The New Custerism

By: David Seals


            When Kevin Costner was shooting Dances with Wolves in 1989 in South Dakota, where I live, a full-blood Lakota elder gave me a copy of the screenplay to read.  David Bald Eagle lives way the hell out in the middle of the South Dakota Prairie on the Cheyenne River Reservation, home of the Minneconjou and Sans Arc and Two kettle Lakota Sioux, about as far from Hollywood as you could get, culturally, and still be in the same country.  He ranches on about 600 acres leased from the tribe and lives in a ramshackle house built of scrounged lumber from the nearby town of Sturgis (only eight miles away, that’s considered close out here) and the reservation ghettos of Cherry Creek and Red Scaffold.  It’s a desolate, beautiful landscape without trees or much water, but Dave loves it. So do I.  We sit out on his porch in the total darkness and peaceful silence, with no street lights or traffic or sirens roaring, and watch the fireflies and talk about the spirit of our ancestors scaring the hell out of somebody all the time and how things are all fucked up on the reservation with the booze and no jobs and phoney-balony medicine men and women putting curses on people because they are jealous or some damn thing.  It’s the damndest mess.  But mostly we laugh about it and people come over to visit all the time and we cook up a pile of food and maybe watch something on the VCR with the kids.  There’s always a pack of kids around, abandoned sometimes by their parents off on a drunk somewhere, playing with the goats and horses and cats and dogs, looking for snakes and birds’ nests and gold.

            Dave is over 70 and has the handsome Lakota features of classic popular conception, and he’s worked in a number of movies over the years as an actor and cultural consultant. He just shakes his head recalling the day a helicopter landed out by his place, bringing the script of Wolves for his perusal and assessment.  He was flattered by the attention, but not too much.  It was mostly pretty funny.  He wouldn’t say anything more about the script except that it was a typical Hollywood deal, and maybe I should read it to see what I thought, since he, like many Indians around the Cheyenne River, think I know something more about movies than most people owing to the fact that my book The Powwow Highway was taken by Hollywood.

            I hunkered down on his big old comfortable couch discovered in an alley in town, with the kids and goats outside screaming, and read about the good old days in the 1860s when a wounded and disillusioned cavalry officer came out West to escape the horrors of Civil War.  He was a man of better sensibilities than most of us, appreciative of the wide-open solitudes and beauties of nature, and heroic warrior too.  Quite a guy, Just as he was meeting up with some Indians, maybe they were the Sioux or maybe the Comanche, I couldn’t tell, a few car loads of Indians piled in the door on some errand or other and we proceeded to drink coffee and discuss the possibilities of getting some work in this new movie.  Dave was mad because the tribe still hadn’t gotten out of his place, after ten years of pleading, threatening and cajoling, to dig a well, so he still didn’t have indoor plumbing or anything. He has to haul his water in barrels in the back of one of his pickups, which are always breaking down out on the bumpy rutted dirt roads, from a faucet at the new Takini High School a few miles up the gravel road.

            Now, you have to understand the peculiar government-to-government relationship of the United States of America to the great Sioux Nation.  According to the 1868 Ft. Laramie treaty, which followed an 1851 treaty, and presumably reflected the turmoil and conditions leading up to it at just about the same time and place our Dances With Wolves paean occurs, the Sioux under Red Cloud had kicked General Sherman’s butt all over Wyoming and the Americans were suing for unconditional peace on the Bozeman and Oregon Trails.  In a mood of great conciliation and general patriotic national pride, the Sioux and Arapaho agreed to a cease-fire if the Americans would abandon their forts and go away forever, in turn, the victors would allow them to have their roads to the golden Elysian fields of California and Oregon and Montana.  Sherman agreed to the terms, promising what later became all of western South Dakota from the east side of the mighty Missouri River to the Wyoming, North Dakota, Nebraska and Montana.

            It was a great empire. Of course, Red Cloud didn’t like the fact that other chiefs were sitting around challenging his claim to leadership, like Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, who both refused to sign the treaty, by the way, smelling a rat, so he went to Washington wearing a big top hat and shook hands with president US Grant.  Grant and the Congress ratified the treaty and it became law.

