“If you fly over this land now,” said the actor and director Kevin Costner while shooting Dances With Wolves in South Dakota, “nobody’s here, not really. There’s Denver and Kansas City and Rapid City over here. But the reality is—we didn’t need to have it.” This is what Dances With Wolves, a sumptuous new work of romantic arcadianism, hugely popular with the young and ecologically aware, is about. The seizure of Indian lands and the despoliation of Indian cultures in the present territory of the United States are “our Brazilian rain forest,” explains Costner, who has dedicated his film to “the truth” about the Indians.
It is unclear from Costner’s “we didn’t need to have it” whether he is referring to the whole country west of the Mississippi—which would have given him no place to grow up, since he is from near Los Angeles—or whether he imagines that we could have established flourishing, modern, high-technology urban communities in Los Angeles, Kansas City, and Denver, with compact discs, fax machines, and cellular telephones, while leaving the vast expanses of the American West to a stone-age people who knew neither writing, nor metal of any kind, nor the wheel. Costner seems to think that there are no real people out there, or perhaps that they do not live significant lives, but in fact there are twice as many people today in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, as there were in all branches of the Sioux family together at the time the Sioux first encountered the white man.
Romantic idealization of Indians is not new in American history. For many, the Indian was Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “noble savage.” Although most Americans who were captured by Indians and survived the experience came back with hair-raising accounts of brutality, those who traveled among them under more favorable circumstances, like Francis Parkman in his celebrated Oregon Trail or the painter George Catlin, both in the 1840’s, often brought back a more attractive picture. (Catlin was convinced that the Indians were descended from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, and he was not alone in this.)
Costner, naturally, is at great pains to demonstrate that his Buffalo Indians were not inferior to the invading white man, but in fact were much superior at things that really count. To do so he simply omits everything from period Indian life that modern film audiences would find repugnant, and lays heavy stress on what he considers its strong point: that Indians, as opposed to the white brutes who replaced them, lived in harmony with nature and were environmentally responsible.
Not that the assembled idealisms of Dances With Wolves have hurt it at the box office; quite the contrary. It was far and away the number-one commercial hit of quality American films in the last months of 1990, second only to Home Alone in the overall standings and easily beating Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky V. (The novel on which Dances With Wolves is based has been at the top of the New York Times list of best-selling paperbacks for months.) Perhaps symptomatically, Robert Redford’s $45-million, pro-Castro Havana and the Sean Connery-John le Carré Russia House, both released with some fanfare as “Christmas movies,” were doing miserably, the first, according to Variety, “among the worst major openings of the year,” and the second not much better, dropping like a stone in its third week.
The environmental aspect of Dances With Wolves is not the only thing that has made it popular. Like most first-time directors, Costner is heavily dependent on his cinematographer, and Dean Semler has served him well: the resulting movie is very handsome to look at. The herds of buffalo thundering in swirling eddies are spectacular. Indian costumes are beautiful—nothing like the way the Sioux appear in early photographs, but exactly the way Indians dress in the imagination of, perhaps, the couturier Yves Saint Laurent. Most surprisingly, performances by the movie’s Indian actors are excellent, one of the principal roles being played by an Oneida Indian from Canada named, of all things, Graham Greene. And the story of Dances With Wolves is, after all, “make-believe.” In that great buffalo hunt in the sky, perhaps we can all imagine ourselves Indian.
Movie critics, not a knowledgeable group when it comes to history, generally adored the film, and even one of the few who dissented nevertheless assured her readers that it was not “extremist” or “revisionist” but a “middle-of-the-road epic.” But there is nothing middle-of-the-road about Dances With Wolves, and if it is not revisionist, one wonders what is.
The film’s hero, Lieutenant John Dunbar of the Union Army (played by Costner), is grievously wounded in a nameless battle in the Civil War. Once he recovers, the Army sends him to a deserted post in the West, Indian country. A man who will later find Indians sweet-smelling (which conflicts with contemporary accounts), Dunbar is much offended by the evil smell of the American wagonmaster who transports him westward. Dunbar, we sense, is a man dissatisfied with American civilization. A man without family or friends, no doubt in harmony with nature himself, he is quite happy in total isolation at his one-man army post on the Plains. After incidental brushes with nearby Sioux, he decides to make a clear-cut, friendly approach, galloping off toward a Sioux encampment in the dress uniform of an officer of the Union cavalry, fully armed, the stars and stripes flapping in the breeze at the end of his staff.
