January 06, 2011

Any change since Dances with Wolves?

Indians in Aspic

By Michael Dorris

Published: February 24, 1991
When I saw "Dances With Wolves" at an advance screening, I predicted that it would be less than a box-office smash. Though spectacular to look it, it struck me as too long, too predictable, too didactic to attract a large audience. Twelve Academy Award nominations and $100 million in revenue later, was I ever wrong. In fact, the movie probably sells tickets precisely because it delivers the old-fashioned Indians that the ticket-buying audience expects to find. Dunbar is our national myth's everyman--handsome, sensitive, flexible, right-thinking. He passes the test of the frontier, out-Indians the Indians, achieves a pure soul by encountering and surmounting the wilderness.

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?
Comment:  The answers to Dorris's 1991 questions are no and no. There was no tidal wave of good will toward Indians.

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.


Anonymous said...

I don't know if anyone really thought 9/11 made it okay to discriminate against Indians, just returned it to the chorus of "quit your bitching". Which, of course, is the standard right-wing response to everything.

Mamalayne said...

"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."

Bingo. [No pun intended.]

You nailed it. The only thing that matters in this country is money. We live in a plutocracy. Those that have, work to keep it. The rest of us squabble like a pack of dogs over the leavings.

Burt said...

Yes it is true that money rules a capitalist nation, but if one really looks at "whom" holds the money and "where" it always seems to end up, you can see that just because one has a job; pays taxes and plays by the rules, that does not necessarily give voice to real change and progress in that taxpayers community.

There is a concerted effort by Congress and states to KEEP natives and minorities at bay, but hasn't that always been the game?

Depending on where your American heart leads you, in my opinion, slavery still exists. It has only shifted towards the tax base of the working class Americans that send their young and spouses to foreign soil for the enrichment and prosperity of CEOs that are untouchable yet pull the strings of the economy; politics; media; etc,.

Dances With Wolves was a repeat of the shallow, but honest attempt to pull natives into the spotlight, but keep their welfare and social status behind leathers and feathers. Hollywood and certain tribes have a historic love affair. The Souix (A Man Called Horse), Cheyenne (Windwalker), Apaches (take your pick), and everyones oldie but goodie the Cherokees have had their cultures and peoples splashed across the big screen throughout cinema history.

What America really doesn't want to know, see or hear, are the real stories about Ira Hayes; Jim Thorpe; Geronimo; Sitting Bull, (and more recently, Jesse Ed Davis, whom for some reason never gets mentioned or credited on albums he played on) and how much damage their prospective tribes went through so George W's family could land him in the Whitehouse and keep the frat boys across America drunk and high.

I was also not very impressed with Costners follow-up attempt entitled, "500 Nations" that actually dealt with only a handful of "nations" and besides "Dances With Wolves" characters Kickingbird and Ten Bears were Kiowa and Comanche men.