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Hostiles Movie Reflects Native Culture With Sensitivity and Accuracy

Op-Ed from Cultural Advisor Chief Philip Whiteman regarding the Hostiles movie by Scott Cooper
Chief Phillip Whiteman

Chief Phillip Whiteman

Scott Cooper’s Hostiles movie is a reminder to humankind that we are all connected, a notion that is a large part of Cheyenne culture and one that this country needs right now.

A classically styled Western with modern themes, the Hostiles movie tells the story of Army Captain Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale) who reluctantly agrees to escort dying Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) and his family back home to their tribal lands. Making the harrowing and perilous journey from New Mexico to the grasslands of Montana, the former rivals are forced to work together to survive, eventually transitioning their relationship from hate to respect and ultimately acceptance and love.

The movie is an echo of the actual historical journey of my Northern Cheyenne People in 1878-79 and the desire that our chiefs had to live in the north and bring their people home, regardless of military attitudes. More currently, it hearkens to retracing the footsteps of our ancestors in the Annual Fort Robinson 400-Mile Spiritual Run. This run by Northern Cheyenne youth honors their ancestors and symbolizes the strength and resilience of their spirit and heart as Cheyenne people. Although the movie is not based on historical events of the Cheyenne, I believe there are no coincidences.

It was important to Cooper that the film present an authentic portrait of the native peoples living in 1890s America, so as a culture and language consultant to the film, I worked with the native actors as well as Christian Bale to ensure their performances were rooted in the time and place of the film. I was fortunate that Bale took learning our sacred Cheyenne language very seriously and excelled at speaking it because using the historically accurate dialect of the Cheyenne language guided each character’s shift in perception of each other.

The set itself also was infused with native culture. We started each day of shooting with a blessing that brought the cast and crew’s energy into alignment, allowing them to be more effective and to complete the scenes in fewer takes. Because of this attention to detail, the movie elevates your consciousness and helps you become more “woke.”

American history has forgotten the love its First Nation peoples have for the land and America’s sacred landscape. We are connected to Mother Earth--the breathtaking scenery in the movie is a reminder of our responsibility to be good stewards of the land.

This movie is important with its message in this time of division and disconnection in this country. What we call “Turtle Island” was home to diverse First Nations peoples who spoke thousands of their own languages. Today America is home to many diverse populations. It’s in our respect for diversity that creates unity.

Today we are stuck in duality; it’s a perfect place to return to oneness. Blocker and Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) go through the process of acceptance, forgiveness and understanding in the film. Chief Yellow Hawk was already there. It was reflected in his belief system: his love, compassion, respect, honor, and sacrifice he had for his family. These basic principles that give us direction and lead us back to connection.

First Nations peoples have been historically traumatized because of attempted genocide. Today we are reconnecting our youth to history, culture, land and language; and to the spirit of resilience. We are still here. We must tell the stories, for too long Hollywood has depicted us as “the savage Indian.”

I commend Cooper for the making of this film and for portraying native peoples accurately. I brought my Cheyenne beliefs, way of life, whole heart and energy to the set of the Hostiles movie in the depiction of and understanding of the Cheyenne people.

We are all capable of being hostile, but love is a far greater force. We can forgive, but never forget. I encourage you to see this movie and go with an open mind and open heart.

Northern Cheyenne Chief Phillip Whiteman, Heoveve’keso (Yellow Bird), served as cultural advisor and language consultant on the Hostiles movie. He resides on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation in Lame Deer, Montana and can be reached at or 406.477.8781.