Kevin Costner and Graham Greene in "Dances With Wolves" which premiered November 4, 1990.

Native History: ‘Dances With Wolves’ Premieres

Christina Rose

This Date in Native History: It was 23 years ago, on November 4, 1990, that the film Dances with Wolves debuted to unexpected success beginning a new era of films featuring Natives in mainstream media.

The film earned $424 million, won 41 awards internationally and seven Academy Awards. The film’s success was a shock to the industry that had presumed Westerns were a dead genre, yet Dances With Wolves became the highest grossing Western and the first to win an Academy Award for Best Picture since 1931.

The movie was originally a book written by Michael Blake. It was passed over by 30 publishers before being picked up by Fawcett Publications. Kevin Costner, a little known actor with no previous directing experience at the time, bought the rights and threw himself into the project.

The film ultimately won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Film Editing, and Best Music, Original Score.

Costner was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role and Graham Greene, Oneida from the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, Canada, was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.

Graham Greene, Oneida from the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, Canada, was nominated for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.

The day before the film’s national release it played at the American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco, California. Michael Smith, the Sioux founder-president of AIFI, said, “We had Tantoo Cardinal, Floyd Westerman, and the executive producer Jim Wilson here. Dances was our opening film in 1990 and it won Best Film, Best Director, and those were the first awards Dances received.”

Smith said many positive things came about through the film’s release. “It really opened some doors and showed the vitality and story of American Indians, and opened doors for those actors. They all went on to do things. Nobody knew who Graham Greene was, and he has been working ever since.”

Describing the effects on mainstream society and stereotypes, he said, “It was a little of both, it kept us in the past, it was a Western but it was a good Western. I am from Fort Peck, and my mom, who never went to the movies, saw it seven times.”

Not everyone had such high praise for the effects of the film. Dr. Leslie D. Hannah, Cherokee, developed a podcast through Kansas State University that featured some of the long lasting outcomes of the film and described his “love/late” relationship with it. “I love that American Indians were finally recognized as human beings but I hate that it happened under these circumstances.”

The circumstances relate to the fact that Indians have been telling their own stories for years, but it took a white, wealthy filmmaker to bring the reality of Natives to the world. “It took a white man to prove what Indians had been saying all along, Indians are human.”

Hannah said Dances With Wolves opened up people’s eyes, but more importantly it opened their minds. “Dances With Wolves made it cool to be Indian,” he said, noting that paradigm shifted as soon as the movie came out.

“Suddenly everybody wanted to be an Indian or at least had an ancestor, usually a Cherokee princess,” he said. “Some may say this is simply the effect of a more politically correct citizenry, but I will counter that claim by saying that politic correctness towards Indians might not have reached that level without this movie.”

Movie critic Roger Ebert took that observation one step further, describing American culture as “nearsighted, incurious and racist, and saw the Indians as a race of ignorant, thieving savages, fit to be shot on sight.”

Ebert called Dances With Wolves a sentimental fantasy where “whites were genuinely interested in learning about a Native American culture.” For Ebert, the real shift in consciousness is that the film’s main character, Lieutenant John J. Dunbar, played by Costner, “is able to look another man in the eye and see the man, rather than his attitudes about the man.”

While most people are grateful for the changes the film brought, Rob Schmidt, writer, blogger and expert in stereotypes still sees one slight fault within all of the film’s strengths. In an email, he wrote, Dances with Wolves reinforced the stereotypes prevalent at the time. It presented Indians as tipi-dwelling, buffalo-hunting, eco-warriors living in peace and harmony with the land.

“True, the film gave us characters who were recognizably human,” Schmidt said. “That was a big step up from the past. But we’re still waiting for Hollywood to show us Indians as doctors, lawyers, and teachers—as modern-day people.”

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angelo starr's picture
angelo starr
Submitted by angelo starr on
this movie changed my live growing up in a town going to a all white school lol when this movie came out all white kids wanted to be native cuz they watch dances with wolfs boy times as change from then to now ..

Chooj's picture
Submitted by Chooj on
To me, "Dances with Wolves" had a bit of an offensive and reoccurring theme--it takes the sympathetic white man to save the noble, yet child-like/naive Indian. (Isn't that was the Dawes Act was all about?) Though far from perfect, the film "Little Big Man" (released 20 years earlier) portrayed American Indians as something resembling human--a first, I think, for Hollywood.

Emogene Lynn DeLille's picture
Emogene Lynn DeLille
Submitted by Emogene Lynn DeLille on
I loved that movies and actors.very good.Hope keepon good movies.Thanks,Emogene Lynn DeLille

Emogene Lynn DeLille's picture
Emogene Lynn DeLille
Submitted by Emogene Lynn DeLille on
I loved that movies and actors.very good.Hope keepon good movies.Thanks,Emogene Lynn DeLille

Hyani Parker's picture
Hyani Parker
Submitted by Hyani Parker on
I actually was very young at the time of the release my Grandfather actually told me it was racist being inquisitive I asked whey my grandfather and grandmother simply said its betrayal is completely off and then gave me hundreds of reasons why... At the time ppl would come up to me patting there mouths and making so called Native American cries it was horrible and didn't appreciate the movie at all still don't

Barbara Anne (Winterstar)'s picture
Barbara Anne (W...
Submitted by Barbara Anne (W... on
Dances With Wolves along with Kevin Costner's, 500 Nations, should be shown in all schools in our country, and it can be shown to all ages. This is the way to breach barriers and myths. Kevin Costner's affinity is clearly shown in 500 Nations! Thank you Mr. Costner!

sue c ogden's picture
sue c ogden
Submitted by sue c ogden on
Why wait for Hollywood to do it, you people have the talent to do it yourselves! One of my favorite films was "Smoke Signals" so I want more of that! I loved "Dances" so much for honesty and the past pictorials of life but then it was spoiled for me when I learned Costner wanted to buy the Black Hills or a part of them for a casino! Am I wrong in this memory?

edgardo cafisse's picture
edgardo cafisse
Submitted by edgardo cafisse on
It is difficult to teach civilization to people that are not civilized, the white man is not civilized yet that is why the American Indians have had so many difficulties and had to suffer so many abuses in the last three/ four centuries.I strongly hope that many more white men will learn and accept the CIVILIZATION of the American Indians and will start dealing with them with much more respect..

Javier's picture
Submitted by Javier on
This is the best movie ever, I love it so much now I am waiting when Hollywood would make a a movie about the Nez Porce the last stand when the america army killed almost all the Appaloosa horses and Chief Joseph and his dead of broken heart.

Sheri Shirey McNear
Sheri Shirey McNear
Submitted by Sheri Shirey McNear on
" took a white man to prove what Indians have been saying all along, Indians are humans" I cringed a bit at this fact myself when I first saw the movie. They may have been "humans", but apparently not human enough to prevent the writer from having to insert a white woman who had been raised by the benevolent Indian tribe so that Costner's character, Dunbar, could have a love interest. I could never understand why Dunbar couldn't have fallen in love with an Indian woman. Are we Americans still so averse to interracial relationships?