(In)Accuracies of the Native American in Historical Film

Essay – (In)Accuracies of the Native American in Historical Film – Brandon Skenandore:

Total word count: 4225
Sources: 12
Time spent researching and writing: ~20 hrs

The three films I have chosen, How the West Was Won (1960), Little Big Man (1978), and Dances with Wolves (1991) were produced and released in different eras of America, but all three films have one thing in common: They portray American Indians during the Indian Wars period of America. But how accurate were these portrayals and events of the Natives, according to the generally accepted modern historical record? Is there any disagreement between qualified historians as to what actually happened?

How the West Was Won focuses on several generations of one family, as they migrate to and across the newly settled west. This film accounts for a fifty-year time span of westward expansion, from 1839 to 1889 (MGM 25). The film begins with “The Rivers:” a mountain man named Linus Rawlings trades with Indians. He meets the Prescott family, who are traveling west. Two of the parent’s children are single daughters, Lily and Eve, of marrying age. The two parents drown on the river. Linus marries Eve.

In “The Plains” Lily is now a dancer in St. Louis, and leaves with a wagon group for an inherited gold mine in California. They escape an attack by Cheyenne Indians, and Lily finds that the gold mine is no longer active. She gets married and goes to San Francisco. “The Civil War” goes back to the story of Linus and Eve, who have two young men and now live on a small ranch in Ohio. One of the sons, Zeb, leaves for the army and returns home to find his mother buried next to Linus, who also happened to die in the war. Zeb decides to go west, and leaves the ranch to his brother. In “The Railroad”, the story continues to follow Zeb. A telegraph is being installed across the west, and the Railroad is being built over the Rockies and across the plains. Zeb is hired to keep the Indians from interfering with the progress of the railroad. He does not agree with the man in charge of the railroad, and is ultimately unsuccessful. The Indians run a herd of buffalo through the main camp, killing many men and damaging the railroad.

In the final sequence, “The Outlaws”, the story goes back to a widowed Lily, who goes to live with Zeb. He is married now and has small children. Zeb’s life and family are threatened by a group of outlaws seeking revenge. Zeb attempts to trap the outlaws on a train, and is successful, shooting and killing some of them. The family then travels to Lily’s land on Arizona. The film then ends with aerial shots of California in present day (How the West Was Won).

Contrary to the title of the film, only a few historical accounts of how Americans “won” the west were portrayed, and all of them involved the Prescott lineage. However, in context with this essay, portrayals of American Indians are shown in several historic scenes, and those are in fact most of the major historical events. The historical scenes involving American Indians contain trading with mountain men, an attack on western settlers, treaties being signed, and the Indians interfering with the progress of the Railroad.

One analysis specific to the movie can be found in an article published in a compilation of western films, and this very much sums up the portrayal of Native Americans in this film. In this article, Sheldon Hall, a film historian, examines the role of Native Americans in this epic film:

Indians figure three times in the narrative. In the first episode, they are briefly seen as friends and peaceful trading partners of Linus Rawlings […] In the second, they are unmotivated hostiles attacking the wagon […] In the fourth episode, they are the victims of technological progress and corporate capitalist expansion in the form of the railroad, responding to the Whites’ breaking of treaties by stampeding a herd of buffalo through the railway workers’ encampment. (Cameron and Pye 260)


So out of the small role that Native Americans received for the film, how accurate were the historical accounts? The first of the three (mentioned in the article) to be examined is the brief 30-second scene where the narrator (Spencer Tracy) describes the mountain men of the West, in that they were “More Indian than the Indians in all but blood”, even though Indians had been there long before the mountain men were. Indeed, no dialogue of Native Americans is given here, only a montage of the friendly Linus Rawlings, supposedly trading his furs to the Indians. In return, they give him supplies, a canoe, and push him out on the river (How the West Was Won).

Did mountain men really have this relationship with Native Americans? Brian F. Strayer, an historian at Andrews University, studies this in an article about the attitudes of mountain men toward natives. Contrary to the film, fur trapping was much less personal than portrayed. During the year the film portrays (1839), the fur trade consisted of several large companies, and every year more then 500 trappers would explore the West for furs (36). However, the mountain man was not quite like the protagonist Linus Rawlings. Instead, most were semi-illiterate, and “devoid of morality and principle and at heart more savage than the primitives among whom he went” (Strayer 35). Strayer goes on to find that the overwhelming majority of mountain men had a negative view of the Indians, viewing them as competition “diminishing their profits and often threatening their lives…Trappers often revealed their hostile attitudes by indiscreet conduct toward the Indians” (35).

