Dances with Wolves - Native Perspectives
Part 2 of Three-Part Dances with Wolves Series
Dances with Wolves was not only revolutionary for the western genre, it was a watershed for Native American actors and actresses in film and television productions. It also revolutionized the way in which Indian narratives were presented. The amazing attention to detail of Native culture and the fact that more than a quarter of the film was spoken in Lakota with English subtitles were both ground-breaking. Numerous Native American scholars were employed as consultants to ensure the film’s integrity in representing Native life. The spectacular costumes were one area of exhaustive research and garnered a Best Costumes Oscar for the film (one of seven).
According to Indian Country, one of the leading tribal news outlets, Dances with Wolves (DWW) was a tremendous boon for the Native acting community. In 1985, only 87 Native actors were employed by the Actors Guild. After DWW, that number increased to 436 in 1993.
Famous Cherokee actor, Wes Studi, said that the movie was a turning point for his career. And the 1990 reception of the film at the American Indian Film Festival was nothing less than euphoric. Finally…FINALLY…Hollywood was showing a human dimension to Native characters. “Many people still recognize me from Dances with Wolves,” says Studi, even though he now has nearly 100 film and television credits. He says that Dances with Wolves “set a standard followed by many films afterward that dared to look into what made Indians tick. No more wooden Indians. Non-Native people got an inside look at us and how it must have been 200 years ago.”
But not all Native Americans were happy with the film. Native activist Russell Means criticized the incorrect-gendered translation (see #4 below in trivia list). The Pawnee were troubled that they were depicted as vicious killers, when they felt that they were the tribe that had been savaged by the Lakota. And the Comanche were angered that the script, which was originally their story, was changed to a Lakota narrative.
But the sea-change in cinema could not be denied. What is clear is that Dances with Wolves was a great start but, says Studi, Hollywood cannot rest on its laurels. The film industry needs to avoid stereotypes of Native Americans, he adds. It cannot fall back into “lazy writing and storytelling of earlier Westerns.”
Here's some Native American trivia about the making of Dances with Wolves:
1. Because of DWW’s immense success, attention to the cultural accuracy of Native American culture, and empathetic treatment of Native Americans, the Sioux Nation adopted Kevin Costner as an honorary member.
2. Dances with Wolves employed many dozens of Native American actors, including leading names such as Graham Greene, Wes Studi, Tantoo Cardinal, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Rodney Grant, Nathan Lee Chasing His Horse, Michael Spears, and Jimmy Herman.
3. Much of the dialogue was spoken in Lakota, with English subtitles, a revolutionary approach for a western. The Lakota portion of the script was translated by a 60-year-old teacher named Doris Leader Charge at Sinte Gleska University (SGU), with assistance from Albert White Hat, the chair of SGU’s Lakota Studies Department. SGU is an accredited, private American Indian tribal college in Mission, South Dakota, on the Rosebud Reservation. Kevin Costner convinced Doris Leader Charge to play the part of Pretty Shield, wife of Chief Ten Bears, portrayed by Floyd Red Crow Westerman.
4. Russell Means, a Lakota activist, criticized DWW’s translation, saying that Lakota is a “gendered” language and when he and others saw the movie, they found it amusing that the men were speaking as woman. (The gender aspects of the Lakota script were omitted because Lakota is very difficult to learn and many actors had trouble mastering the language. So, the gender lessons were omitted to help the actors.)
5. The legendary Graham Greene, who played Kicking Bird, an aging holy man with arthritic posture, put a slice of bologna in each moccasin that caused him to walk with a slightly awkward comportment.
6. When Oneida Graham Greene was told that most of the movie would be in Lakota, he said, “I don’t speak that.” (However, he learned his Lakota lines so well, his speaking in Lakota appeared effortless and very convincing.)
7. When the Native American actors rode over the ridge upon the scene of butchered buffalo littered across the prairie, they were visibly shocked. The huge heaps of raw flesh with the horned buffalo heads still on them were models, however. Not real.
