Is Dances with Wolves (1990) racist? What is the movie’s message and meaning? This essay aims to answer these questions. It focuses on the themes of colonialism and post-colonialism in the movie. It provides Dances with Wolves summary, theoretical framework, and critical review of the film. The development of mankind has been facing issues regarding race, discrimination, and aggression throughout its history. Accordingly, the topics of colonialism, post-colonialism and diaspora have always been rather burning in human society, as they are integrally connected with the ideas on interracial and intercultural understanding. Being rather significant social, political, and even economic problems, the concepts of colonialism, post-colonialism, and diaspora find their reflections in various forms of human art, and the art of cinematography is one of those forms. Accordingly, there is nothing unusual that this paper focuses on a piece of the cinematographic art, more specifically the movie Dances with Wolves by Kevin Costner, in its attempts to analyze the developments of ideas surrounding colonialism, post-colonialism, and diaspora at past and present stages of the development of the human society.
Dances with Wolves Synopsis
Dances with Wolves (1990) was directed by and starring Kevin Costner. The plot tells the story of John Dunbar, a Union Army officer assigned to a remote frontier outpost in the Dakota Territory. As he begins to learn more about the Lakota Sioux people who live in the area, he becomes drawn to their way of life and culture, and eventually comes to see them as allies rather than enemies.
Dances with Wolves Themes & Message
So, starting the analysis of the movie Dances with Wolves, it is first of all necessary to briefly consider the background and the plot of this piece of art. Directed and starred by Kevin Costner in 1990, Dances with Wolves is rightfully considered to be one of the most skillful depictions of American history and of the role that the ideas of colonialism played in it (Alcoff, 2000, p. 6). Drawing from this, the discussed movie is one of the most fitting examples that one can use to consider the ideas of colonialism and post-colonialism.
To be more specific, the notion of colonialism can be viewed as the major theme of Dances with Wolves. A spectator of the movie cannot but understand the whole tragedy of Native Americans, whose lands were colonized, customs were destroyed, and the very racial identity disregarded. At the same time, the movie under analysis seems to support the point of view that not all people of the allegedly dominating culture have fixed ideas and commitment for colonization, and the main protagonist of the movie, captain John Dunbar, embodies this concept of the revolutionary colonialist, who actually rebels against the very idea of suppressing other people having the same rights and needs as their colonizers (Dances with Wolves, 1990).
In more detail, John Dunbar, played by Kevin Costner, is the character in whom the eternal conflict of the human being is developing. This conflict can be referred to as the controversy between what one must do, according to the law, military duty, or any other reasons, and what one prefers to do, based on his/her personal beliefs, values, and experiences. So, John Dunbar as a soldier has to fulfill orders and serve for the common goal of the U.S. Army, while John Dunbar as a personality feels an inherent commitment to freedom and sympathy towards people the American army tried to colonize (Dances with Wolves, 1990). Living with the Sioux tribe convinces Dunbar that these Indians are equal human beings with their own rights and freedoms, and the idea of colonialism is at the same time the idea of suppressing those freedoms and depriving the Sioux of their rights for identity.
Accordingly, Dunbar decides to rebel against colonialism in its most violent form and, risking his own life, to express his idea of equality of rights that all people should have, irrespective of their race, culture, or economic development of their community (Dances with Wolves, 1990). Personal qualities of people are seemingly more important for John Dunbar in his decision to change the U.S. Army for the Sioux tribe, which is the same, in the context of the movie, as to switch from being a colonialist to defending those under the threat of colonization.
Theoretical Framework for Analysis
General Theoretical Framework
However, in this developing discussion of Dances with Wolves through the prism of colonialism and post-colonialism, it is essential not to drop any of the important notions and theoretical considerations regarding both mentioned phenomena. The general theoretical framework that can be developed on the basis of prior scholarly works can help in achieving the task of comprehensive and integrally connected analysis of colonialism and post-colonialism as represented in theory and in the discussed movie. The latter also has its theoretical framework, developed by scholars like Dika (2003, p. 277) or Rollins (2003, p. 155), Read (2002, p. 386) or Alcoff (2000, p. 8).
So, Dika (2003) draws the parallels between the movie Dances with Wolves and the traditional American Western movies filmed in the 1930s – 1950s, but at the same time the authors point out the main differences between the two notions (Dika, 2003, p. 217). On the one hand, it is still a White man, who is portrayed as a movie hero. However, in Dances with Wolves the main protagonist, who is also a White man, as opposed to the other White people, is referred to as “savages, murdering and despoiling their way across the country in a triumphalist expansion westward” (Dika, 2003, p. 217). Accordingly, the ideas of colonialism and rebellion against it are observed in this definition.
