“Indian Love Call”
To the Editor:
Richard Grenier’s article, “Indian Love Call” [March], rebuking Kevin Costner’s highly stylized image of the Sioux is excellent, however much I suspect that at least some of the “politically correct” would love to see Mr. Grenier staked out over an ant hill at high noon. . . . Granted, there were and still are some very peaceful and decent tribes; the Sioux, however, were most definitely not one of them.
For all of the killing of Indians by the “evil and greedy” white man, by far many more Indians died of often pedestrian diseases against which they had no immunity, inadvertently brought to the American continents from Europe. To take but one example out of innumerable similar unintentional tragedies: roughly 90 percent of the indigenous people of what is now essentially Mexico died of various Old World diseases within only a few decades of Cortez’s conquest of the Aztecs.
While I am in no way endorsing Cortez’s plundering or any of the more sordid, racist, and unarguably genocidal aspects of Manifest Destiny, another factor should also be borne in mind: the diseases inadvertently inflicted upon Native Americans became an enormous medical disaster, . . . far worse than any of the plagues that ravaged medieval Europe, a disaster that makes the current AIDS epidemic look like a modest head cold by comparison. These . . . plagues killed many times more Indians than did the U.S. Army, pioneers, and buffalo hunters combined. . . .
Dances With Wolves is a lush and gorgeous piece of cinema with many engaging aspects. . . . At the same time, however, it must be noted that it is largely a piece of pure fiction. . . .
William E. Zamzow
San Francisco, California
To the Editor:
. . . Richard Grenier, as usual, does not disappoint. Quite the contrary. His article is an absolutely remarkable exposé of the equally remarkable unhistoricity of the Oscar-winning Dances With Wolves. . . .
Richard D. Wilkins
Syracuse, New York
To the Editor:
Richard Grenier . . . is certainly the most erudite and cultured movie critic of our day. . . . It was a treat to read “Indian Love Call.”
Barry S. Augenbraun
To the Editor:
. . . Once again Richard Grenier demonstrates his unique ability to skewer where necessary and simply set the record straight. . . .
New York City
To the Editor:
I enjoyed Richard Grenier’s article on Dances With Wolves, even though he savaged a movie that I very much enjoyed, knowing full well as I watched it that it was a utopian version of Indian life. . . .
To the Editor:
. . . Many people root for the theoretical underdogs, but leftists are especially and naively sensitive to them. Rousseau’s “noble savage” lurks in every inner-city gang member, welfare mother, drug abuser, bum, mental patient, and union member according to these sensitive types. The rest of us have supposedly sold out our natural selves for material wealth and are no longer human, humane, or happy. . . .
The romantic notions of Sioux life in Dances With Wolves place that life in a noble (transcendent) light that most leftists, environmentalists, Marxists, and warm fuzzy thinkers would find unacceptable in a movie dealing with the lives of, say, Kitchener, Gordon, or Custer. But in fact the twisting of reality in Dances With Wolves is simply the equivalent on the other side of Errol Flynn’s skewed portrait of Custer in They Died With Their Boots On. Propaganda for the goose; propaganda for the gander. The “noble savage” is in the eye of the beholder.
Dirk S. Hinnenkamp
To the Editor:
. . . Attacking Dances With Wolves, as Richard Grenier does, on the grounds that Kevin Costner has silly ideas, that the movie is historically false, and that it is ideologically driven constitutes a surrender of the high ground which the Right must defend: the high ground of excellence. Mr. Grenier grudgingly and left-handedly admits that Dances With Wolves is a good movie, as if being good does not matter; but that is all that matters.
Mr. Grenier also admits that the movie has been very popular, yet ideologically-driven movies usually fall like stones—Mr. Grenier mentions Robert Redford’s Havana. If a movie is popular, it clearly has some genuine appeal; and, if it is good, it is clearly rooted in a genuine story competently told.
Costner has retold the paradise story: the original, the universal story, deriving from one of the truly human impulses, the yearning for paradise. . . .
All paradise stories abound in images of innocence and purity. In Dances With Wolves . . . Indians were chosen to represent purity because the film is a Western, a story cycle that began with the pioneers as innocents and ended with Indians as innocents. That beginning and that ending derive from the nature of story cycles in general and the Western in particular.