However, the film did get one thing right. Strayer finds that trappers very much did live like the Indians in the mountains, and even dressed like them too (35-36). Contrary to the film, however, they actually were looked down upon by “more civilized whites”, being, by account of a more affluent mountain man Jedediah Smith, “of the roughest kind, men of good morals seldom enter into business of this kind” (Strayer 36). Could it be possible that Linus Rawlings, the mountain man in How the West Was Won, was one of the very few “decent” fur trappers? If so, the film inaccurately represents the majority of fur trappers through this one character.

The second event mentioned in Sheldon Hall’s article is when the Native Americans attack the wagon train headed west during the California Gold Rush. The wagon company is somewhere between Missouri and California. However, Roger Morgan (Robert Preston) says a line that all others agree with: “Chances are they want our stock more than they do us!” (How the West Was Won). What happened to the fact that the wagons were encroaching on Indian Territory? The film makes them out to be just primitive thieves that have no common sense, and only want to steal from the company.

Assuming these were Californian Indians, Dr. Dee Brown, author of the book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: And Indian History of the American West asserts that Indians from California were “gentle as the climate in which they lived…these [were] unwarlike people. After the discovery of gold in 1848, white men from all over the world poured into California by the thousands, taking what they wanted from the submissive Indians” (220). However, there was one exception to these submissive Indians, and these were the Modocs, who lived on the border of Oregon (Brown 220). When the settlers came through California expecting the Modocs to “submit meekly”, the “Modocs showed fight, and “the white invaders attempted extermination. The Modocs retaliated with ambushes” (Brown 220). The attack in this sense therefore was accurate, in that it was an ambush on the settlers, but the film fails to mention the background from which it arose, only shoving it off as “wanting [the settlers] stock” (How the West Was Won).

The third and final event to examine is the buffalo being driven through the railroad camp by the Indians. Did anything similar to this event actually happen? No evidence has been found for either or, but it stands to reason that if something this big happened, it would have been documented. However, there is a personal account published in an article from American Cinematographer magazine in which Joe LaShelle recounts:

We had Indian riders who had to look like they were trying to get out of the way of the buffalo while actually herding them so they would go through the camp. Now, buffalo are pretty unpredictable. They can be running full speed and turn on a dime. They could turn into a horse and it could never get out of the way. We didn’t know the Indians were scared to death of them and wouldn’t get close to them for love or money. So here we were, set up to shoot the big drive with four cameras in pits and one on a jeep. The buffalo came charging down the hill but when they saw the camp, they just veered over to one side and never went through it. (Kimble)

Judging by the statement “The Indians were scared to death of them and wouldn’t get close to them”, it is likely that an event like this could not have taken place, and was pure fabrication.

One more examination should be made. Were the Indian outfits authentic? In the book MGM and Cinerama present How the West Was Won: The Program, the producers state that the moccasins were purchased from Indian reservations and more were made by hand by Indian craftsmen, who also made authentic headdresses, mostly of genuine eagle feathers and “hundreds of yards of intricate beadwork” (29). According to this, the Indian garb was mostly authentic. Overall, the film fails to show the overall picture and role of Native Americans, and the few minutes it spends focusing on them is rather inaccurate, except for how the Indians dress and the lifestyle of the mountain man.

Little Big Man, directed by Arthur Penn, takes a more sympathetic approach to Indians (Hilger 140). The film begins with Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman) as a 121-year old man in a hospice recounting his earlier days to an historian. The story goes back in time, and Crabb is 10 years old. His family has been wiped out by a band of Pawnee Indians. Only he and his sister Caroline survived. A Cheyenne finds them and takes them to his tribe. Caroline runs away on a horse and leaves Jack by himself, but Jack likes living with the Cheyennes and learns their ways. His adopted grandfather, Old Lodge Skins, teaches him the ways of the warrior. A Pawnee Indian attacks Jack and another Indian when they are hunting together. Jack kills the Pawnee Indian. The Indian tribe gives him the name “Little Big Man”.

Jack, now 16, is taken by some American troopers after a battle and taken into the Pendrake household. Jack Learns the “white” ways, but then leaves to work with Merriweather. The two are tarred and feathered because of Merriweather’s shady business deals. A member of the mob turns out to be Caroline, who realizes she tarred and feathered her own brother. She teaches him how to shoot a gun but then leaves him after learning that he doesn’t like to kill.

Jack then marries a Swedish lady named Olga and has become a respectable storekeeper. After the store fails, he meets General Custer, who suggests they go west. On the trail they are attacked and Olga is captured by Cheyenne Indians. Jack reunites with Old Lodge Skins but then goes to work in Custer’s cavalry. Jack is appalled by the cavalry’s massacring of Indians. He leaves to discover Sunshine, a Cheyenne, giving birth. He helps her have a child. They marry and while in the tribe, Jack finds that another Indian has married Olga, who doesn’t recognize Jack.

