Wednesday, June 14, 2006

# Posted 11:46 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

CINEMATIC JUSTICE, CINEMATIC GUILT: I just finished watching Dances With Wolves, which won seven Academy Awards in 1991, including Best Director (Kevin Costner) and Best Picture. Running more than three and a half hours, it certainly deserves to be known as a film that is artistically impressive and often rather boring.

In addition, the film is also extraordinarily political. In one of the most remarkable scenes I have ever witnessed, the film celebrates the death of American soldiers. The scene is a battle scene, a classic confrontation between the White Man and the Indian. I suspect it isn't the first battle scene in which the Indians have prevailed. Yet instead of an ambiguous or tragic act, the slaughter of the Americans is represented as a moral triumph.

To be more precise, there is one ex-American fighting on the Indian side, Lt. John Dunbar (Kevin Costner). Just in case the inspirational crescendos that accompanied the soldiers' deaths weren't clear enough, Dunbar announces while sitting around a fire with his comrades in arms that:
Killing the soldiers at the river was a good thing. I did not mind killing those men. I was glad to do it.
Well, at least the film recognizes the importance of moral clarity. And if one interprets the characters in the film as symbols of their respective nations, then it is hard to deny that there is a certain justice to it.

Sadly, my knowledge of Western and Native American history is very limited. All I can really contribute is my awareness of my teachers' consensus that English and, later, American settlers brutally drove the Native Americans off their land in order to take it for themselves. This brutality persisted for hundreds of years, thus marking Native Americans as historic victims of White America that belong in the same category as slaves.

Naturally, I suspect that there was much greater moral complexity to those centuries of interaction than this film betrays. But that is not its purpose. This film is an apology, an expression of liberal guilt. It is the story of a White Man who discovers that the Lakota Sioux are far more noble (and environmentally friendly!) than his vicious, crude and often deranged fellow Americans.

Magically endowed with the moral sentiments of the late 20th century, Lt. Dunbar displays a remarkable sort of multicultural tolerance and curiosity. He gradually becomes a member of the tribe, thus fulfilling the historical fantasy that the White Man and the Indian could have co-existed in peace rather than waging relentless war. Ultimately, Dunbar renounces his American heritage and takes for himself the Sioux name, Dances With Wolves.

In light of how often Hollywood has reduced Native Americans to crude caricatures, I don't feel all that bad about this one chance to exact a bit of belated revenge. The issue has long been settled, so I don't consider the film to be inflammatory.

But imagine if the film had debuted this year instead of in 1990. A decade and a half ago, Americans were still living through the euphoria of impending victory in the Cold War. We were feeling generous and pacific.

But today our soldiers are dying on foreign soil. If this film had come out now, it would denounced (with considerable justification) as crude left-wing propaganda, because no film is just about history. Watching it now, I found it hard not to imagine the Sioux as a thinly veiled metaphor for every insurgent American soldiers have faced, from Vietnam to Iraq.

At the very same moment that the fictional John Dunbar was becoming a Sioux, Abraham Lincoln was fighting to save the Union and liberate its slaves. Just as we dare not forget what happened to the Native Americans, we also dare not forget that the values we fight to uphold today were the same values that great Americans have fought to uphold since 1776.
(21) opinions -- Add your opinion

As an antidote of sorts, I recommend the films of John Ford. Perhaps The Searchers? Several others might also suffice. In any case, all of Ford's films are both artistically superior to Costner's agonism, and decidedly not boring.
Your description of the film reminded me that it was the scion of "Little Big Man", where the entire history of the West was placed on its head (thematically, "everything you thought you knew about the West was wrong.") That was in 1970, near the height of our Vietnam discontent. I vividly remember how easy it was to embrace the themes of hypocrisy and skepticism, especially for a late teen. Unfortunately, since then, an entire generation of kids has been exposed to these themes, and view our history through its prism.
Your final paragraph is a little youngish. I may not know American history as well as you do, but how many wars has the US fought that could actually be said to be in defense of the values of '76 (whatever that means)?
"...how many wars has the US fought that could actually be said to be in defense of the values of '76?"
Uh - all of them, since the values of '76 set the country up as it is. And "Native American" is an obnoxious misnomer. Anyone born in the US is a "Native American". Indians call themselves "Indians". There's no need to change. PC morons adopted the "Native American" moniker to win back by words what they think the Indians lost by being stone-age primitive. It's not working.
There are some excellent books out there that discuss the Army and the Indian Wars - Robert Utley's "Frontier Regulars," for example, or the now out-of-print but excellent analyses that Col W.A. Graham wrote ("The Story of the Little Big Horn" and "The Custer Myth," the latter a collection of interesting primary documents from participants). Evan Connell's "Son of the Morning Star" gives a pretty balanced version of the same event - debunking some popular myths along the way. The idea that the Indians were all about sustainable living (particularly the nomadic tribes) is just so much romanticization - the quartermaster at Fort Sill had to teach the Apache women not to cut down trees to get nuts when they were settled on the reservation there after the campaign against Geronimo.
There were plenty of Americans in the 19th century who deplored the Indian Wars and the breaking of treaties, including Sam Houston, who lived with a Cherokee tribe as a boy. Houston aside, the Indian sympathizers of the period often held the "Dances With Wolves" view of Native Americans as Rousseauian "Noble Savages". An essentially racist mindset despite the seeming positive tilt.