8. Stands with a Fist ‘s costume adorned with elk ivories was a very precious antique garment with 48 elk teeth, that required 24 animals to make. The “ivories” are the two back upper teeth of the elk, and highly prized.
9. The original Dances with Wolves was a Comanche story, not Lakota. But New Mexico, one of the states considered for shooting, did not have nearly enough buffalo and it was very difficult to locate Native American’s who spoke Comanche. So, South Dakota (which had the largest buffalo herd in the world) was chosen. Because both Lakota and Comanche were horse cultures, the transition worked.
10. Stands with a Fist’s story of a white woman in a native culture being abused by tribeswomen was also the story of the famous Cynthia Ann Parker, the white girl captured by the Comanche when she was nine. She also knocked down an abusive native woman, then was respected by the tribe. She later married a Comanche brave, but was recaptured by white soldiers many years later.
PHOTOS: (1) Legendary Graham Greene, an Oneida, plays the Lakota holy man, Kicking Bird, who searches for a way his people can survive in a changing world. Greene also acted in Lonesome Dove, Thunderheart, 500 Nations, Grey Owl, Into the West, Longmire, Wind River, and many others. (2) Wes Studi, a Cherokee, plays the leading Pawnee warrior who is a mortal enemy of the Lakota. Studi played in Last of the Mohicans, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Comanche Moon, Into the West, Streets of Laredo, 500 Nations, Skinwalker, Hostiles, Hell on Wheels, Wind River, many others. Some from the Pawnee Nation criticized DWW for depicting the Pawnee very negatively and claimed that, in fact, the Pawnee were more victims of the Lakota than the reverse. (3) Rodney A. Grant, an Omaha, played Wind in His Hair, a Lakota warrior who resented all white presence, especially John Dunbar’s presence on the prairie. Grant’s long hair down to his waist was all his own! Grant would also play Crazy Horse in the 1991 movie, Son of the Morning Star, and appear in Lakota Moon, Geronimo, Dark Blood, Wild, Wild West, many others. (4) Dakota Indian Floyd Red Crow Westerman, also known as Kanghi Duta, played old Chief Ten Bears in DWW. He also appeared in Son of the Morning Star, The Broken Chain, Lakota Woman, Buffalo Girls, Grey Owl, Comanche Moon, many others. (5) Canadian Cree Tantoo Cardinal is perhaps the most recognized native actress in North America, She plays Black Shawl, Kicking Bird’s wife. She also appeared in Legends of the Fall, Lonesome Dove, Black Robe, Smoke Signals, Tecumseh: The Last Warrior, and many others. (6) Mary McDonnell is not Native but played Stands with a Fist, a white girl who integrated into the Lakota culture when her family was killed by the Pawnee and she was rescued by Kicking Bird. After appearing in DWW, Mary became a long-time supporter of the tribal college, Sinte Gleska University, on the Brule Rosebud Reservation. Mary’s acting experience with Pine Ridge and Rosebud Reservations first inspired her to support SGU. (7) Lakota Sioux actor, Nathan Lee Chasing His Horse, played the boy, Smiles A Lot. He also appeared in Into the West, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, DreamKeeper, and many others. (8) Doris Leader Charge, was a Lakota instructor at Sinte Gleska University and translated the DWW script to Lakota. She also did the translation for Son of the Morning Star. She played Chief Ten Bear’s wife, Pretty Shield. (9) Jimmy Herman was a Canadian Chipewyan and Dene who played Stone Calf, a medicine man. (10) Lakota Michael Spears plays the boy Otter and went on to appear in Into the West, Yellow Rock, Longmire, and has also hosted the American Indian Film Institute Awards.
You may find these related posts interesting:
-Dances with Wolves-30th Anniversary (Part 1)
-Dances with Wolves-Film Scout Interview (Part 3)
"Dances with Wolves-Native Perspectives" originally posted June 28, 2019 on Facebook
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