His actual entrance to the Sioux encampment, however, is judicious. On the way, by sheer coincidence, Dunbar encounters a Sioux woman who appears to have injured herself and is bleeding. It emerges that she is a young widow who, in mourning for her late husband and in accordance with Sioux custom, is gashing her legs in grief. Although this is one of the story’s few authentic references to Sioux culture (the Sioux made a great cult of self-inflicted pain), movie audiences have absolutely no way of discerning that the woman is slashing her legs deliberately and can only assume she has had an accident. She does not look or act like an Indian at all, and in fact conveniently turns out to be white, having been captured by Indians as a little girl. Dunbar succors her, and thus by an amazing combination of circumstances ends up making his approach to the Sioux camp bareheaded, without his stars and stripes, carrying a helpless, wounded woman in his arms. Even so he is at first rebuffed, but then eventually well received.
As the days go by, and Dunbar (called by the Indians “Dances With Wolves” after he frisks around with a wolf) spends more and more time with his remarkably peace-loving Sioux, he becomes at one with the world at last. But on the eve of departing with them for their winter campground, he remembers he has left his journal at his old military post and returns to get it. Fatal mistake. The post is now swarming with uncouth, loathsome U.S. cavalrymen. These American soldiers are truly obnoxious. He refuses to speak English to them, and gives them a piece of his mind in subtitled Sioux. They take umbrage, and slap him in irons, but Dunbar’s Sioux friends attack and rescue him. During his escape he kills an American soldier. At this point Dunbar, now a renegade, becomes a liability even to his Sioux friends because the murderous white man will come after them if only because of him. Sadly he bids them adieu, riding off to Canada in the snow with the Indianized girl he has taken to wife, a Sioux without a country.
What is askew in this picture? In the middle of the Civil War, 1862, the year of Antietam, the Sioux, threatened by the ever westward movement of the frontier, exploded in what the historians Robert M. Utley and Wilcomb Washburn call “one of the most savage and bloody Indian uprisings in history.” On the first day alone, a “nightmare of fire and death” took the lives of 400 settlers. Led by Little Crow, the Sioux swept through the Redwood Agency in Minnesota, massacring the men, burning the buildings, and carrying the women and children off into captivity. No one was spared. In a week almost 1,000 white settlers had died at the hands of the Sioux. “In wide-ranging parties,” writes Utley in The Indian Frontier, “they spread over the countryside, killing, raping, pillaging, and burning.”
Also torturing. Some 30,000 frontier settlers fled to the East, and the outbreak kept the entire Great Plains in turmoil for fully eight years. The Union Army, although short of men because of the war in the East, began operations against the Sioux immediately. Is it probable that a Union cavalry officer in the mid-1860’s would pick this moment, with the Sioux on the warpath, to go off like Dunbar on a mission of such innocent good-neighborliness? No officer of the Union Army ever defected to any Indian tribe.
Moreover, even if there had been no violent outbreak in 1862, the Indians of the Great Plains routinely regarded any stranger who suddenly appeared in their hunting grounds as a marauder, and would be likely, if they could manage it, to kill him on the spot. For these Indians were themselves marauders. Thousands and thousands of accounts, some from observers quite well-disposed toward them, describe the celebrated Plains tribes as being absolutely merciless, raiding and scalping and murdering and torturing captives for entertainment—at war with their fellow Indians far more than with whites. True, they were not racist—a child carried off in his early years by a band of Indians was considered one of their own, and Indians cried bitterly when the child, if white, was taken from them—but they treated adult Indians from alien tribes and all other outsiders with no more feeling than if they were insects.
Clark Wissler, the late curator emeritus of the department of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, sums up the evidence in his classic Indians of the United States:
One thing is certain, the whites did not bring war to the Dakota [Sioux]. For centuries they had been schooled in arms. Their raides were never against other Dakota tribes, but that was the limit of their friendliness, for not even other members of their Siouan family were safe.
Horse stealing was a passion. An almost equal urge was to kill men. Both were frequently attempted in the same raid, and great social acclaim went to the man returning with both scalps and horses.
The great American historian Francis Parkman wrote of the Sioux, with whom he stayed in their glory days, “War is the breath of their nostrils. Against most of the neighboring tribes they cherish a rancorous hatred, transmitted from father to son, inflamed by constant aggression and retaliation.” Even the Harriet Beecher Stowe of the Indian movement, Helen Hunt Jackson, in her Century of Dishonor (1881), called the Sioux the “most powerful and warlike of all the Northwestern tribes.”
In the current explosion of pro-Indian books the Sioux occupy a position of choice. To find an unflattering word about them one has to go to an adversarial work such as the excellent new Pawnee Passage by Martha Royce Blaine, former chief curator of museums of the Oklahoma Historical Society and wife of Pawnee head chief Garland J. Blaine. The outnumbered Pawnee, who had a particularly bitter relationship with the Sioux, called them Tsu-ra-rat, or “Throat Cutters.” According to Mrs. Blaine, the fiercest and most predatory Sioux bands were the Brulé and Oglala. The Brulé pattern of warfare included bringing back heads, feet, hands, and other body parts to their camps, where they were “carried impaled on sticks, and the scalped heads were dragged through the village amidst cries of triumph and finally pounded with rocks and shot at by young boys.” Mrs. Blaine writes that the Sioux “killing of women who were population and economic producers” took a terrible toll, with the overall Pawnee population dropping in a period of 45 years (1830 to 1875) from as many as 12,000 to slightly over 2,000. This helps explain why the Pawnee should have wanted to do such an otherwise repellent thing as side with the white man, providing highly effective scouts against the Sioux for the U.S. Cavalry. In Dances With Wolves the Pawnee appear in this hateful role, as unqualified villains.
