Dances with Wolves: A Psychological Review
(Published in the Los Angeles Times, March 18, 1991)
Psychologists analyze conflicts within people, and so it might seem they would not have much to say about Dances with Wolves, a film about conflicts between people — between Indians and U.S. cavalry soldiers.
However, all the conflicts between the characters within the film can be viewed, psychologically, as conflicts within those who wrote and made the film and within those who go to it and are moved by it.
Since this is a film made, with great emotion, by Americans of European descent, the Indian characters within the story are not accurate portrayals of historical Indians, but the voices of a particular contemporary American view of the world. The film is a modern myth, not an anthropological study.
Dances with Wolves portrays, once and for all, in detail and grandeur, the best of the Indian way of life as understood by contemporary Americans. It seems that in 1991 there is a readiness in the American psyche to accept that the Indian might have known something that European Americans have forgotten: Did the Indians have a secret that allowed them to live in relative harmony within the American landscape for at least 12,000 years? The popularity of Dances with Wolves indicates that many Americans want to look at questions like this.
The film dignifies the Indian, not as warrior (a title granted him even in the last century), but as thinker, philosopher, and feeling human being, with soul and exquisite sensitivities.
In Dances with Wolves the Indian view is that a man and a wolf can have a relation and a moment of love and that this moment is worthy of being honored in a new name. The hero, John Dunbar, becomes "Dances with Wolves" and feels that this new name helps him know himself for the first time. "Dances with Wolves" has a friend, "Smiles A Lot," and these names express a reality that, for us, is almost completely unconscious.
Psychologically, the point is not whether Indians really did see the world in this way, but that Americans of European descent are beginning to hunger after this way of looking at things. The Indian within us has come alive and is hungry to look around and experience the world. This Indian within each of us is still capable of dancing around a fire, alone, in dead night, like John Dunbar. It can also look around at what the European-American side of us has done to the landscape, and then it feels pain.
It does no good to deny this European side of us. It is a rule of psychology that, that from which we run comes back to haunt us. The psyche is like a battery with two opposite poles. When a person becomes conscious of one pole, the other tends to falls into the unconscious from where it sneaks out causing problems. Psychology teaches that, for a conflict between inner opposites to be resolved, both sides must first be brought to consciousness and given respect.
The conflict between Indian and European outlooks is not something that went on in the past and is now over: It is still going on. It is not as if the American landscape is gone, replaced by computers, freeways, and high-rises. In spite of the attempt of the European within us to dominate the environment and make it safe, clean, and orderly, like a Dutch kitchen, we still face much of what faced the Indians. The same breezes and rains and floods and earthquakes that faced the Indians, face us; There are still mammals, birds, insects, and reptiles with which we must contend; There are giant oaks growing where we want to build houses; There are mountains, rivers, and lakes where we want to build resorts. Each American comes up against these realities every day and must relate to them from the Indian within, from the European-American within, or in some new way.
Dances with Wolves enshrines, dignifies, and ennobles the Indian within us. The Indian in us can rise up, stand tall, and feel a respected equal to the other inner selves that make up our whole self.
Every time the American in us proudly gives our children food bought at the super-market with hard earned cash, the Indian in us longs for the wild berries of the Sierras and for a more natural life. Every time the American in us is captivated by the purring of the motor of our well-tuned car, the Indian in us cries for the once clean sky. Every time the American in us turns on the computer and is amazed — truly amazed — by its speed and capabilities, the Indian in us misses the flowers opening in the spring rain and the sound of our babies. Every time the American in us thanks God for the electric street lights that allow us to drive home safely at night, the Indian in us mourns the loss of the vast beds of stars that fill the sky on a dark night. Every time the American in us states our name with pride or shame, the Indian in us wants to know our real name.
The hero's name, "John Dunbar," has its own history. "John" was often given by parents to honor John the Baptist or John the Evangelist: Further back, "John" came from the Hebrew meaning "God gives me gifts." And the "Dun" in "Dunbar" is Gaelic — the Irish and Scottish word for Hill (places held particularly sacred by the American Indian). If we trace our ancestry back far enough to the pre-Roman European tribes — the Picts, the Celts, the Franks, the Scots —, it can be seen that our ancestors were very much like the Indians. Studying our own remote pasts is one way to approach ourselves on a deeper level. Deep within ourselves we may find a resolution to the conflict in ourselves that we view on the screen in Dances with Wolves.