            Anyway, all this was being set up while the story of Dances With Wolves was going on right in the middle of it, but I couldn’t discover any of that as I went back to reading the screenplay by Michael Blake.  There were some very poetic and nature loving Indians all over the place, and beautiful white babe who had been captured as a pioneer child, her whole family butchered by them sneaky Pawnees, but nowhere were there any of the complex intertribal feuds going on or whiskey traders and railroad men and land speculators who were everywhere out here.  Mostly what we got was some pretty thoughts about living in harmony with nature and each other.  That’s O.K., I figured, what the hell, its at least pro-Indian and might bring in a few jobs for the troops.

            But I still stuck in my craw about Hollywood making Indian movies too, after my experience. It requires backing up a little to understand, about like what it takes to even begin to grok the history of European-indigenous relations on the broader political and social and religious scale.  It’s probably a lot like the complex Arab-Israeli mess, and maybe just as difficult to untangle.

            Just about everybody would probably agree that the image of a culture is as important, especially in this high-tech world of instant global telecommunications, in the perception of it or of race of people as whatever lies in the actual truth of that culture.  Indians have often been victims of stereotyping, Custerism, I call it, and this reduction of image of people kills as surely as any real-life, Wounded Knee-type massacre.  What is this Custerism?  The celluloid residuals of Manifest Destiny played out as emotional climax.

            The blatant racism of the “Old Custerism” as exemplified by Ronald Reagan’s portrayal of General George in the 1940 Santa Fe Trail must surely be obvious to anyone who hasn’t already prejudged Custer and his American cavalry as the good guys and crazy horse and his Indians as the bad guys who wantonly butchered our troops.  The parallels of a Hollywood actor becoming a Washingtonesque semi-divine President-protector-king are insidiously apparent, and betray a nationalistic can’t in the film industry that can only be characterized as propagandistic.  The usage by US generals recently of the term “Indian Country” when referring to Iraqi-occupied Kuwait brings what many people might consider the harmless nature of the entertainment business into the deadly arena of politics. (The May Esquire blows its bugle about the “surrender in Indian Country” too.)

            The Old Custerists rounded up Un-Americans in Hollywood and New York in the late 1940’s, was about when John Ford was cranking out so-called classics like Fort Apache.  In that little germ we hear Colonel Henry Fonda complain to Captain John Wayne that they have little chance for “glory or advancement”, because while some of their fellow officers are “leading their well-publicised campaigns against the great Indian nations- the Sioux and the Cheyenne- we are asked to ward off the gnat stings and flea bites of a few cowardly digger Indians”.  The duke replies, “your pardon, Colonel, you’d hardly call the Apaches “digger Indians”, sir”. (If only Hank Fonda had known how valuable the Apaches would become as the attack Helicopters!) The nauseating thing about Ford’s endless litanies to racism, like The Searchers Especially, is that they are apologized away as being exposures of racism! Cheyenne Autumn made author Mari Sandoz sick to her stomach when Ford butchered it into a white love story instead of the truly tragic odyssey of the Cheyenne’s from Oklahoma to Montana in the 1870’s.

            Were not even talking here about obvious crap like The Last of The Mohicans or All the Hiawatha’s and the thousands of spectaculars and cartoons and shows like F- Troop that are still flooding cable TV everyday poisoning every new generation. I’m trying to point out to what is called the best of American moviemaking, the Oscar worthy (if not winning) films of high artistic merit. Broken Arrow and Shane and Red River fall into this category.  Why, in what are otherwise wonderful works that I love too (I’m from the west born and bred), must they always throw in the flaming arrows coming out of the dark from the sneaky sub-humans, the unspeakable implications of things done to Our Women, the truncated grunts and groans of people thereby depersonalized because they don’t talk, can’t talk English?

            Things got better in the wake of the sixties, we are told. Little Big Man was another watershed, like Broken Arrow, portraying a decidedly pro-Indian point of view. It was like a breathing spell between the Old Custerism and the New Custerism, which we’ll get to shortly.  While it still had the all-important requirements of a white man as the central protagonist, it tried mightily to understand the rather mysterious ways of the strange people living in tents.  It had a cute chief in it, who, cracked jokes and spoke poetically and was really a Human Being for a change.  This was progress!  Custer and Our Boys were shown slaughtering innocent women and children in bloody scenes.  Soldier Blue showed the unbearable savagery of racism too.  But these films were still set in Historical context, distant, almost irrelevant, and white people were always the characters in the central focus.