The same can be said about the ideas by Rollins (2003, p. 155), who addresses the movie directed by Kevin Costner as an artistic account on the most controversial topics in the American history, including “current contradictions between industrialism and environmentalism,…the melting pot (assimilation) and multiculturalism (ethnic/racial identity)” (Rollins, 2003, p. 155). Thus, although Rollins (2003, pp. 162 – 163) also addresses the mythological and purely artistic features of the film, the ideas o American history and colonialism as one of the main directions of the U.S. policy in the early to middle 19th century, dominates in the views by Rollins (2003) regarding the discussed movie.
At the same time, Read (2002) considers the movie Dances with Wolves exclusively from the perspectives of colonialism and post-colonialism. Discussing the causes and effects of the process of colonization carried out by the Western civilization countries, Read (2002) calls post-colonialism the state of anxiety experienced by the colonizers because of the fact the moral and cultural development of colonized people was often higher than that of the colonizers (Read, 2002, p. 386). Accordingly, Read (2002) assesses this post-colonial anxiety as “the driving force of the film Dances with Wolves” (p. 386). Similar ideas can also be found among the views by Alcoff (2000, p. 6), who argues that the very theme of the movie is the concept of understanding the equality of all human beings on Earth.
More specifically, Alcoff (2000, p. 6) analyzes Dances with Wolves through the prism of the main protagonist’s psychology and concludes that Dunbar understood that “he was fighting on the wrong side” in that process of colonization. Moreover, the Sioux people, as Dunbar saw, were developed higher in their social structure and community values than the purely materialistic culture of the USA at the depicted time. Accordingly, Alcoff (2000) also considers the movie Dances with Wolves through the prism or colonialism and post-colonialism.
So, it is obvious that scholarly opinions regarding the movie by Kevin Costner are rather unified in their appeals to the topics of colonialism and post-colonialism. In order to better understand the above-presented views and the further provided discussion, it is, however, necessary to define both terms using strong research-based support. More specifically, one should realize what colonialism and post-colonialism are, how they developed, what conditioned their emergence, and why numerous people rebel against them and even reflect those rebellions in the art forms.
Thus, defined by Loomba (2005) as “the conquest and control of other people’s lands and goods” (pp. 8 – 9), colonialism can, first of all, be seen as a set of oppressive and often violent actions aimed at subjugating people, their will, and their activities. The very word conquest in this definition manifests also the military character of colonialism as viewed by Loomba (2005). Further on, discussing the development of colonialism throughout human history, Loomba (2005) points out that this process, i. e. colonialism, took place in different regions of the world, and wherever it was observed, it had different manifestations.
At the same time, irrespective of the ways of expression, colonialism, according to Loomba (2005), “locked the original inhabitants and the newcomers into the most complex and traumatic relationships in the human history” (pp. 7 – 8). In other words, if colonialism is concerned, there is always a region in question that one group of people wishes to settle in or make use of. Of course, there is another group of people that already inhabits the region in question and naturally has no desire to give up and transfer all the valuable resources and/or their own traditions to the newcomers. Viewed from this perspective, colonialism is the combination of political, economic, social, and military processes, and this fact makes the use of the word conquest in Loomba’s (2005) definition rationally grounded.
Interestingly, the other ideas by Loomba (2005) and Mercer (2008) allow considering colonialism from another perspective. Viewed as either a natural effect of the developing capitalism (Loomba, 2005, pp. 8 – 9), or as a purely cultural phenomenon that deals with assimilation of customs, traditions, and forms of art (Mercer, 2008, p. 192), colonialism is still a form of oppression as far as the main idea behind it is involuntary assimilation and colonization.
Accordingly, viewing Dances with Wolves through these perspectives, one cannot but see that the U.S. Army played the role of newcomers, while the Indian tribes were original inhabitants of the regions set for colonization. As a result of their conflict, the former achieved their goals, while the latter lost their land, traditions, language, and own identity. Even if cultural assimilation was in question at that time, it could be possible after the military operations aimed at eliminating any possible counter-actions. Drawing from this, it is possible to assume that John Dunbar switched sides in this dispute of colonialism after he had understood that the Sioux people had simply more moral rights for victory than the American colonizers, and in this respect, the Indians stood higher on the developmental scale than their colonizers.
