Reading the original novel that led to the movie “Dances with Wolves” it isn’t difficult to understand the message of the book, even in the first few chapters. It is about the demise of the Sioux after centuries of struggles with other tribes, especially the Pawnee, and then with the “Whites”, and their special connection with life in the land they lived in. The question that sticks in my mind is why didn’t the American native tribes not form an alliance against the Europeans? The American frontier, in United States history, was the advancing border that marked those lands that had been settled by Europeans. It is characterized by the westward movement of European settlers from the original Atlantic coast (17th century) to the Far West (19th century). That was two hundred years of movement across the continent, but Native Americans had been in North America since around 15,000 BC. The French and Indian War began in 1754 due to English colonists settling past the agreed upon boundary between England, France, and some Native American tribes. Settlements and farms past these borders had been constantly fighting off Natives.
According to the book, it was after 1863 when Union Army lieutenant John J. Dunbar travels to the American frontier to find a military post and is confronted by a group of Lakota speaking Sioux. That means that the struggle against the advancing “Whites” had been going on for over a hundred years. The book regards the Sioux as culturally superior to many of the intruders, who are described as dirty and uncouth. The Sioux are puzzled by the progress that the coarse race of “Whites” is making and ask what they have done to anger the great Spirit. John Dunbar is the link between the two and is portrayed as the intermediary hero that saves the Sioux on some occasions but can’t hold off the inescapable. To all appearances, it was the big tribe driving out the smaller tribes. However, the situation of the native Americans on the plains of North America was the same as the various nations who were invading the continent. By the time of story in the book, a political peace had been made in North America after two wars had been fought, one with Britain and another a civil war, but there still remained many conflicts yet to be sorted. In the same way the native Americans had also failed to overcome their differences and consequently were unable to present a unified front.
The Lakota Sioux couldn’t have imagined what was going on in Europe as they faced their expulsion by the “Whites”. We should remember that in 1863 two new trouble spots emerged in Europe: In Poland, the January Uprising against Russian rule broke out at the beginning of the year, which was suppressed by the powers of Russia and Prussia with all their might. In Denmark, the new king Christian IX, who had come to the throne a few days earlier, signed a joint constitution for the Kingdom of Denmark and the Duchy of Schleswig, which was unacceptable to Prussia and Austria as the leading powers of the German Confederation and led to war at the beginning of the following year. The context of the book seems to me to be of importance. The presentation of the Lakota Sioux in this story has me asking whether other cultures have become attractive because we are disappointed with our own, knowing, as we do, how tribal natives throughout the world were pushed away by the advance of European civilisation, but the similarity of what was going on in the world makes it clear that it is the human condition.
There was no idyllic world in which peace and prosperity prevailed. If it were not another tribe, it was nature that got the better of people. The story of the book is essentially a love story, in which the hero not only gets the bride, but also the extended family as well, with which he is just as much in love with. Then disaster strikes and the whole dream dissipates and reality strikes. The hero, Dunbar, doesn’t know where he stands to begin with but in the end stands with the smaller tribe. In reality the story is a tragedy, just as human existence, despite the appearances, is a tragedy. It is only a question of how we deal with the tragedy and whether, in the end, we were the hero and struggled against the destructive powers that be – or gave in and died with a whimper.