Eight hundred theaters are showing "Dances With Wolves," a film of rare genuineness. It has a story line of iron authenticity that says who we know we trust, who we trust we know.
Lt. John Dunbar, played by Kevin Costner, is a Union Army officer who chooses service in the mid-1860s on a Western outpost that has an abandoned shack for headquarters and initially suspicious tribal people for neighbors. As a soldier in the Civil War, Dunbar had the bravery to risk his life in battle. On the Great Plains, he has a higher courage: to risk his life in seeking friendship with the Lakotas.
When the movie opened in mid-November, critics predicted it would reap major awards. It had in fact already won the only prize that mattered: unqualified approval by the Lakota tribe, whose Sioux ancestors were the focus of the film.
In a ceremony outside the U.S. Capitol in late October, tribal leaders adopted Costner as a member of a Lakota family. It wasn't an empty gesture. Costner, who starred and directed, earned it.
Actors who played tribal members in "Dances With Wolves" belong to tribes themselves. Tantoo Cardinal, who plays Black Shawl, is a Creek. Rodney Grant, who is Wind in His Hair, is an Omaha. Floyd Red Crow Westerman, a Sioux, plays Chief Ten Bears. The 150 extras were Sioux from the Rosebud Reservation.
In a break from Hollywood tradition in which the Tontos, Chief Sitting Bulls and Pocahontases always speak flawless English, the Lakotas speak in their tribal dialect. Subtitles are used. The lieutenant learns the native language, syllable by guttural syllable, with his linguistic conversion an early sign that he is the rare open-minded white visitor who appreciates the local culture. No scene in the film -- not the running of 3,500 buffalo, not the dance around the bonfire, not Costner's romps with the wolf named Two Socks -- rings truer than the lieutenant sitting with the tribal elders, determined to communicate in their tongue.
"Dances With Wolves," the name the Lakotas give to Dunbar, is a film of reparations, a small payback to native tribes for the damage they have suffered in American movies from "Robby and the Redskin" to John Wayne's "Big Trail." Hollywood reflected a white racism against red people that predated white racism against blacks. Before slave ships discharged their ebony bounties of West African tribespeople on the East Coast of North America, Pilgrims were raiding the villages of the Wampanoags in Massachusetts. The Great Swamp War of the 1650s in the Narragansetts' part of what is now south-central Rhode Island was an early display of the white European's slaughterous ways that would endure into the 20th century.
With only a few exceptions -- Costner's movie is one -- filmmakers have kept to the line that politicians have consistently articulated. Gov. William Bradford of the Massachusetts Bay Colony saw natives as "savage and brutish men, which range up and down little otherwise than wild beasts." From his observations of the bestiary beyond Monticello, Thomas Jefferson stated that members of Virginia tribes were "savages" with "no vivacity, no activity of the mind." They were "cowardly and timid." A century later, another president, Theodore Roosevelt, would say: "It is nonsense to talk about our having driven most of these Indians out of their lands. They did not own the land at all, in the white sense." Praising the U.S. Army's invasion of the West, Roosevelt said: "This great continent could not have been kept as nothing but a game preserve for squalid savages."
The decimation began with violence to language. Christopher Columbus and his armed mercenaries, stupidly believing they had arrived in India, called the natives Indians. The word stuck, never to be corrected, no more than corrections have been run on other errors and crimes of the colonizers. Lakotas, Seminoles, Hopis, Passamaquoddies and all other tribes are demeaned when called Indians. Call them by the names they gave themselves, not what an Italian invader, who couldn't navigate, laid on them.
It would help, too, to remember that the military attacks on the peaceful Lakotas portrayed in "Dances With Wolves" continue today in the economic brutalization suffered by the people on the Pine Ridge and Rosebud reservations in South Dakota. The movie was filmed in those sacred parts, not on a back lot in Burbank.