            Then Billy Jack exploded on the scene.  Ah finally a modern Indian in the middle of the worst redneck cowboys in towns.  I like Pauline Kael’s comments in The New Yorker; she found herself watching with a sympathetic smile, because even where the writing was terrible, the instincts were “mostly very good”.  It was sappy and melodramatic, with lots of lost white runaway kids trying to find a better society by living with the Indians, and one-dimensional white racists foaming like mad dogs, but golly, there were real Indian actors playing our songs and speaking articulately too!  It was cool. They talked about treaties, and it was a box office hit and spawned the sequel and some Skins got some work for a while actually talking about the Bureau of Indian Affairs and dealing with some real and complex problems.

            But the revolution sprouting on the bloody TV images of Vietnam faded as the war ended, at least for the Americans, and Golly-wood want back to romantic historical epics like Charles B Pierce’s things.  I can’t even remember the names.  Richard Harris danced through one sequel after another of his masturbation fantasies as A Man Called Horse, a great warrior who comes to save the poor Indians who can’t save themselves.  We have books like Hanta Yo, purporting to tell the authentic story of the Sioux, which caused some skins to swear they’d kill author Ruth Beebe Hill if she ever showed her face in Sioux Country.  ABC rushed to produce a five-hour miniseries about it titled Mystic Warrior.  Many Indians kind of enjoyed blue-eyed Trevor Howard being a cute old Chief in Wind-walker, but for every one of these halfway-sincere attempts there were ten Charles Bronson or Chuck Connors-type flicks fulfilling noble savage fantasies

            In the 1980’s Custerism, like everything else, just got worse. We were treated to Larry McMurty’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove, with Frederic Forests as the Half breed maniac Blue Duck slaughtering and scalping everything and everyone he could get his hands on.  Young Guns converted the village of Cerrillos, New Mexico, into an authentic replica of Billy the kid’s exciting and adventurous world of yore. To top it off, some film crew was also nearby in New Mexico about then shooting something they called Powwow Highway, which they claimed was based on a novel of the same name that I wrote.

            To back up a little on this yarn, but without running over you with too much detail, I had indeed optioned my soul to the devil, and made $10,000.  I was tired of outhouses and walking to the grocery store because I had no car, and stealing food too. My 7-year-old Sky even got a part in the movie.  He had fun, flying first-class up to Sheridan, Wyoming, where they were shooting, and staying in the Holiday Inn.  He like his fellow stars A Martinez, of soap opera Santa Barbara fame and Gary Farmer.

            But a disturbing story later filtered out about the film companies shooting in South Dakota on Bear Butte, a mountain sacred to the Cheyenne and Sioux.  They had protested the film companies being there so it left Gary Farmer dismissed the incident with disgust.  No one else could tell me anything.  About a month afterward in Denver a full-blood Tsistsistas Southern Cheyenne elder, Richard Tall Bull, told me, Three Indians died because of your movie? HUH?  They were struck dead by lightning.  They had passed themselves off as spiritual leaders and got some money from that film crew.  They were winos.  He was madder at the Skins than at the film company or me.

            What does all this have to do with Custerism at the cinema?  This whole experience revealed to me not only the frightening policy dimensions of the entertainment industry but also the cultural onslaught of insensitivity.  I had prayed on Bear Butte a month before the movie option ran out back in July 1987, and gone through a terrifying ordeal in a courtroom as a politically suspect AIMster, and my prayers to the Goddess Whohpe for help for the people were, in my superstitious heathen estimate, answered when funding came in for the movie.  There really is a mysterious world existing beside this one, a parallel dimension that can perhaps be explained not as much by physics or electromagnetism (yct) as by the symbolic poetry of mythology.  It is the world where lightning strikes those whose intentions betray greed and self-importance.  It is the perspective elders like Tall Bull and Bald Eagle give when death and life intermingle as parts of our political and economical survival.

            Dave Bald Eagle was eager to rush out and get a job on Dances With Wolves because that was an economic necessity, but he also saw the foolishness of the thing and joked about how he always tried to stay in the background in the crowd scenes so maybe no one would notice him in the movie.  Other full-blooded Lakota elders in it, like Dave Yakima Chief, told me the same thing.  They were of course flattered by Kevin Costner’s invitation to be in his movie, and by all accounts he is, as Vincent Canby remarked in his New York Times review of the movie when it came out in the 1990, a foursquare kind of guy.  But many Indians are disturbed that, although such movies help pay a few bills for a little while, they are not as harmless as they might seem.  They are part of a system that routinely throws around millions and millions of dollars while tens of millions of people in this country, in chillingly high proportions people of color, don’t have much more than a box of macaroni in the cupboard.