As far as Native Americans being victims of White America, I don't see anyone of any color rushing to give land back to the "natives". As I told a Chinese-American friend from Queens who, with her Italian-American boyfriend, tried to lay a white guilt rap on me for being a Mayflower descendant, "Someone had to make Long Island safe for all of the Chinese and Italian immigrants!"
John Ford also made Cheyenne Autumn, no doubt late in life racked by the guilt of caricaturing Indians.

Watching it now, I found it hard not to imagine the Sioux as a thinly veiled metaphor for every insurgent American soldiers have faced, from Vietnam to Iraq.

sometimes a cigar is only a cigar.
Genocide is genocide. Analyze it, spin it, wave dead chickens over it -- it's still genocide.
Killing American Indians is a value of 1776, but one of the values of '76 that I'm happy to repudiate. They believed some funny things back then -- that human beings could be owned, bought, and sold; that the color of a man's skin could determine his status under the law; that treaties made with Indians weren't legally binding; and other funny things in that vein.
I choose to believe that if America saw a nation today doing what the America of the 19th century did to the Indians, that it would, at the very least, use the bully pulpit of global hegemony to decry the evil, as with Darfur, or choose to militarily intervene, as it does from time to time.
Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.

And The Searchers is a damn good film. Highly recommend. Racist towards the red man, yes, but a lot better than Dances With Wolves.
See the movie Black Robe, screenplay by Robert Bolt, for a much more nuanced account of the white-man's encounters with native-Americans. It is about a Jesuit's encounter with the Huron Indians. I had the same reaction to Dances With Wolves when I saw it, and Black Robe provided the antidote.
You are doing yourself a disservice and missing the entire point of film or art when you make it political. Dumbing it down to your timely current shallow beliefs.

political beliefs are 2 steps down from religious and 1 step down from artistic.

you've shown knowledge of neither here.
They believed some funny things back then -- that human beings could be owned, bought, and sold; that the color of a man's skin could determine his status under the law; that treaties made with Indians weren't legally binding; and other funny things in that vein.

Of course, the Indians believed those things too. They owned slaves, butchered opponents wholesale, broke treaties they didn't feel like adhering to -- you name it.

What you're describing aren't "funny beliefs", but aspects of human nature.
Fast forward to today. The Native Indians have more enlisted personnel in the armed services than any other U.S. minority. Says a lot.
Boring? Maybe for the ADD generation.

I think its beautiful cinematography deserves the long-form treatment it gets. It was beautiful, Barry's score beautiful (if derivative of his work on Somewhere In Time), Costner's writing decent, acting a little better, and the movie overall a triumph.

And sometimes, you have to realize that a movie can tell a story without it having parallels to the modern day. The US military's conquest of the American Indians was a travesty by itself. I'm all for living with my neighbor in harmony - are you seriously advocating the stance the US had at the time (e.g., the only good one is a dead one)?

Ultimately, though - boring? Ha.
For moral complexity, and a better view of what Jefferson and his allies hoped to see, I highly recommend: William McLoughlin, "Cherokee Renascence in the New Republic" (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986).
Growing up in western Montana—indeed, an odd place to be for a son of a first generation Punjabi immigrant—has given me an interesting perspective on the “Native American” subject. For instance, most people don’t know that the Flathead tribe requested the cavalry to come and defend them. Why? Well, because they were sick and tired of the raids that were carried out by the Blackfoot tribe, who, shortly after the raid, but before the next, would return with gifts made out of the skin of the women they captured previously—gifts from an antagonist to put it mildly wouldn’t you say. It’s also safe to say that the original owners of the skin were alive when it was required of them. The Blackfeet were an exceptionally cruel and violent nation; to be beheaded would have been a merciful death.