In 1950 John Ford represented the Mormons in Wagon Train as nonviolent, peace-loving, idealistic pioneers, while in 1970 Little Big Man represented the Sioux as paradisiac innocents harried by the brutal white man. Wagon Train marks the beginning of the cycle and Little Big Man marks the end of the cycle. Anyone making a Western afterward could only retell a story already told. So Costner in essence retold Little Big Man, using the novel Dances With Wolves as a means of establishing the surface variations necessary to make it another story. . . .
Wagon Train’s connection to history begins and ends with the fact that the Mormons did in fact move west, just as Dances With Wolves’ connection to history begins and ends with the fact that there were Sioux and cavalry on the Plains in the 1860′s. If ever history were mangled, John Ford mangled it in Wagon Train, since the actual Mormons bore as little resemblance to John Ford’s Mormons as the actual Sioux bore to Kevin Costner’s Sioux. Would Mr. Grenier complain, accusing John Ford of ideologically-driven error? John Ford was a superb storyteller who knew just what sort of Western was right for 1950, just as Kevin Costner is a good storyteller who knows what sort of Western is right for 1991. . . .
Few good storytellers can articulate where their stories come from or how they know what works and what doesn’t, . . . but in Hollywood today movie types are expected to offer respectable political explanations. It is unfortunate that such respectability consists of eco-hysteria, but that is not Costner’s fault, it is our fault because we on the Right let the Left win the war of ideas. . . .
Kevin Costner tapped into a genuine and deep river of yearning for simplification, for a return of innocence, for a return to the beginning, for a recrudescence of the archaic; and he did it well enough. In the absence of an alternative explanation, Costner’s audience might well accept his explanations as true and imagine that ecomania will satisfy that yearning.
To the Editor:
I have some bones to pick with Richard Grenier.
- Our desire to establish “flourishing, modern, high-technology urban communities” was no excuse for destroying “a stone-age people who knew neither writing, nor metal of any kind, nor the wheel.”
- The fact that “there are twice as many people today in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, as there were in all branches of the Sioux family together at the time the Sioux first encountered the white man” only supports Kevin Costner’s statement that “the reality is—we didn’t need to have it.” Sioux Falls does not take up much room, approximately one-sixth of the state’s population lives there, and South Dakota is a big state.
- “Was Wounded Knee a massacre?” Mr. Grenier asks. Then he answers his own question: “28 cavalrymen were killed, as against 128 Sioux,” including “women and children, almost all of them killed by the cavalry’s Hotchkiss guns.” Sounds like a massacre to me.
- The saving of the white Seventh Cavalry by the black Ninth Cavalry proves what? That white soldiers at that time were not racist because they allowed black soldiers to save them when their only other choice was death? Come on, now.
- It is true that Costner’s movie is a romanticized version of history. It is true that the Indians were often violent and brutal and oppressed their women. But it is also true that the whites were often violent and brutal and oppressed their women. And it is also true that the Indians were vastly outnumbered, that white technology was far superior, and that most of the whites proclaimed themselves to be Christian.
Kathryn L. Maleski
Grand Rapids, Michigan
To the Editor:
Richard Grenier takes great pride in his own historical fluency as compared with other movie critics; they are not, in his view, “a knowledgeable group when it comes to history.” Unfortunately, Mr. Grenier himself scants the historical record while attempting to set matters straight. Correctly dating the Great Sioux Uprising of 1862 from the depredations of Chief Little Crow in Minnesota, he deftly slips by the reasons for the Sioux chief’s warmaking in an effort to depict the Sioux as irrational mad dogs.
The uprising began only after U.S. Indian agents once again failed to deliver food and money payments as required by treaty, at a time of particularly severe food shortages. Little Crow reluctantly accepted leadership of the Indian cause after some young Indian hotheads slaughtered a family of settlers at Acton, and then elsewhere. He realized his cause was lost, but felt he had no choice other than to stand with his people. Little Crow ultimately lost his life in the struggle, as did the U.S. Indian agent who, when told of Indian starvation, responded, “Let them eat grass,” and was later found murdered with a clump of grass stuffed in his mouth.