            How has Kevin Costner helped us?  His movie has reaped over $150 million and Dave Bald Eagle still has to use an outhouse.  Dave chief doesn’t even have that much- he is homeless at age 63.  These two pointed out to me what is at best a questionable cultural call in the making of Dances With Wolves.  The men generally speak Lakota in the famine form; a woman, who also served as the primary linguistic coach, translated the screenplay’s dialogue.  Many elders around here, include Grandpa Bill Horn Cloud, are mad about it (Imagine if Costner and his baseball buddies in Bull Durham had spoken as if they’d stepped out of Little Women). This in a movie lauded for its “authenticity”- which was more closely achieved when it came to props:  Joe Flying By and the ruling elders’ council, and even the Pipe Keeper himself, Arvol Looking Horse, preferred that Costner and his Hollywood Indian Floyd Westerman not represent the Pipe in the movie.  The Pipe is sacred Canupa of White Buffalo Calf Maiden, who founded the buffalo culture nineteen generations ago; but they went right ahead and smoked it anyway.

            This is the New Custerism- General George spotting velvet gloves- and so-called liberals are the New Custerists, torn between their cultural guilt and self- interest.  It goes Beyond James Fenimore Cooper’s good intentions into stuff that does indeed pave the road to hell.  It encompasses not just trampling on what might be sacred but a hidden Victorianism as well, which was to clean up my dirty beer-can-strewn highway or its historical equivalent, keep us at a safe remove, make us Good Indians again, like Costner’s and Blake’s syrupy noble savage real action, the possibility for social or political reform that might arise from truly stimulating literature or drama.  This idyll takes place, incidentally, in landscapes where David Bald Eagles can’t leave their homes untended or drunks will sweep in to loot them, and the filmically perfect village of Tipis Wolves shows at one point is perched don a Belle Fourche River that is undrinkable and polluted from gold mine tailings.

              Instead of creating a great new multicultural paradigm, Dances With Wolves, by it huge success is spawning more of the same old clichés’.  Where the Old Custerists didn’t mind blatantly stereotyping Indians as savages, for New Custerists the sentimentality and romance must not be sullied: Son of the Morning Star rushed into production and was seen for four hours this winter on ABC, striking while the iron was hot.  Not even the Uncle Tomahawks who have rejoiced as nausea about the glories of Costner & Co.  I liked this latest paean to G.A. Custer, who was after all really a complex kind of guy and not just a blood-and-glory murderer but also a good husband and most formally a foursquare Joe.  The New Yorker Times rejoiced about The Son of the Morning Star and said that maybe Indians will be the social cause celebre of the Gay nineties.

            Wolves was up for twelve Oscars and won seven; Costner decided he liked bows and arrows and moved on to Robin Hood.  The Skins in trade have gone with Uncle Tomahawk.  They’re shooting another remake of The Last Of the Mohicans, if you can believe it, though there are a few modern-day films in the works.  Robert Redford is doing a Tony Hillerman mystery in Arizona, and I’m hearing conflicting stories from the Navajos and Hopis about it.  Some of them are protesting it because of purported trespass on sacred areas.  A Hopi friend of mine, Hartman Lomaweima, from Second Mesas, says the movie company has wandered into a local feud about a gravel pit.  He laughs about it; others, like a Pueblo lawyer I know, say it’s a serious cultural travesty again. (John Nichols, who wrote The Milagro Beanfield War, which Redford directed on the screen, told me, “It was the worst experience of my life.  They used a picturesque backdrop that you forget how difficult it is to live a life of poverty.”)  And Young Guns veterans are doing a thing around Wounded Knee and Leonard Pelletier here in South Dakota, produced by Robert De Niro.  Redford has also funded a Pelletier documentary, its director was seen cruising around here last summer in a Mercedes limo, though Steve Robideau, Pelletier’s cousin and the director of a defense committee for him, probably the most knowledgeable and earnest man in the world regarding Leonard’s call for a new trial says he hasn’t been contacted about it.  What’s more, Ted Turner’s got features planned for cable TV and the rumor mill has it that others are thinking of a series to be called Lakota Moon.  We will wait to see if we get anything more than moonshine.




*** This Article is taken from The Nation, Books & The Arts (pg 634-639) May 13, 1991

**** David Seals is the author of the Powwow Highway (Penguin/ New American Library) and Thunder Nation (sky & savage Books). This essay will appear in another form in his collection The Poetic College.