Two of my closest friends, whom I grew up with, are Native American. Both of my friends lean to the left to say the least. Whenever we get together, a percentage of the time (depending on number of beers etc) is spent talking about politics. The only thing we could ever agree on was that I was Indian, and they were Native American. However, sometime ago one of my friends was railing against: white men, the west, thuggish cops (which is all of them naturally), genocide against the Indian nations etc. To which I responded by listing the horrifying savage atrocities (that were not the practice of just a few of that tribe, but a matter of normal occurrence from the whole) of the always-trying-to-expand-their-borders-by-whatever-means Blackfoot tribe. My friend looked at me with surprise, sadness, and regret, he then cast his eyes away and said something along the lines of “…yeah, I know, I know… “ . Only later did he tell me that he was Blackfoot.

All man is fallen, and some are just evil.
A great book "The Mystery of Capital", gives a history of Native Americans from an outsider's perspective. At least according to the author, a lot of the "genocide" of the American Indians wasn't sanctioned so much as the fed government wasn't strong enough to stop it. There were exceptions to this of course.
The "noble savage" image propagated by Dances With Wolves is a fraud. American Indians were savages - and as anthropologists are now acknowledging, nearly all primitive peoples have levels of interpersonal violence worse than a gang-infested housing project. (So did medieval Europeans - and my ancestors the Vikings were monsters.) Much of the conflicts happened because Indians regarded plunder/murder/rape raids as sport.

Yes, there were white crimes against the Indians. But there were also many Indians who were assimilated into white society by intermarriage.
Also Indian groups that have been incorporated: hundreds of recognized tribes and bands and reservations.

It should also be noted that in general (though not always), settlers moved into largely vacant land, due to the population crash from European diseases. Recent scholarship now estimates the crash at 90% to 95% of the pre-Columbian population.

And let's not regurgitate the myth of the smallpox-infected blankets. That was proposed once in the 1700s, as a measure against a French-allied tribe. Though frauds like Ward Churchill claim otherwise, it never happened in the U.S. The truth is that Congress appropriated funds for the vaccination of Indians starting in the 1820s - the big fur trading companies wanted to continue their very profitable dealings with Indians.

A final point: the alleged demonization of Indians in old Hollywood movies is another myth. I can cite several B-level Westerns from the 1940s where Indians go on the warpath and their violence is justified (provocation by white renegades).
"A final point: the alleged demonization of Indians in old Hollywood movies is another myth. I can cite several B-level Westerns from the 1940s where Indians go on the warpath and their violence is justified (provocation by white renegades)."

For every "Tomahawk", there's an "Ulzana's Raid". It's true, the portrayal of American Indians in Hollwood movies was not a blanket demonization. Nor can the demonization that DID take place - in features, and especially in serials - be shrugged off as merely "alleged".

By the way, since it was brought up earlier, Indians do NOT call themselves Indians. The majority call themselves "American Indians". Both they and people from India appreciate the distinction.
It is a movie only worth seeing on the very largest screen you can see it on - when it came out I saw it on the last big screen in Madison, WI - the Orpheum. You get overwhelmed by the vastness and beauty of the movie.

While from the slant of white man as evil, in truth, the White Man (from our modern perspective) was evil - we did commit genocide. And the movie does not paint all Indians from the same brush - a good part of the movie is not about white/indian conflict but indian/indian conflict.

I think it really should be seen as an anti-war movie - but not just an anti US movie
I don't like the trivialization of the term "genocide".

I've read a couple of privately printed memoirs of settlers on the frontier, along with more conventional history and don't see this as one long running war.

We had two cultures--one smashed almost completely by disease--rubbing against each other for centuries.

The number of Indians done to death by whites was rather small, compared to the number who just died because...we all die. Yeah, lots of them died. Which is fortunate, because if they hadn't, they'd be two hundred years old.

Due to cultural collapse--see Farley Mowat's "The Desperate People" for a modern example, the Indians did not reproduce their numbers. Of those who lived, many assimilated or intermarried. Only in the UN genocide treaty is intermarriage or assimilation the equivalent of genocide.

This was the kindest, gentlest example of a folkwandering in history.

Nowhere near a genocide.

And if we saw, today, anybody living as a stone-age gardener, we'd either have the Red Cross in there ASAP, or we'd make it an eco-theme park. But in no way would we consider it a particularly wonderful way to live. Or even slightly acceptable.
Agrarian peoples have been displacing hunter-gatherers for 10,000 years, ever since agriculture was developed. It is because agriculture can support a lot more people. It is still happening in parts of Africa, Latin America, Asia.

Nomadic pastoralists (a later social formation) were the only folk who could keep the agrarians at bay, which they did at times with incredible brutality. None of the American 'range wars' came close to the levels of slaughter involved in various periods of nomad expansion in Central Asia.

The various Anglo settler societies are actually comparatively minor cases. They did conceive the new idea of feeling guilty about it, however.
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