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The Movies: Dances with History- Cinematic Portrayals of Native Americans

October 2019

Hollywood has had a long and rocky relationship with the American Indian.

Hollywood has had a long and rocky relationship with the American Indian. It has treated him with a fickle mix of sentimentality, sympathy, savagery, and superficiality. This uneven and never quite satisfactory portrayal owes itself not to design, but rather to Hollywood’s penchant for the box-office bottom line.

The courtship began promisingly. Whether moved by nostalgia for a vanished way of life or by guilt in bringing about its demise, moviegoers of the silent-film era wanted their Indians to be persons of integrity, goodness, and strength. The incipient industry answered the call. In 1909 pioneering filmmaker D. W. Griffith directed The Red Man’s View. In 14 minutes Griffith conveyed the Indian’s fate on the Western frontier with remarkable tenderness.

Starting a trend that has continued to this day, there is little nuance in the film: covetous white men drive a heroic and deeply wronged Indian village from their country and into a barren wasteland. The Red Man’s View can be found online and is well worth viewing.

Cecil B. DeMille capitalized on popular taste in 1914 with The Squaw Man, the story of an English aristocrat wrongly accused of embezzlement who journeys West, marries an Indian woman, and after her suicide takes their mixed-blood child back to England. Not only was the movie Hollywood’s first important, full-length feature film, it was also a commercial success that launched DeMille’s career.

As times change, heroes change. Westerns such as John Ford’s 1939 epic Stagecoach, in which John Wayne and a handful of white travelers fight their way through Apache country, depicted Indians as implacable obstacles to advancing civilization. There were a few cinematic exceptions. In 1950 the Oscar-nominated Broken Arrow crafted a complex and sympathetic treatment of Apache chief Cochise, but most often Indians were cast as two-dimensional savages.

The Civil Rights era of the 1960s saw public attitudes shift back in favor of Native Americans. Hollywood dramatized the white man’s guilt in films such as Little Big Man and Soldier Blue.


Whatever their biases, movies about American Indians have shared two shortcomings: a disregard for historical truth and, generally speaking, a failure to convey Indian culture and conflicts objectively. The academy-award-winning Dances with Wolves offers a striking case in point. The heroes of the film (other than Kevin Costner) are members of a Sioux band, unaware of the westward tide of white settlement and struggling to hold their hunting lands against

the Pawnees, who commit the only Indian atrocities in the movie—murdering an inoffensive mule driver, butchering a family of white settlers, and attacking the Sioux seemingly without provocation.


In its depiction of the Sioux and Pawnees, Dances with Wolves turned history on its head. The Sioux were not the noble innocents the film would have viewers believe; they were a warlike people who entered the West from Minnesota in the 18th century and then pursued a ruthless war of conquest against other tribes. Among their victims were the Pawnees. Particularly egregious was Dances with Wolves’ portrayal of the Pawnees as wanton murderers of whites. In reality Pawnees were close allies of the government, and their scouts protected Union Pacific Railroad work crews against Sioux and Cheyenne attacks.

Contrary to Dances with Wolves’ central premise that a Plains Indian band could live in pure and perfect harmony with nature far from whites in the 1860s, the Sioux of that day knew the whites all too well. The army had dealt the Sioux a devastating defeat a decade earlier, and in 1865 the

Sioux repelled a new thrust by the army into their country.

No band was so isolated as to be unaware of these happenings, or be untainted by white culture. For all its poignancy and beauty as a film, Dances with Wolves nonetheless reminds us that cinematic portrayals of Native Americans remain on the fringe of the historical frontier.