Hollywood History

The “hidden curriculum”—television, movies, and pop culture—not only subverts but also mirrors the real curriculum in schools. With the National History Standards, the latter has often been the case. The bias turns up in unexpected places—watch the megahit Law & Order, for example, and you’ll be surprised by the number of senior “Euromales” (often with prestigious careers) who are guilty of homicide; it’s practically a hidden pandemic. And in an age when gender studies reign supreme at university liberal-arts departments, it is no accident that “how the west was won” was transformed by Hollywood liberals into Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. Note well: The title even suggests that Celtic beauty Jane Seymour is half-Native American. She is a doctor, yes, but also a medicine woman. Bring on the rain dancing.

The supreme example is the multi-Oscar winner Dances with Wolves, a hymn to the Lakota Sioux. The Lakota were estimable in many ways; their intratribal social policies—care for orphans and handicapped, for example—were exemplary. Kevin Costner, playing an American lieutenant who happens to fall among them (before the major wars between them and the United States), becomes their friend and falls in love with their Utopia. We know what happens: More white men come; the Indians must flee; Costner must escape because he fears a charge of treason. Except for him, every white man is presented (in the terms of the National History Standards) as an “invader.”

Forget for the time being that many of the “invaders” were hard-working farmers and craftsmen who never had a chance in Europe and who heroically immigrated across an ocean and half a continent to farm underused land. Remember instead, if you can, the subplot to the movie that the filmmakers never explained: Another tribe, the Pawnee, dislikes the Sioux and attacks their village, bearing them some inexplicable enmity. The conflict, that is, is not bipolar—white vs. red—but multipolar, white vs. red vs. red. Yet the Pawnee presence is given no historical context.

Context—as in much PC history—is inconvenient. The truth is that the Pawnee hated the Lakota, as did the Crow, Arapaho, and Shoshone. Why? Because the Lakota had not lived in the Great Plains all that long—not “as long as the grass grows and the river runs,” as Native American phrasing poetically has it. They had come west from Minnesota in the 18th century and carved a new homeland from the territory of the other tribes. The wars were still going on at the fringes of their High Plains fiefdom when American settlers arrived. The Lakota had beaten the other Native Americans; indeed, to the others, they were the “Evil Empire.”

I respect the Lakota. I acknowledge their tenacity. I hope in their recovery from reservation degradation; I also support some of their legal claims. I believe some sweetness and light pervaded innertribal social relations. But I also cannot deny that it would be unpleasant to be one of their enemies, white or red. Native America has many admirable qualities, but its intertribal relations are not among them. Sin was here before the Europeans arrived, as well as torture, kidnapping, slavery, and, to use to a modern war-crimes statute, “the forced expatriation of peoples.”


  • Tom O'Brien

    Tom O'Brien was a writer and editor at Heldref Publications in Washington, D.C. He passed away on February 28, 2007.

tagged as:

Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on
Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...