I do not dispute Mr. Grenier’s judgment of Kevin Costner’s distortions of history; I do dispute his countervailing distortions of the conflict in his quest to malign the Sioux, and his general lack of appreciation for the tragic nature of a confrontation far better understood by Chief Little Crow, without benefit of Mr. Grenier’s great historical expertise.
To the Editor:
To kill a people as a mass-supported state policy, human beings must be made to appear less than human. That is what Hitler did to the Jews. And that, too, is what Americans did to the American Indian. “The only good Indian is a dead Indian,” the saying went. “Savages,” we called them. Colonel John M. Chivington, asked why Indian babies had to be targeted for death, explained matter-of-factly, “nits make lice.” Richard Grenier’s article on Dances With Wolves glorifies the “logic” of this bone-chilling tradition.
Mr. Grenier is uncomfortable with Kevin Costner’s treatment of Indian people as real-life human beings—he would rather hold on to the myth of the Indian as innately cruel and backward and, by extension, inferior and deserving of destruction. . . .
It is one thing to dislike a film, and debate its historical accuracy. It is another to glorify stereotypes of racial inferiority, and that, alas, is what Mr. Grenier has done.
Even today’s Indians are targets. What was “most surprising” to Mr. Grenier about the film? It was that the “performances of the Indian actors are excellent.” Should we be surprised that Indian people have among them those who have the necessities of acting? What would Jews or blacks or Asians say if a reviewer was “surprised” that people from these various groups could perform well, when finally given a chance to portray themselves?
Further to dehumanize the Indian, Mr. Grenier writes that the “Sioux made a great cult of self-inflicted pain.” Presumably, he refers to the sacred Sun Dance, in which males tether themselves to a pole with a probe implanted in the skin of their chest. The Sun Dance, to this day, has tremendous religious significance—it allows men to feel a pain designed to be similar to that which women experience in childbearing. No one participates in the Sun Dance unwillingly; in fact, to dance is a great honor. . . .
In addition to this derogatory reference to Indian religious practice, Mr. Grenier describes Indians as though they were animals, “predatory [and] fierce.” They were also “fanatical . . . unbalanced . . . brutal . . . scalping and murdering and torturing captives for entertainment.” The U.S. Army, apparently, was a wondrous model of decorum in return.
Why did Mr. Grenier not mention the extermination of Indian men, women, and children with germ warfare—smallpox-infected blankets? Why did he not mention the “Trail of Tears,” in which the Cherokees were forced to leave their ancestral home in the Southeast, and march to Oklahoma in the dead of winter? One out of four died during the march. And why did Mr. Grenier not mention a soldier the Cherokees, Seminoles, Chickasaws, Choctaws, and Creeks called “Sharp Knife?” “Sharp Knife” was responsible for the murder of thousands of Indian people, including women and children. In 1828 the American people elected Sharp Knife—Andrew Jackson—President of the United States. From the Indian point of view, it would be as if Lieutenant Calley won the presidency on the platform of My Lai.
And, while commenting about the years covered in Dances With Wolves (those during and immediately after the Civil War), why did Mr. Grenier not mention Sand Creek? There, in 1864, 600 Cheyenne were camped, 400 of them women and children. Most of the men were away hunting, having been promised safety by an American major. He had given them an American flag to hang, to show they were peaceful. The flag was hung, and women and children huddled underneath it. Yet soldiers attacked.
Lieutenant James Connor, a white eyewitness, described the slaughter, as Dee Brown chronicled it in his book, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee:
In going over the battleground the next day I did not see a body of man, woman, or child but was scalped, and in many instances their bodies were mutilated in the most horrible manner . . . [in] numerous instances . . . men had cut out the private parts of females and stretched them over the saddle-bows and wore them over their hats while riding in the ranks.
Mr. Grenier’s attempt to paint the Indians as warlike and mean and the white folk as “civilized” is simply unfair. And to suggest that the various Plains Indians were historically more warlike than whites is equally false. . . .