Post-Colonialism and Diaspora
Further on, when the above-mentioned scaling of colonizers and the colonized ones is concerned, one cannot ignore the notions of post-colonialism and diaspora. Both terms have numerous definitions based on various aspects of interest for scholars, but the most generalized ones are given by Bouchier (2004), Loomba (2005), Shohat (2003), Mercer (2008), and Read (2002).
Thus, Bouchier (2004) and Loomba (2005) define post-colonialism broadly as “a process of disengagement from the whole colonial syndrome” (Loomba, 2005, p. 21). Further on, the authors argue that the process of establishing post-colonialism is rather painful and it takes different forms in different environments. Interestingly, post-colonialism in the USA differs from the same phenomenon in other countries. The main reason for this is that the anti-colonial resistance in other regions is usually a matter of indigenous people, while in the USA the former colonizers carried out anti-colonial actions against another wave of colonizing groups (Loomba, 2005, p. 22). This three-fold nature of the American post-colonialism can also be viewed in the movie Dances with Wolves as the people who were colonized before, i. e. White Americans, and who fought against British rule in the USA, became colonizers themselves, seemingly without learning any lessons from their own experiences (Dances with Wolves, 1990).
The results of the above-discussed activities, according to Read (2002), should have been the so-called post-colonial anxiety, the term used to denote the state of things when the former colonizers feel the lack of qualities, mostly in moral or value respects, in which the people they colonized stand higher than the colonizers. This phenomenon is observed when the post-colonial period begins and the former colonies try to get rid of the influences of their colonizers (Read, 2002, p. 386). Obviously, the events depicted in Dances with Wolves take place during the colonialism period, and only John Dunbar seems to understand that post-colonialism will soon change the colonization.
However, the reality for the Native Americans, whose lands were colonized by the U.S. Governmental forces, turned out to be dimmer and can be better illustrated by the concept of diaspora. Shohat (2003) defines this concept as “the voluntary or involuntary dispersion of a social or ethnic group” (p. 193). As far as in the case of Native Americans scholars hardly ever speak about voluntary dispersion of this ethnic group to the so-called reservations (Bouchier, 2004, p. 22), the concept of the diaspora can be applied to the U.S. colonization on the whole, and the events depicted in the movie Dances with Wolves only in its involuntary aspect. In simpler terms, Native Americans’ lands were colonized and settled with White people, while the Natives were forced into reservations in the farthest and least valuable regions of the emerging USA. The idea of riots, discussed by Mercer (2008, p. 123) in relation to the diaspora, was also impossible for the Natives as far as the colonizers reduced their population and deprived them of all means and weapons to rebel against the existing order.
Colonialism in Dances with Wolves
Accordingly, now that the theoretical framework of the movie and the definitions of colonialism, post-colonialism, and diaspora are reviewed, it is possible to analyze the manifestation of each of the three concepts in Dances with Wolves. Needless to say, these manifestations are numerous, and it is necessary to focus in detail only on the most vivid ones. In particular, the explicit and implicit ideas related to the notions of colonialism, post-colonialism, and diaspora are of special interest here. As the above theoretical considerations prove, the concept of colonialism should be examined in the first turn, as far as it emerges and develops prior to both post-colonialism and diaspora.
Thus, the idea of colonialism is central to the movie Dances with Wolves. This is proven by the fact that the movie plot develops during the very process of colonization of the Sioux tribe lands by the U.S. Governmental military forces (Dance with Wolves, 1990). Accordingly, the most vivid reflection of colonialism in the discussed movie is the state of fear and uncertainty that John Dunbar, also known as Dances with Wolves, experiences when he decides to leave the U.S. Army. Analyzing the pros and cons of both sides he is concerned about, Dunbar sees that what Americans do to the Native Americans is colonization (Dance with Wolves, 1990). Although the word itself is not spoken during the movie, it is obvious for a spectator that colonization is a major theme of the film.
Further on, one can observe the idea of post-colonialism while analyzing Dances with Wolves. The film itself depicts the events that end up much earlier than the phenomenon of post-colonialism emerged, but John Dunbar can be viewed as the first representative of this direction in social development. By taking the Indians’ side, Dunbar obviously condemns colonization as the conquest of other people’s property, land, and culture. At the same time, he serves as the embodiment of post-colonialism as an attempt to get rid of colonial influenced and retain, or regain, freedom and identity (Dance with Wolves, 1990; Alcoff, 2000, p. 7; Read, 2002, p. 386).
