May 27, 2012

Dances with Wolves changed everything

The Weight of Being Native American

By Lawrence SampsonWell into the eighties, Indian legislation and tribal lawsuits continued to strengthen and reaffirm Indian sovereignty. With this, social settings also became less tenuous. As a teenager, I became conscious that being Indian had gone from being shameful to acceptable but couldn’t imagine that it would soon enter the realm of being cool. Non-Indians began to identify with Native people and acknowledge or even claim non-existent Indian lineage. All of this would eventually culminate in the release of Kevin Costner’s seminal Dances with Wolves. A positive illustration of Indian life on the plains, it would fuel an explosion of Indian identification among both Indians and non-Indians, with both good and not so good repercussions. It is virtually impossible to overstate the affect this film has had on modern Indian people and society. Awareness, pride, knowledge of our issues, all of it, can be examined in a truly pre and post 'Dances' lexicon. Indian actors were actually used to portray Indian people in a positive light-long a rarity in Hollywood. What education, agitation, and lawsuits had done within Indian society, the release of a single film would do outside of our communities. In America and elsewhere American Indians were finally the thing to be.

A greater awareness of Indian people and Indian traditions brought the snake oil sales men and women who saw social change as financial opportunity. The exploitation and selling of Indian traditions or what were falsely called Indian traditions exploded in the aftermath of Dances. If you had the means you could and can still buy an Indian name or even participate in “real” Indian ceremonies. The leaders of these affairs may not be Indian, but they were after all “taught by an Indian” or through some nebulous means, got in touch with some claimed Indian ancestors. After having land and resources stolen for centuries, it seems the last vestige of our survival, our spirituality, would even be stolen. That legitimate Indian ceremonial leaders do not sell ceremony comes as a shock to many. While travelling abroad I have been approached countless times and asked to do everything from giving the venerable “Indian name,” to impregnate women with an Indian baby, to conduct traditional Indian marriage ceremonies. Being accepted into society comes with a price, it seems. Sometimes I wonder if it was better to be unknown and despised.
Comment:  I remembering hoping Dances with Wolves would change everything. I'm not sure it did. Whether it did or not is an opinion, not a fact.

But if this is even partly true, it's a profound testament to the power of the media. A single work of fiction shifting our view of Indians from negative to positive? Wow.

For more on Dances with Wolves, see Costner Wins in Sculpture Suit and Blake to Script Winnetou Movie.


Anonymous said...

Yeah, but then you'd have to forget that most Americans in the 70s supported AIM. You'd have to forget that there were a series of movies about Indians but really about white guys, and to call this one original is like saying Costner invented soup. While there are no laws proscribing denial of the genocide against Indians (unlike with the Holocaust in Europe), I'd say some 80-90% of Americans define historical actions as genocide.

To impregnate women with an Indian baby? Really? Didn't know eugenics was back en vogue. But yeah, the wannabes are possibly the most annoying thing ever.

Rob said...

Indians have always had some non-Indian support. This support goes all the way back to Bartolomé de las Casas, Roger Williams, and Benjamin Franklin.

The question is when this support reached a tipping point. You could argue that Alcatraz or Wounded Knee II triggered it, but Dances with Wolves is a plausible guess.

In other words, a groundswell of support started in the 1960s and 1970s with AIM, Alcatraz, the Trail of Broken Treaties, Wounded Knee II, and so forth. But it didn't reach the silent majority until Dances with Wolves.

Rob said...

P.S. Are you saying 80-90% of Americans would agree that their ancestors committed genocide against the Indians? I'd guess the percentage is more like 30-40%, at best.

See Colorado Rejects "Genocide" Label for a typical argument on this subject.