Kevin Costner Dances With South Dakota February, 1991

Whether making a visitation to the Pine Ridge, confirming in Watertown, attending a consultation in Little Rock, Arkansas or a confer­ence in Washington D.C., within the last two months I have found myself invariably responding to the question; have you seen “Dances with Wolves;” and what did you think of it?

This month’s column affords an opportunity to respond to the question. I do so given the impact that this movie has had on persons throughout the united States and larger Church as well as South Dakota and the Lakota people. Perhaps the movie will serve to undo some of the damage done by Rand McNally in forgetting us altogether!

With the exception of the New Yorker Magazine, which describes “Dances With Wolves” as a…”New Age social studies lesson…made by a bland megalomaniac (the Indians should have named him Plays With Cam­era)”.., the critics have been especially positive in reviewing the movie. Why is this the case? I suspect it has something to do with the film touch­ing something very deep in the American psyche; the fact that Costner, as both director and actor, has struck a resonance within many of us in his attempt to present an aspect of the history of the west from a Lakota point of view.

Despite a few historical inaccuracies and, at times excessive sentiment, the movie is important for many reasons. It represents a new genre of the “American western movie,” that has so shaped the minds and hearts of many Americans over the last several decades. Movies about the “Old West” normally evoke in us the archetype of the “lone hero” or “individual savior,” who through grit and determination saves the town, does away with Evil and then rides off into the sunset. “Dances with ii Wolves,” even with Costner as Lieutenant Dunbar exemplifying to some extent the lone hero, elicits from us a deeper archetype, that of tiyospaye, the importance of communal identity, extended family and the sense of be­longing to and having loyalty and obligations for the larger family and community.

While the movie at times presents us with a somewhat romanticized view of Lakota culture, it is straight forward and realistic in portraying the beauty of the people and the land, the hardships and toil, the dust, sweat, blood and at times brutish and hard existence that characterized a nomadic and warrior-hunter people.

Perhaps it is for this reason that most of the Lakota/Dakota people with whom I have talked have been impressed favorably by the movie in its attempt to present this segment of “manifest destiny” from the Lakota perspective — to include Lakota language and careful accuracy in depict­ing other aspects of the culture.

I was struck with the ability of both the script and the actors to capture some of the subtleties of the Lakota culture, especially the use of humor, flattery, respect for the elders, and knowing one’s place within the band. In addition, there was a sensitivity to details surrounding customs and rites, such as grieving the death of a loved one.

In an age that seems to be addicted to violence in movies, it was refreshing to seem “Dances with Wolves” an appropriate and sensitive use of violence. It was helpful to see that while violence was a part of this way of life, Costner and Company did not exploit or manipulate the viewer through the use of excessive or unnecessary violence. Furthermore, it was an interesting, if not ironic, twist that the soldiers in the movie were stereotyped as being far more violent, insensitive and savage than the Lakota warriors; a fitting reversal of old stereotypes.

It was also gratifying to see the portrayal of deep and touching relationships without the overt exploitation of genital sex. The tender scenes in the movie disclosed a sense of respect and intimacy in allowing the imagination to fill in the details rather than having those details explicitly forced on the viewer.

A personal sense of joy for me was the recognition of many of the Lakota actors and actresses in the movie and to know that Kevin Costner, according to many Lakota people, set about to find locations, persons and historical background in a sensitive and appropriate way. In a sense his dance with South Dakota was born of care and an intuition that resulted in a well choreographed and orchestrated film. The ease of movement, as evidenced in the easy flow and lack of concern for time in the movie, allowed for the full development of characters thereby allowing the viewer to feel connected and drawn as a participant into the plot and larger story. Although over three hours, I have heard very few people complain about the length of the movie, given this sensitivity.

During this year of the Beginning of Reconciliation in the state of South Dakota, “Dances With Wolves” could not have come at a better time for us as South Dakotans. As a movie that represents a new genre of the classic western movie, “Dances with Wolves” provides us with a powerful and compelling icon for reconciliation. Given the state tourism department’s new logo and motto, “Great Places and Great Faces,” the photography in this movie captured the beauty and the sacred ness of the land and the people of South Dakota.

The great faces of our state are not those hewn in stone but rather are the faces of the many and varied cultures that comprise our state. Similarly, the great places in our state are not so much the tourist attractions but rather those remote and vast expanses of solitude that help us under­stand the meaning and presence of the holy in our lives.

Given the timeliness, sensitivity and care with which “Dances with Wolves” was crafted and presented we thank Kevin Costner and the many Lakota people who participated in this movie and brought to life, in a new way, our shared past. For the gift, for the image, for the sensitivity and help in sharing our beautiful people and state with others, we say “thank you for the dance;” pilamaya yelo!

In Christ,


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