Mr. Grenier’s discomfort with a positive treatment of Indians causes him to go beyond the timeline of Dances With Wolves to write, or rather rewrite, the history of the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee. Nearly 300 of Big Foot’s band of 350 were killed, many of them women and children torn apart when the Army leveled its Hotchkiss guns into tepees. Many also died when they were running away, shot in the back. Many died when the Army left the wounded outside to freeze in the bitter December cold. The bodies were then dumped in a common grave that now has a curved metal structure at its foot. It is reminiscent of Auschwitz—not only for the appearance of the gate, but also because the Army’s interception of Big Foot’s band was in order to transport the band to a concentration camp. Their crime? It was illegal for Indians to practice their religion—even a religion such as the Ghost Dance, which incorporated many obviously Judeo-Christian messianic symbols.
Most troubling, Mr. Grenier seems to blame the Indians for their own massacre. “The key to the whole terrible incident,” he writes,
is that the Sioux were convinced that if they gave up their weapons they would be massacred. It is not possible to dismiss the notion that at the root of their fear lay the fact that massacres were a pattern of Sioux life—they themselves had certainly massacred Custer’s men after the battle of The Little Big Horn.
Aside from forgetting that Big Foot’s band was a group of poor religious men, women, and children on an Indian reservation in 1890, and not a war party of the years before 1868, Mr. Grenier ignores the fact that the Oglala and the other bands agreed to peace in the Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1868, and that it was the United States that Violated that peace agreement and all the 367 others made with the Indian nations. In 1868, unable to protect the extensive line of railroad, the U.S. agreed that certain land would remain Indian, in return for peace. Within the land so designated in the peace treaty were the Black Hills. In 1874 General George Armstrong Custer confirmed a report of gold in the Black Hills, “from the grass roots down.” The government tried to buy the Black Hills. The Indians were not interested. The Black Hills were where the most sacred spot on earth was; Papa Sapa they called it. Papa Sapa, in its way, is at least as holy to the Indians as the Temple Mount is to the Jews.
The U.S. government violated its pledge of peace, and went to war against the Indians for gold. Treatied Indian land was taken. Papa Sapa is now defaced with a glaring symbol of those who destroyed the Indian way of life. We call Papa Sapa Mount Rushmore.
Today the Oglalas live on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, one of the poorest places in the United States. Unemployment hovers between 80 and 90 percent. Their life expectancy is only to the forties. And the racism they and other Indians face as part of the larger American culture is brutal and generally unrecognized. Go into a convenience store in Rapid City and watch as a white clerk refuses to make change hand-to-hand to an Indian; it is usually done hand-to-counter. And where, for example, is the clamor about sports teams with mascots of Redskins and Chiefs? Could anyone for a minute conceive of mass acceptance of the Washington Blackskins or the Kansas City Rabbis—both with appropriately stereotypical caricatures?
Mr. Grenier’s main problem with the Oglalas seems to be that they survived. The fact is, by and large, the Indian nations that fought back against the attempts to kill them, their resources, and their way of life are around in remnants today. The Oglalas, for all their problems, are still here. Where, today, are the Raritans and the Willamettes and the hundreds of other “remarkably peace-loving” Indians whom Mr. Grenier would presumably call “good”?
Kenneth S. Stern
American Jewish Committee
New York City
Richard Grenier writes:
I warmly thank William E. Zamzow, Richard D. Wilkins, Barry S. Augenbraun, Anthony DePalma, and Doug Giant for their compliments, and think it very much worth remembering, as Mr. Zamzow points out, that the diseases brought quite inadvertently to the Americas by the white man were by far the most lethal aspect of European conquest for the native Indian population. The Mandan Indians of the upper Missouri basin, who figure so prominently in the journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition and were so much admired by the great painter of Indians, George Catlin, were almost completely wiped out by a series of epidemics of smallpox and cholera, diseases against which they had no inherited immunity. The last smallpox epidemic, in 1837, reduced the Mandan tribe to under 50 survivors. I certainly agree with Dirk S. Hinnenkamp about the persistence in American Left-liberal thinking of the ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
But the blaze of holy ignorance informing some of the other letters reminds me that those illumined by the divine fire of virtue often lose the gift of civil discourse. Am I a racist? Do I wish to denigrate other people’s religious practices? Is my intent to show Indians’ “racial inferiority,” to “dehumanize” them”? We shall see.