It is hard to reconcile accounts like Mrs. Blaine’s not only with Dances With Wolves but with the dreamy image of Indians now widespread throughout America’s emancipated classes. Thus, an $80,000 full-page advertisement that recently ran in the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and Chicago Tribune, soliciting funds for the construction of a National Museum of the American Indian, had this to say about the Indians:
. . . Their insight into the delicate balance between man and nature offers us a timely environmental message. Their ethic of “sharing” provides an inspirational model for today’s society. Their systems of governance paralleled many of the concepts our forefathers used to frame the Constitution. And their view of the universe and insights into astronomy may well help us chart our future in space. . . .
One wonders with what degree of reverence the proposed museum will approach the subject of scalping, practiced robustly by Plains Indians on the living as on the dead (but making only a discreet appearance in Dances With Wolves). For scalping was ecologically quite sound: scalps were used for tent-pole decoration, as ornaments on a horse’s bridle. Surplus hair was woven into the warrior’s own hair, sometimes with bits of ribbon. Nothing was wasted, everything was recycled. And what about polygamy, likewise practiced by the Sioux and likewise unmentioned in Dances With Wolves’? All those healthy young widows with gashed legs were similarly recycled and put to good use to help maintain the “delicate balance between man and nature.”
Of all the controversies surrounding the Indian Wars, the greatest concerns the events of 1890 at Wounded Knee in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation of South Dakota. Wounded Knee as an icon of the Indian movement was not always with us. It slumbered for three-quarters of a century, in fact, and only after Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee(1970)—and then after 200 members of the American Indian Movement occupied the site for 71 days in 1973 demanding a Senate investigation into the condition of the American Indian—did Wounded Knee make it into the big time. National Public Radio, on the recent 100th anniversary of Wounded Knee, ran not one but two long, tearful segments with elderly Sioux women saying they could never forget their inhumane treatment at the hands of the white man.
How did the battle come about? The anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn considers the Sioux Ghost Dances which led up to Wounded Knee a particularly interesting example of a religious phenomenon associated with colonization. “One of the best established generalizations of social anthropology,” he writes, “is that when the pressure of whites upon aborigines reaches a certain point there will be a revival of the ancient religion, or a partially new cult of messianic type will arise.” In the 1880’s the buffalo were disappearing, and word reached the desperate Sioux—who despised farming as woman’s work—that a Paiute Indian in Nevada could talk to the dead and see into the future. Wovoka, who had learned of Jesus and other great medicine men described in the white man’s Bible, said he had died, visited God in heaven, and foresaw a world of eternal life without sickness or want.
Soon many Sioux were dancing and throwing themselves into trances in which they dreamed of a world filled with buffalo and free of the white man. Wovoka preached peace, but many Sioux transformed his message into a call to arms to sweep away the white man. The emotional pitch was high. Ghost Dance leaders invented a “ghost shirt,” which would protect Sioux warriors against the white man’s bullets, and “hostile” Ghost Dancers, all armed, gathered in the northwest corner of the Pine Tree Reservation. Friendly Indians warned authorities that a revolt was under way and that a general massacre was coming. The Army, not unreasonably, began to concentrate large bodies of troops near the major Sioux reservations. Word came that the world’s most renowned Indian, Sitting Bull, had embraced the Ghost Dancers. Another Wild West celebrity, Buffalo Bill Cody, drinking heavily, was careening about in the vicinity followed by a pack of newsmen.
Learning that Sitting Bull was about to join the Ghost Dancers in their stronghold, authorities ordered Indian police to arrest him. Here there is little controversy. A mass of threatening Ghost Dancers outnumbered the Indian police four to one outside Sitting Bull’s cabin, and one Ghost Dancer, Catch-the-Bear, raised his rifle and fired at Bull Head, the police lieutenant. As the policeman fell he fired back, missing Catch-the-Bear and hitting Sitting Bull instead. Some say he shot Sitting Bull deliberately. In any event, Sergeant Red Tomahawk, a fellow member of the Indian police, killed Sitting Bull with one shot—at which point wild fighting broke out, ended only by the arrival of a squadron of the Seventh Cavalry. Result: ten dead, all Sioux.
