Twenty-five years ago, Dances with Wolves created a watershed. After decades of cowboy-and-Indian Westerns, many believed that Hollywood finally showed a human dimension to its Native characters. At the movie’s preview screening in 1990 at San Francisco’s American Indian Film Festival, Michael Smith, Sioux, recalled that the reception was euphoric.
“We had so many people. The theater had 670 seats,” he said. “It was pretty moving. I think [the film] struck people in an emotional way. I don't think Dances with Wolves is ever going to be topped.” Smith is the founder and president of the American Indian Film Institute, the festival’s sponsoring organization.
Many would agree that 25 years later, no Western has had such a powerful impact. But others question whether the movie made a long-term positive effect on Hollywood’s Native portrayals.
Regardless, the film raked in a stunning $424 million at the worldwide box office and earned seven Academy Awards, including best picture, director, and screenwriter as well as a supporting actor Oscar nomination for Graham Greene, Oneida.
Michael Blake, the late author and screenwriter of Dances with Wolves, remembered how the movie’s director/co-producer Kevin Costner was “stunned speechless” over the film’s enormous reception.
“He had no idea how deep this ran and what a deep affect it had on people,” Blake said during an interview in 2003.
Today, there’s been occasional talk about related projects. The Holy Road, Blake’s 2001 sequel to Dances with Wolves, might become a TV mini-series. And Dances with Wolves: The Musical is currently in development with the same Broadway producer behind Memphis.
Bonnie Arnold was an associate producer for Dances with Wolves and describes the movie as “the first time that anyone had done anything that ambitious.” Arnold, who is now co-president of feature animation at DreamWorks Animation, adds that the movie was important because “it showed that it was a story to be told and a value to be had from that [Native] culture.”
But Cherokee actor Wes Studi, who portrayed a Pawnee warrior, cautions that Hollywood cannot rest on its laurels. Show business, he said, “needs constant reminders not to fall back into the same old habits of lazy writing and storytelling” that appeared in earlier Westerns.
Still, Studi remembers that the movie was good for both him and his career. “Many people recognize me from Dances with Wolves,” explains the 67-year-old veteran of 91 film and television credits.
Indeed, Many Native actors did enjoy a boost in their careers. According to the Screen Actors Guild Casting Data for All Productions, the number of Native American performers in lead and supporting roles was only 87 in 1985, but then peaked at 436 in 1993. Later statistics showed a gradual decline in the demand for Indian actors.
Nonetheless, Studi believes that Dances with Wolves “set a standard followed by many films afterward that dared look into ‘what made the Indians’ tick. No more wooden Indians,” he added.
Percy White Plume, who is Lakota, had a minor acting role in the film and recalls that when it first came out “everyone was on board.”
“The non-Native people got an inside look at us and how it must have been 200 years ago. And that part was good,” he said.
But White Plume explains that many Lakota did not like how the white hero dominated the movie. “It was a white man coming into the Lakota country and learning the language and leading the way,” he said of Costner’s Lieutenant John Dunbar character.
Several years later, Costner rankled a few Natives when he tried to build a casino and a railroad that traveled from Rapid City to Deadwood, South Dakota. “The [Lakota] people didn't want it,” White Plume added.
The casino was never built. Instead, Costner founded the museum Tatanka: Story of the Bison in 2003, which still operates in Deadwood. Likewise, Mary McDonnell, who played Stands With A Fist, now donates proceeds from her personal appearances and fan-based organization Mary Cares to Sinte Gleska University on the Rosebud Reservation.
For Tantoo Cardinal, who played Kicking Bird’s wife Black Shawl, Dances with Wolves “kind of whisked me in the door and put me at the top of the list.”
“It didn’t hurt to be involved with a big name production liked that,” she said.
But after 40 years of a successful acting career in both Hollywood and Canada, Cardinal sees little change in the movies’ Native portrayals.
“It’s ‘we want to introduce this funky little mystical element, so we have to have an Indian in here,’” she explained of Hollywood’s attempts to cast Native people. “Why can’t I be called up for a doctor or a nurse in a regular story?”
Rene Haynes agrees. She worked on location and extras casting for Dances with Wolves with the late casting director Elisabeth Leustig and is now a casting director with 46 film and television credits. Haynes believes that “we are still a long way from seeing a solid contemporary representation of Native faces on the screen.”
Still, she credits the movie for jumpstarting many Native careers. “Many of the young local Native people who had their first acting experience on Dances with Wolves now have very respectable careers,” Haynes explained.
Smith of the American Indian Film Institute doesn’t dispute that. But he points out that for all its acting accolades, Dances with Wolves did not employ Native writers, directors, or producers.
“It seems like the stories are there but we’re not really growing,” Smith said, noting the lack of Native films in distribution. “People don’t know our actors and our filmmakers.”
“Get Indian movies in mainstream theaters,” he said.