At the end of 1831, whether by chance or design we know not, Alexis de Tocqueville happened to witness, “at a place called by the Europeans Memphis,” the crossing of the Mississippi by a large band of Choctaw—one of the five “civilized nations” that Andrew Jackson was moving west in his draconian deportation of nearly the entire Indian population of the Southeast. This extensive passage is often omitted in the abridged editions of Democracy in America usually read in American universities (such as the Oxford University Press edition by Henry Steele Commager), so I briefly summarize it here from the French.
It was mid-winter, the snow on the ground frozen hard, huge masses of ice floating downriver. The Choctaw had with them their families, their wounded and sick, their newborn children, but neither tents nor wagons, only some provisions and their weapons. No cry or sob was heard among the Choctaw assembled on the river bank. All were silent. They had no room for dogs aboard their barks, but as soon as the dogs realized they were being left behind they set up an ungodly howling and plunged into the icy Mississippi, swimming desperately after their masters. Never would the terrible scene fade from his memory, wrote Tocqueville. But although much moved, he was convinced, deeply tragic though it was, that the historic process was inevitable.
The episode prompted in Tocqueville a discourse on military conquest in which he reflected that, historically, conquest has been happiest when the conquerors were superior only militarily and were thus absorbed by the higher civilization they had overcome by force of arms. Thus, famously, the “half-savage” Germanic peoples who conquered the Roman empire, or the Mongols who conquered China. “But when the side with physical force also possesses intellectual superiority” he wrote, “the conquered party seldom becomes civilized. It retreats or is destroyed.” When conquerors are superior to the indigenous peoples in every respect, representing a more advanced, higher civilization not only militarily but in every way—like Americans in comparison with these poor Indians—Tocqueville felt, sadly, that the submerging of the conquered culture was irremediable—as impossible to impede as the incoming tide. It was Tocqueville’s judgment, moreover, that while the Spaniards had “pursued Indians like wild beasts, sacking the New World like a city taken by storm,” Americans were relatively humane and, on the whole, inasmuch as this was possible, tried to observe the “laws of humanity.” Unlike my correspondents, Tocqueville, a man thought to have some insight into history, was an actual eyewitness to the famous “Trail of Tears.”
Herbert Ostrach, although quite courteous, misrepresents me. I abandon no high ground whatever. I do not “grudgingly and left-handedly admit that Dances With Wolves is a good movie, as if being good does not matter.” Being good matters. But historical veracity also matters. The classic film example is Russia’s Sergei Eisenstein, in my view perhaps the most influential director in cinema history. Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin and his October are, I think, masterpieces. Yet as history they are fraudulent. In the 1905 Russian Black Sea naval mutiny there never was any march of the White Guards down the steps at Odessa (the most famous scene in the movie). In Lenin’s October Revolution of 1917 there never was any “taking” of the Winter Palace (the climactic scene in October). Why is the falsification of history important? Because both Eisenstein and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin himself thought, probably with reason, that the cinema was the most powerful means of political propaganda the world had ever seen. The French singer and actor Yves Montand, a one-time Communist militant, an example among many, once told me he had converted to Marxism (he has since unconverted) by watching Potemkin and October. So I cannot agree with Mr. Ostrach that artistic excellence is “all that matters.” And I did not in fact say that Dances With Wolves was a “good” movie. I think it is a so-so daydream movie, pretty to look at, but in verisimilitude and emotional maturity somewhere between Home Alone and The Wizard of Oz.
