The movie takes place in and around Monument Valley. The narration tries to cover this by calling it "American Southwest." But the Cheyenne were encamped in Oklahoma, which isn't the Southwest and which looks nothing like southern Utah.
This is a prime example of locating Indians in the wilderness "out there." The effect is to make them seem remote and exotic. The real Cheyenne probably met lots of homesteaders when they trekked through Oklahoma and Nebraska, but here they're out of sight and out of mind.
This setting also commingles the Cheyenne with the real Indians of the Southwest, particularly the Navajo. The effect is to make all Indians seem the same. According to Ford's movies, they all lived, suffered, and died in some barren wasteland.
You have to pity them--and here I mean all Indians--and shake your head at their folly. Who would choose to live in a desert when America had so much prime real estate? Although we understand the Indians' attachment to the land intellectually, we don't feel this is a fit place for human habitation.
The stark, unearthly Monument Valley is just about the polar opposite of what we call civilization. So white men live in towns, homes, and forts while Indians live amid dirt, rocks, and cacti. In other words, white men are civilized and Indians aren't.
Cheyenne Autumn isn't a masterpiece, but it has many good attributes. It's worth seeing for what it says about the changing perception of Indians. Rob's rating: 7.5 of 10.