By Christina Rose
The film earned $424 million, won 41 awards internationally and seven Academy Awards. The film’s success was a shock to the industry that had presumed Westerns were a dead genre, yet Dances With Wolves became the highest grossing Western and the first to win an Academy Award for Best Picture since 1931.
Describing the effects on mainstream society and stereotypes, he said, “It was a little of both, it kept us in the past, it was a Western but it was a good Western. I am from Fort Peck, and my mom, who never went to the movies, saw it seven times.”
Not everyone had such high praise for the effects of the film. Dr. Leslie D. Hannah, Cherokee, developed a podcast through Kansas State University that featured some of the long lasting outcomes of the film and described his “love/late” relationship with it. “I love that American Indians were finally recognized as human beings but I hate that it happened under these circumstances.”
The circumstances relate to the fact that Indians have been telling their own stories for years, but it took a white, wealthy filmmaker to bring the reality of Natives to the world. “It took a white man to prove what Indians had been saying all along, Indians are human.”
Hannah said Dances With Wolves opened up people’s eyes, but more importantly it opened their minds. “Dances With Wolves made it cool to be Indian,” he said, noting that paradigm shifted as soon as the movie came out.
“Suddenly everybody wanted to be an Indian or at least had an ancestor, usually a Cherokee princess,” he said. “Some may say this is simply the effect of a more politically correct citizenry, but I will counter that claim by saying that politic correctness towards Indians might not have reached that level without this movie.”
Movie critic Roger Ebert took that observation one step further, describing American culture as “nearsighted, incurious and racist, and saw the Indians as a race of ignorant, thieving savages, fit to be shot on sight.”
Ebert called Dances With Wolves a sentimental fantasy where “whites were genuinely interested in learning about a Native American culture.” For Ebert, the real shift in consciousness is that the film’s main character, Lieutenant John J. Dunbar, played by Costner, “is able to look another man in the eye and see the man, rather than his attitudes about the man.”
While most people are grateful for the changes the film brought, Rob Schmidt, writer, blogger and expert in stereotypes still sees one slight fault within all of the film’s strengths. In an email, he wrote, Dances with Wolves reinforced the stereotypes prevalent at the time. It presented Indians as tipi-dwelling, buffalo-hunting, eco-warriors living in peace and harmony with the land.
“True, the film gave us characters who were recognizably human,” Schmidt said. “That was a big step up from the past. But we’re still waiting for Hollywood to show us Indians as doctors, lawyers, and teachers—as modern-day people.”