Kathryn L. Maleski, I note, is rather good at answering her own questions also. At Wounded Knee the Sioux opened fire first. The proportion of Sioux killed to U.S. cavalrymen killed was about four and a half to one. Sioux dead included women and children killed by the cavalry’s Hotchkiss guns, but guns which were firing only at groups of Sioux firing at them. Sioux women, which Miss Maleski perhaps doesn’t know, were cutting the throats of wounded U.S. cavalrymen. Four and a half to one? Women and children? “Sounds like a massacre to me,” Miss Maleski pronounces confidently. Do tell. What would Miss Maleski say then to the recent Gulf War, where the proportion of enemy dead to American dead was more like 1,000 to one? Should we rebaptize the Gulf War the “Gulf Massacre”? Has Miss Maleski ever heard of the women and children burned to death in the World War II bombings of Dresden and Tokyo? Should we rebaptize this conflict “World Massacre II”? And why stop there? How about the “Massacre of Iwo Jima”? The “Massacre of Midway”? The “Massacre of El Alamein”? I know research is hard slogging compared to watching movies, but look up the casualty figures, Miss Maleski. The saving of the white Seventh Cavalry by the black Ninth Cavalry at Wounded Knee “proves” that it was not a fight of white against non-white, but of those who identify with American society (as Miss Maleski obviously does not) against its adversaries. Those black troopers of the Ninth Cavalry had been made free men by the Union Army in which they fought. Their desertion rate in the freezing mountain winters was phenomenally low. Their military heroism in the defense of the United States was among the highest in the history of the U.S. cavalry. The only group Miss Maleski might imaginatively identify with at Wounded Knee was the newsmen, but, strangely, the newsmen were blazing away at the Sioux like everybody else since, if they had fallen, they would have been scalped alive. “Come on now!,” I can see Miss Maleski scolding these fighting reporters in the name of Christian virtue. Miss Maleski’s scalp would have been her willing and gracious sacifice, I’m sure, for peace and racial harmony.
As Robert Meyerson ought to be able to see from what I have written above, my purpose is not to depict the Sioux as “irrational mad dogs,” nor do I lack an appreciation of the tragic nature of their confrontation with the ever-expanding United States. I am fully aware of the grievances that provoked the Sioux uprising led by Chief Little Crow, and if Mr. Meyerson feels the proper response to nonpayment of foods and moneys is a wild rampage of fire and slaughter, I will stoutly defend his right to his opinion—although I suspect he might alter it somewhat if he were the one being slaughtered.
But I am frankly awed by the majesty of Kenneth S. Stern’s pseudo-learning. Rarely is historical illiteracy displayed before the public in such detail. It is quaint to see Dee Brown, a popular historian, quoted as a scholarly source. Since Mr. Stern seems to fancy himself something of a scholar himself, he might one day want to read the texts referred to by numbers in the footnotes to Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. If he can face such a grueling task, he will notice that every time Dee Brown in his source material comes across something hateful done by a white man it goes into his book, but everything charitable or even reasonable is left out. With Indians, of course, it is the reverse. Everything stately or noble an Indian does is in. Everything brutal or savage is out. If Mr. Stern were to take the trouble to read the Declaration of Independence, he might be interested to note that I am in the bone-chilling company of Thomas Jefferson, who in that document refers to our Western frontier’s “merciless Indian savages” whose “known Rule of Warfare is an undistinguished Destruction, of all Ages, Sexes, and Conditions.” Thus the Declaration of Independence. If my correspondent should perchance read of colonial New England’s celebrated antinomian controversy, he might note that its most brilliant figure, Mistress Anne Hutchinson, was slaughtered by Indians.
But Mr. Stern must get a grip on himself. There is not one single word in my article—not one single word—which suggests that I think Indians are “racially inferior” or their customs “innate,” or that seeks to “dehumanize” them in any way. Like Tocqueville, I think the situation of the American Indian was tragic and deeply moving. Mr. Stern distorts, twists, and deforms everything I write. It has never even crossed my mind that anything about Indian customs was genetic. But that the culture of many Indians of the past was cruel is no “myth.” Thousands and thousands of accounts attest to this, and if Mr. Stern doesn’t know it by now, I’m afraid he never will. He is quite comical, moreover, on the subject of “religious practices.” The Aztec religion, for its spring festival honoring the god Xipe Totec, called upon its priests to flay young virgins and dress themselves up in their skins. To celebrate the enlargement of their great temple at Tenochtitlan, the Aztecs, very religiously, slaughtered 20,000 human captives. But although these facts are in countless books on cultural anthropology (as is the Sioux Sun Dance, which I incidentally never mention), perhaps they should be censored since, according to Mr. Stern, they are “derogatory to Indian religious practice.” After all, if a man’s religion calls upon him to kill a young virgin and dance around in her skin, to criticize the practice would be derogatory to his religion. I don’t know what some college-educated Indian feminist has been feeding Mr. Stern about the Sioux Sun Dance, and I’m sorry to have to give him such a hard lesson in Indian life, but the Sun Dance has absolutely nothing to do with the pain women experience in childbirth.