Finally, the concept of diaspora is also present in the movie Dances with Wolves only implicitly. In other words, throughout the plot of the movie one cannot find any mentioning of this term or at least reference to it (Dance with Wolves, 1990). At the same time, logical analysis of the events that took place in the film as expressions of colonialism allows concluding that the Native Americans, whose lands were colonized, formed diaspora in reservations to which they were relocated by the U.S. Government in the early to middle 19th century. Accordingly, the above examples allow stating that the movie Dances with Wolves by Kevin Costner reflects, explicitly or implicitly, on such vital ideas of the human society as colonialism, post-colonialism, and diaspora. Most notably, this movie achieves this goal through mere artistic means, without resorting to historical accounts, documents, or accusations directed at any of the concerned parties.
Dances with Wolves: Critical Analysis
At the same time, the fact that the movie Dances with Wolves contains numerous explicit and implicit references to the ideas of colonialism, post-colonialism, and diaspora does not ultimately mean that those ideas are understood and developed in complete accord with the theoretical views discussed above. On the whole, the preceding discussion allows assuming that the analysis of the conformance of the manifestations of colonialism, post-colonialism, and diaspora in the movie with theoretical views on these concepts can be carried out in three major ways:
- Purely theoretical perspective, which requires that the concepts of colonialism, post-colonialism and diaspora should be analyzed and studied on the basis of their scholarly definitions;
- The scholarly perspective of the movie, according to which the concepts of colonialism, post-colonialism and diaspora should be discussed through the prism of the ideas that scholars expressed about Dances with Wolves in relation to those three concepts;
- Purely spectator’s point of view, according to which every person can analyze how the concepts of colonialism, post-colonialism, and diaspora are reflected in Dances with Wolves based on the data provided in the above sections of this paper.
Accordingly, if Option 1 is considered, the ideas presented in the movie Dances with Wolves can be referred to as colonialism, post-colonialism, and diaspora only partially. The point here is that the scholarly definitions discussed above focus mainly on the social and political meaning of those concepts. At the same time, the movie makes more emphasis on purely human relations, the psychology of people, and their values and beliefs. Drawing from this, one can assume that, on the one hand, the ideas reflected in the movie are not exactly derived from the concepts of colonialism, post-colonialism, and diaspora. On the other hand, it is possible to assume that the definitions developed by scholars lack this personal, purely humane, aspect of colonization, and the work on definition refinement still is to take place.
Taking Option 2, one cannot fully analyze the concepts of colonialism, post-colonialism, and diaspora either. The main issue here is that scholars analyze Dances with Wolves either from a cinematographic viewpoint or using the already discussed scholarly definitions. So, using this option, it is possible to assume that Dances with Wolves is a more humane version of a traditional American Western movie in which the topics of colonialism, post-colonialism, and diaspora play prominent roles. At the same time, analyzing Dances with Wolves through this prism does not allow us to consider all psychological and emotional aspects of the processes of colonialism, post-colonialism, and diaspora, as well as the effects they have on the whole groups or individual people.
Finally, it is obvious that the best way to consider the topics of colonialism, post-colonialism, and diaspora in Dances with Wolves is to use Option 3. Simply speaking, any spectator of this movie, irrespective of the fact if he/she is a researcher or not, can analyze the film’s main themes after viewing the film itself and getting the basic data regarding scholarly views on colonialism, post-colonialism, and diaspora.
So, the whole preceding discussion allows stating that the movie Dances with Wolves, apart from being a masterpiece of cinematographic art, is one of the most skillfully developed reflections on the topics of colonialism, post-colonialism, and diaspora in American history. Such a conclusion can be made after the detailed research carried out in two major areas. First of all, the scholarly ideas regarding Dances with Wolves are analyzed in relation to the three concepts in question. Second, the mentioned concepts of colonialism, post-colonialism, and diaspora are also analyzed from both the purely theoretical and movie-related perspectives. Finally, it is assumed that the best way to analyze Dances with Wolves is to carry out a comprehensive analysis of theory and use it to support one’s own ideas regarding the movie and its major themes.
Alcoff, Linda. “What Should White People Do?” Hypatia 13.3 (2000): 6 – 26.
Bouchier, David. The Accidental Immigrant: America Observed. iUniverse, 2004. Print.
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Dika, Vera. Recycled culture in contemporary art and film: the uses of nostalgia. Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.
Loomba, Annie. Colonialism/postcolonialism. New York and London: Routledge, 2005. Print.
Mercer, Kobena. Exiles, Diasporas, & Strangers. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press 2008. Print.
Read, Peter. “Post-Colonialism and the Native Born.” The Australian National University 2.1 (2002): 377 – 390.
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Shohat, Ella. Multiculturalism, postcoloniality, and transnational media. Rutgers University Press, 2003. Print.