By Michael Dorris
Published: February 24, 1991
Yet, if "Dances With Wolves" had been about people who happen to be Indians, rather than about Indians (uniformly stoic, brave, nasty to their enemies, nice to their friends), it might have stood a better chance of acting as a bridge between societies that have for too long woodenly characterized each other.
With such tremendous popularity, the film is sure to generate a bubble of sympathy for the Sioux, but hard questions remain: Will this sentiment be practical, translating into public support for native American religious freedom cases before the Supreme Court, for restoration of Lakota sacred lands (the Black Hills) or water rights, for tribal sovereignty, for providing the money desperately needed by reservation health clinics? Pine Ridge is the most economically impoverished corner of America today, the Census Bureau says, but will its modern Indian advocates in business suits, men and women with laptop computers and perfect English, be the recipients of a tidal wave of good will?
Or will it turn out, once again, that the only good Indians--the only Indians whose causes and needs we can embrace--are lodged safely in the past, wrapped neatly in the blankets of history, magnets for our sympathy because they require nothing of us but tears in a dark theater?
I'd like to think Dances With Wolves advanced the cause by increasing awareness of Indians. If not a tidal wave, it may have generated a steady stream of good will. It may have made everything from Hollywood movies and TV shows to Native American Heritage Month to the National Museum of the American Indian more possible.
But several factors washed out that good will in the last two decades. Among them were the public backlash against Indian casinos, Bush's uncompassionate conservatism against minorities, and 9/11, which made it more acceptable to denigrate brown-skinned people. I'm not sure people think any more favorably of Indians than they did in 1991.
If anything has advanced Indians, it's probably the economic and political clout that came with gaming revenues. Tribes with successful casinos are doing notably better than they were 20 years ago. "Money talks" in America; we respect people with cash.
For more on the subject, see Movies Convey America's "Master Narrative," Valenti: Movies Are Merely Movies, and Ups and Downs of Hollywood Indians.