, a feeling of peace for all of that manly inner chaos as a result of his Western adventure. However, the film shows no actual solution to the pressing issues the Lakota face. Sure, the Lakota have dilemmas they are working out, including tensions with their Pawnee neighbors and the missing herd of bison they hunt, but these issues aren’t solved because of one white guy. The true threat is the theft of land, culture, and customs from many Native nations, including the Lakota.
Kicking Bird, portrayed by Oneida actor Graham Greene, continually asks Dunbar how many more white men are heading out West. Dunbar keeps the truth to himself and adjusts to the Lakota way of life despite his omission. While Dunbar is a fully developed character who has clear mental, spiritual, and romantic needs, the Lakota stay sedentary, showing a lack of depth due to the writing.
Because of this, I would add the label of “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” (MPDG) to the Lakota characters. Nathan Rabin first used the phrase to describe Kirsten Dunst’s character in Elizabethtown, stating that the MPDG “exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures.” Sure, this isn’t exactly a romantic film but the trope can easily be applied to Kicking Bird, Wind In His Hair (Rodney A. Grant), and Black Shawl (Tantoo Cardinal) and the role they play in the plot. Their only duty is like the love interests in romantic dramedies as they help to facilitate growth for the main character.
At the beginning of Dances with Wolves, Dunbar offers himself as a distraction in a battle against Confederate forces, a true suicide mission. His actions show his want for some mystical solution to his inner turmoil. After escaping death, he sets out to see the West before it disappears (or is stolen by the United States). He believes something out there will bring meaning to his life. Of course, Dunbar never planned on befriending a Native American tribe, just wanted to connect with the land. In the end, he not only finds enlightenment but a wife in Stands with a Fist (Mary McDonnell), a white woman who has lived among the Lakota since she was a child.
Dunbar’s arc is a transformation from the character we see at the start of the film, a change catalyzed by his new open-mindedness to the original people of the West. As for the Lakota, the only change is in the physical needs that, again, would have been solved one way or another even if this white man never appeared. Dunbar gets to find healing in every aspect of his life and move forward as a white male in America. The future that awaits the Lakota is one of continued genocide and forced assimilation.
This criticism is not to completely discredit Dances with Wolves. Native characters at the time were uncommon, and if they were seen were usually the antagonists played by non-Indigenous actors in red face. The characterization of Native Americans as barbaric, uncivilized, “merciless Indian savages” (as stated in the Declaration of Independence) was furthered by Hollywood’s inaccurate portrayal that still exists to this day. Not only did Dances with Wolves jumpstart the acting careers of Native talents like Wes Studi (Cherokee) and Tantoo Cardinal (Cree/Métis), the film allowed audiences to see a more positive representation of the Lakota while seeing actual Indigenous people in the roles.
A good amount of the accuracy can be credited to Doris Leader Charge, a Lakota teacher who was hired to assist on set. She translated most of Michael Blake’s dialogue into her Native language and had a small role in the film as Pretty Shield. Even with her assistance, mistakes were noticed by others. Activist Russell Means (Oglala Lakota) commented on the use of the Lakota language stating, “Lakota has a male-gendered language and a female-gendered language. Some of the Indians and Kevin Costner were speaking in the feminine way. When I went to see it with a bunch of Lakota guys, we were laughing.”
Even accuracy in the details doesn’t excuse the problematic positioning that holds every Lakota character back. They are no more than a stimulant for Dunbar’s new grasp on life. Is the less-villainizing, underdeveloped showcase of the Lakota better in regards to representation than redface? They are two sides of the same issue and both are ridiculous excuses for so-called representation.