26 March 2011

Lawrence of South Dakota

Well, here we go again. The ol' silver screen is alight once more with images of Indians swirling through the murky mists of time, replete with all the paint, ponies and feathers demanded by the box office. True, we are not confronted in this instance with the likes of Chuck Conners playing Geronimo, Victor Mature standing in as Chief Crazy Horse, or Jeff Chandler cast in the role of Broken Arrow's Cochise. Nor are we beset by the sort of wanton anti-Indianism which runs so rampant in John Ford's 'Stagecoach,' 'Fort Apache,' 'She Wore a Yellow Ribbon' and 'Sergeant Rutledge.' Even the sort of 'rebel without a cause' trivialization of Indian anger offered by Robert Blake in 'Tell Them Willie Boy Was Here' - or Lou Diamond Philips in 'Young Guns' and 'Young Guns II' - is not at hand. Yet, in some ways the 1990 'Indian movie,' a cinematic extravaganza packaged under the title 'Dances With Wolves,' is just as bad.


This statement has nothing to do with the entirely predictable complaints raised by reviewers in the New York Times, Washington Post and similar bastions of the status quo. Self-evidently, the movie's flaws do not as such reviewers claim rest in a 'negative handling' of whites or 'over-sentimentalizing' of Indians. Rather, although he tries harder than most, producer-director-star Kevin Costner holds closely to certain sympathetic stereotypes of Euroamerican behavior on the 'frontier,' at least insofar as he never quite explains how completely, systematically and persistently the invaders violated every conceivable standard of human decency in the process of conquest. As to these media pundits who have sought to 'debunk' the film's positive portrayal of native people, they may be seen quite simply as liars, deliberately and often wildly inaccurate on virtually every point they have raised. Theirs is the task of (re)asserting the reactionary core of racist mythology so important to conventional justifications for America's 'winning of the West.'

Contrary to the carping of such paleo-critics, Costner did attain several noteworthy breakthroughs in his production. For instance, he invariably cast Indians to fill his script's Indian roles, a Hollywood first. And, to an extent surpassing anything else ever to emerge from tinsel-town - including the celebrated roles of Chief Dan George in 'Little Big Man' (1970) and Will Sampson in 'One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest' (1975) - these Indians were allowed to serve as more than mere props. Throughout the movie, they were called upon to demonstrate motive and emotion, thereby assuming the dimensions of real human beings. Further, the film is technically and geographically accurate, factors superbly captured in the cinematography of Photographic Director Dean Semler and his crew.

But let's not overstate the case. Costner's talents as a film-maker have been remarked upon ad nauseam, not only by the motion picture academy during the orgy of Oscars bestowed upon him and his colleagues, but by the revenues grossed at the nation's theaters and by the misguided and fawning sort of gratitude expressed by some Indians at their culture's having finally been cinematically accorded a semblance of the respect to which it has been entitled all along. The vaunted achievements of 'Dances With Wolves' in this regard should, by rights, be commonplace. That they are not says all that needs saying in this regard.

In any event, the issue is not the manner in which the film's native characters and cultures are presented. The problems lie elsewhere, at the level of the context in which they are embedded. Stripped of its pretty pictures and progressive flourishes in directions and affirmative action hiring, 'Dances With Wolves' is by no means a movie about Indians. Instead, it is at base an elaboration of movieland's 'Great White Hunter' theme, albeit one with a decidedly different ('better') personality than the usual example of the genre, and much more elegantly done. Above all, it follows the formula established by 'Lawrence of Arabia' (1962): Arabs and Arab culture handled in a superficially respectful manner, and framed by some of the most gorgeous landscape photography imaginable. So much the better for sophisticated propagandists to render 'realistic' the undeniably heroic stature of Lt. Lawrence, the film's central - and ultimately most Eurocentric - character.


In order to understand the implications of this structural linkage between the two movies, it is important to remember that despite the hoopla attending Lawrence's calculated gestures to the Bedouins, the film proved to be of absolutely no benefit to the peoples of the Middle East (just ask the Palestinians and Lebanese). To the contrary, its major impact was to put a 'tragic' but far more humane face upon the nature of Britain's imperial pretensions in the region, making colonization of the Arabs seem more acceptable - or at least more inevitable - than might otherwise have been the case. So too do we encounter this contrived sense of sad inevitability in the closing scenes of 'Dances With Wolves,' as Lt. Dunbar and the female 'captive' he has 'recovered' ride off into the proverbial sunset, leaving their Lakota 'friends' to be slaughtered by and subordinated to the United States. Fate closes upon Indian and Arab alike, despite the best efforts of well-intentioned white men like the two good lieutenants. ('We're not all bad, y'know.')

It's all in the past, so the story goes; regrettable, obviously, but comfortably out of reach. Nothing to be done about it, really, at least at this point. Best that everyone - Euroamericans, at any rate - pay a bit of appropriately maudlin homage to 'our heritage,' feel better about themselves for possessing such lofty sentiments, and get on with business as usual. Meanwhile, native people are forced to live, right now, today, in abject squalor under the heel of what may be history's most seamlessly perfected system of internal colonization, out of sight, out of mind, their rights and resources relentlessly consumed by the dominant society. That is, after all, the very business as usual that films like 'Dances With Wolves' helps to perpetuate by diverting attention to their sensitive reinterpretations of yesteryear. So much for Costner's loudly proclaimed desire to 'help.'

If Kevin Costner or anyone else in Hollywood held an honest inclination to make a movie which would alter public perceptions of Native America in some meaningful way, it would, first and foremost, be set in the present day, not in the mid-19th century. It would feature, front and center, the real struggles of living native people to liberate themselves from the oppression which has beset them in the contemporary era, not the adventures of some fictional non-Indian out to save the savage. It would engage directly with concrete issues like expropriation of water rights and minerals, involuntary sterilization, and FBI repression of Indian activists. It would not be made as another 'Pow Wow Highway'-style entertainment venture, or one more trite excursion into spiritual philosophy and the martial arts a la the 'Silly Jack' (AKA 'Billy Jack') movies. Cinema focusing on the socio-political and economic realities of Native America in the same fashion as these themes were developed with regard to Latin America in 'Salvador' (1986), 'El Norte' (1983) and 'Under Fire' (1983). Such efforts are woefully long overdue.

On second thought, maybe it wouldn't be such a good idea. Hollywood's record on Indian topics is such that, if it were to attempt to produce a script on, say, the events on Pine Ridge during the mid-70s, it would probably end up being some twisted plot featuring an Indian FBI agent (undoubtedly a cross between Mike Hammer and Tonto) who jumps in to save his backwards reservation brethren from the evil plots of corrupt tribal officials working with sinister corporate executives, and maybe even a few of his own bureau superiors. They'd probably cast a nice blond guy like Val Kilmer as the agent-hero and call it something Indian-sounding, like 'Thunderheart.' It stands to reason, after all: now that we're burdened with the legacy of 'Lawrence of South Dakota,' we can all look forward to what will amount to 'South Dakota Burning.'

[This article is by Ward Churchill and was originally published under the title 'Lawrence of South Dakota: Dances With Wolves and the Maintenance of the American Empire' in Churchill's book of essays Fantasies of the Master Race: Literature, Cinema and the Colonization of American Indians (City Light Books, 1998). It has been slightly edited for inclusion here.]

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