This Date in Native History: It was 23 years ago, on November 4, 1990, that the film Dances with Wolves debuted to unexpected success beginning a new era of films featuring Natives in mainstream media.
The film earned $424 million, won 41 awards internationally and seven Academy Awards. The film’s success was a shock to the industry that had presumed Westerns were a dead genre, yet Dances With Wolves became the highest grossing Western and the first to win an Academy Award for Best Picture since 1931.
The movie was originally a book written by Michael Blake. It was passed over by 30 publishers before being picked up by Fawcett Publications. Kevin Costner, a little known actor with no previous directing experience at the time, bought the rights and threw himself into the project.
The film ultimately won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Film Editing, and Best Music, Original Score.
Costner was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role and Graham Greene, Oneida from the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, Canada, was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.
The day before the film’s national release it played at the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco, California. Michael Smith, the Sioux founder-president of AIFI, said, “We had Tantoo Cardinal, Floyd Westerman, and the executive producer Jim Wilson here. Dances was our opening film in 1990 and it won Best Film, Best Director, and those were the first awards Dances received.”
Smith said many positive things came about through the film’s release. “It really opened some doors and showed the vitality and story of American Indians, and opened doors for those actors. They all went on to do things. Nobody knew who Graham Greene was, and he has been working ever since.”
Describing the effects on mainstream society and stereotypes, he said, “It was a little of both, it kept us in the past, it was a Western but it was a good Western. I am from Fort Peck, and my mom, who never went to the movies, saw it seven times.”
Not everyone had such high praise for the effects of the film. Dr. Leslie D. Hannah, Cherokee, developed a podcast through Kansas State University that featured some of the long lasting outcomes of the film and described his “love/late” relationship with it. “I love that American Indians were finally recognized as human beings but I hate that it happened under these circumstances.”
The circumstances relate to the fact that Indians have been telling their own stories for years, but it took a white, wealthy filmmaker to bring the reality of Natives to the world. “It took a white man to prove what Indians had been saying all along, Indians are human.”
Hannah said Dances With Wolves opened up people’s eyes, but more importantly it opened their minds. “Dances With Wolves made it cool to be Indian,” he said, noting that paradigm shifted as soon as the movie came out.
“Suddenly everybody wanted to be an Indian or at least had an ancestor, usually a Cherokee princess,” he said. “Some may say this is simply the effect of a more politically correct citizenry, but I will counter that claim by saying that politic correctness towards Indians might not have reached that level without this movie.”
Movie critic Roger Ebert took that observation one step further, describing American culture as “nearsighted, incurious and racist, and saw the Indians as a race of ignorant, thieving savages, fit to be shot on sight.”
Ebert called Dances With Wolves a sentimental fantasy where “whites were genuinely interested in learning about a Native American culture.” For Ebert, the real shift in consciousness is that the film’s main character, Lieutenant John J. Dunbar, played by Costner, “is able to look another man in the eye and see the man, rather than his attitudes about the man.”
While most people are grateful for the changes the film brought, Rob Schmidt, writer, blogger and expert in stereotypes still sees one slight fault within all of the film’s strengths. In an email, he wrote, Dances with Wolves reinforced the stereotypes prevalent at the time. It presented Indians as tipi-dwelling, buffalo-hunting, eco-warriors living in peace and harmony with the land.
“True, the film gave us characters who were recognizably human,” Schmidt said. “That was a big step up from the past. But we’re still waiting for Hollywood to show us Indians as doctors, lawyers, and teachers—as modern-day people.”