The Sioux leaders of the Ghost Dancers (a quite different affair from the Sun Dance) were, in a trance, calling on their followers to drive the white man from the land. Indian informants reported that massacres of whites were coming. But Mr. Stern has decided that the Ghost Dance was just a “religion,” much like Judaism, I gather. For the most bizarre aspect of Mr. Stern’s pseudo-learning is the similarity he seems to find between Indian and Jewish cultures.
As for the use of Indian names by sports teams, the reason the Kansas City team is called the “Chiefs” is a tribute to the American Indian’s prodigious—no myth here, either—bravery and fighting spirit. In this connection it is worth noting that in 1984 the Dartmouth Review conducted a survey of the leaders of every single Indian tribe throughout the country to discover their opinion on the controversy raging over Dartmouth’s banning of the school’s Indian symbol. The results were stunning. What did they think of Dartmouth’s Indian? “A compliment,” “fine,” “great,” “a tribute”—this last from the vice chairman of the Tribal Council of South Dakota’s Lower Brule Sioux. One tribal leader wrote, “The people who are against the symbol are misinformed.” Another wrote, “I think most of the people who object to the Indian symbol are not Indians. They are probably envious.” And over and over again, to Dartmouth: “BRING BACK THE INDIAN.” The final tally? Total Chiefs Expressing No Opinion: 15. (These refrained almost entirely because they thought the question should be decided on a local level.) Total Chiefs Opposing the Indian Symbol: 11. Total Chiefs Favoring the Indian Symbol: 125. This is well over ten to one in favor. Lewis H. Barlow, Chief of the Ottawa tribe in Oklahoma, wrote: “We have 63 tribes in Okahoma, and I’ve never heard any objections like the ones you’re telling me about.” Chief Barlow wrote proudly: “We have the Kansas City Chiefs,” adding that the team used an Indian designer from his own Ottawa tribe.
On a higher level of civility and sophistication than Mr. Stern, a discussion of my “Indian Love Call” appeared in a column by Aims McGuinness in the May 13 issue of the New Republic. According to Mr. McGuinness, Kevin Costner, in Dances With Wolves, goes overboard in merely turning the “old red-and-white Manicheanism on its head. This time around, the Indians are the cowboys and the cowboys are the Indians.” On the other hand, he says, Richard Grenier, in COMMENTARY, goes overboard in the other direction, arguing that “the Indians were the savages that whites always thought they were and blames them for not learning how to farm.” Mr. McGuinness writes that the sad fact omitted by these critical commentators (I become plural) is that “we know very little about the daily life of 19th-century Indians.” Let Mr. McGuiness speak for himself. There exists a vast literature, in fact, much of it by writers who lived among Indians and were extremely sympathetic to them.
But a curious aspect of Mr. McGuinness’s remarks, behind his faulting of Kevin Costner for finding Indians too wonderful and of me for finding them too savage, is his plain implication that if we only knew enough about the subject we would find Indians poised delicately in between, neither excessively wonderful nor excessively savage, much like whites perhaps. Whites, we must not forget, are guilty of “sin” in their treatment of Indians, and of sin which should be “expiated.” Indians apparently know not sin. For Mr. McGuinness, who makes free use of Christian phraseology and of grand assumptions based on his judicious non-reading of the literature, seems to yearn, give or take a bit here or there, for some kind of measured equivalence or equality between Indian society and white society. Indeed, an enraptured madness for equality is everywhere in American intellectual life today. People are equal. Races are equal. Religions are equal. Cultures are equal. Civilizations are equal. Tocqueville be damned. The Indians and us? Dead even.
But is it really equality which evokes the passion of these enthusiasts? Seen historically, the assumption of equality between contending civilizations is peculiar. Significantly, Mr. McGuinness and my other critics might note that this generous attribution of equality has yet to be extended to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or to Adolf Hitler’s Germany. Nor is such a development likely, since rather too much is known about both Iraq’s Baathists and Germany’s Nazis. Indeed, it is generally cultures about which the speaker is profoundly ignorant which benefit from such artificial tolerance—which is in fact not tolerance at all but merely a club with which to devalue and denigrate the speaker’s own society.