Wounded Knee, two weeks later on December 29, 1890, was worse. The Seventh Cavalry, Custer’s old regiment, was disarming a Sioux band under Big Foot, a Ghost Dancer who had lost faith in the new religion—but the Union general commanding the Seventh Cavalry did not know this. The key to the whole terrible incident is that the Sioux were convinced that if they gave up their weapons they would be massacred. It is not possible to dismiss the notion that at the root of their fear lay the fact that massacres were a pattern of Sioux life—they themselves had certainly massacred Custer’s men after the battle of the Little Bighorn.
A fanatical Sioux medicine man named Yellow Bird now began the Ghost Dance, chanting a holy song, urging the warriors to fight and assuring them that the white man’s bullets could not penetrate their sacred garments. Then an unbalanced young Sioux named Black Coyote, under circumstances still debated, got off a wild shot. A half-dozen Sioux warriors threw down their blankets and leveled their Winchesters. They fired, the cavalry fired. Murderous hand-to-hand fighting broke out. A bullet carried away the top of Captain Wallace’s head. Another shattered Lieutenant Gresham’s arm. A volley killed Big Foot and most of the other chiefs.
Smoke and dust obscured the battlefield. Women and children were mixed in with the men. More than 30 dead and wounded U.S. cavalrymen lay on the ground before the cavalry opened up with its Hotchkiss guns, 50 rounds a minute, firing at all groups of Indians that could be seen firing at U.S. soldiers. Despite repeated shouted orders not to fire at women and children, many went down. A Sioux interpreter who had taken the name of Philip Wells, and whose nose had just been nearly cut off by a Sioux warrior’s knife, cried out repeatedly in the Sioux language, “The white man is merciful to the wounded enemy when he is harmless. . . . I am a man of your own blood who is talking to you!” He saved some lives. One wounded man who surrendered said of the medicine man Yellow Bird, “He is our murderer. If not for him inciting our young men we would all be alive and happy.”
Was Wounded Knee a massacre? Counting the two days of fighting, 28 cavalrymen were killed, as against 128 Sioux. Without for a moment minimizing the deaths of women and children, almost all of them killed by the cavalry’s Hotchkiss guns, I submit that when a military force loses one for every four on the other side, it has taken part in a military engagement.
One thing that is today curiously forgotten is that the Ninth U.S. Cavalry, which swung into action on the second day of fighting—coming to the relief of Custer’s Seventh Cavalry under heavy Sioux attack—was a black regiment. The Ninth, based at Fort McKinney in Wyoming and under the command of General Guy Henry, was known as “Henry’s Brunettes” and also, from its overcoats, as the “Buffaloes.” On Christmas eve they were ordered out in the biting cold on a scouting mission to South Dakota’s Black Hills. After fording a river through the ice, their uniforms frozen stiff, they dismounted at four in the morning on Christmas day. No Indians. At nine on the evening of the 29th, after 42 miles of fruitless scouting during the day, a courier brought word of fighting at Wounded Knee where, it was said, 5,000 Sioux were mustering to attack the Pine Ridge Agency. The troopers remounted, off again on a 50-mile forced march through a freezing gale. They rod all night, reaching the Agency at dawn, but had to ride out again immediately to rescue their own wagon train, which had come under Sioux attack. One cavalryman was killed and several wounded.
Hardly had the Buffaloes returned from this engagement when word came that the Catholic Drexel Mission seven miles up the valley was now under attack. The Seventh Cavalry was ordered out and was soon hotly engaged, but two hours later a courier reported it was in danger of being overwhelmed, under withering fire from the Sioux who had secured a commanding position on the surrounding ridges. Once more, the Buffaloes were ordered to mount, this time to storm the Sioux emplacements on the heights, an assault they carried out with great success—in an account of the time, “rescuing their hard-pushed white comrades” and “saving the day.” Any massacre of Indians was not recorded.
In the opinion of the military historian Cyrus Townsend Brady, writing in 1904, the Ninth had carried out one of the most prodigious rides in the history of the U.S. cavalry. Robert M. Utley, in his The Last Days of the Sioux Nation (1963), writes:
These black troopers rode 100 miles without food or sleep to save the Seventh cavalrymen, who were slowly being crushed by the Sioux in the valley of the Catholic Mission. . . . [A]fter sweeping the ridges with carbine and pistol, [they] lifted the white troopers out of the pocket with such grace that after the battle was over the men of both regiments hugged one another on the field.
In the age of Jim Crow, this was a singular event between black and white military units.
The storming of the ridges by the black Ninth Cavalry must have been known to Dee Brown, since Utley’s The Last Days of the Sioux Nation is one of his two principal sources for the events he records in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. But, although ostensibly concerned with U.S. race relations, he chooses not to mention the fact—or anything else favorable to the United States—in his highly selective book. I cannot even speculate on the mental gyrations that hearing of General Henry’s Buffaloes would produce in Kevin Costner.