Custer then kills Jack’s wife and her child in a massacre, in which only Jack and Old Lodge Skins escape. Shortly after, Jack attempts to kill Custer, but fails because he cannot bring himself to. He starts drinking, but is given money by Wild Bill, who is then shot. Jack thinks of killing himself but then rejoins Custer’s cavalry. Jack tricks Custer into leading the cavalry into Little Bighorn where there are a large number of Indians waiting for them. Custer is killed. Jack survives the battle and helps Old Lodge Skins up a hill and, after an unsuccessful attempt to get the Great Spirit to take his life, it starts to rain, and Jack and Old Lodge Skins go back to have dinner. Back as a 121-year old man, Jack is melancholy and orders the historian out of the room.

As can be seen, many accounts from this movie involve Indians, so this film is therefore a great candidate for the topic of study. However, this film is rather comical and follows a fictional antihero, so events that specifically involved Jack Crabb are not necessarily true. Also, in the film all of the Cheyennes speak English, which of course is not accurate, but is easier to watch and follow. This essay will look at the major events that overshadow the film, such as the massacre when Jack’s wives are killed, the relationship between the Pawnee and Cheyenne Indians, and the Battle of Washita River. General Custer is purely antagonistic for comical purposes, so an examination of the accuracy of his portrayal would be rather pointless. Indeed, Hutton describes the portrayal of Custer as “bloodthirsty, opportunistic, arrogant, and finally stark raving mad…a clown dressed up in a soldier suit” (53-54). Another blaring inaccuracy is that many of the Indians in the film were not in fact Native Americans, but oriental (Kael and Brantley 45). However, this can be ignored for the purposes of this essay and will be discussed further in the third essay.

How does the Cheyenne’s relationship with the Pawnee Indians compare to the historical record? Pawnee scouts actually worked with the American military, and were even “old tribal enemies of the Sioux, Cheyennes, and Arapahos, and they had been enlisted for the campaign at regular cavalrymen’s pay” (Brown 108). These two tribal enemies did take accurate roles in the film, since the Cheyennes were attacked by the cavalrymen and the Pawnee Indians, who were enemies of the Cheyenne. However, in the beginning of the film it is noted that Pawnee Indians attacked Jack Crabb’s parents. Why would Pawnee Indians attack Americans if in actual history, they were assisting them? In fact, it would make more sense if they actually were Cheyenne Indians, since while not portrayed in the film, the Cheyennes had militia named “Dog Soldiers” that would resist the overtaking of their lands (Brown 92).

During the Battle of Washita River, when Jack Crabb’s Cheyenne wife and her child are killed, General Custer is present in the film, and in the historical record, he did lead the actual massacre, so that is accurate (Hutton 53). Also, the Battle of Washita River did involve Cheyennes as well, and did take place during the wintertime, so it is likely that there was snow, like the film portrays (Brown 167). However, the Cheyennes were much more involved in negotiations at the time with a nearby U.S. fort, and knew that soldiers were coming, even though the attack was in the early dawn and the village was still mostly asleep (Brown 167). At this point, soldiers attacked from four different directions (Brown 168). Custer’s orders were simple: “Destroy their villages and ponies, kill or hang all warriors, and bring back all women and children” (Brown 168). However, the cavalrymen did not follow orders. According to Brown, it took too long and was too dangerous to separate the warriors from the others, so they “found it much more efficient and safe to kill indiscriminately”, although they did still capture 53 women and children (Brown 169). The film is actually quite accurate, in that it is dawn and the Washita River is visible, and the Cavalry kills indiscriminately. However, in Little Big Man, Custer’s cavalry only attack from one side, and they take no prisoners. Aside from that, the battle in the film is a surprisingly accurate depiction of the Battle of Washita River.

The third and final film, Dances With Wolves, is not necessarily an historical film, but it is a revisionist film set during the US Civil War and follows the Sioux tribe of Indians very closely (Prats 286). During a battle in the Civil War, John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) is a union army member who travels west to a deserted fort with another man named Timmons. John stays to clean up the camp and Timmons goes back, only to be killed by Pawnee Indians on his way. Since no other men know that John is at the camp, he is there alone and does not know that no other soldiers will be coming.

A Sioux tribe comes to the fort and John leaves with them to go to the tribe’s village. John learns of the tribe’s customs and lifestyle. He then helps the Sioux by leading them to a herd of migrating buffalo. Not only that, but John also gives the Sioux guns and ammunition from the fort to help them defend against Pawnee Indians. John then marries a white tribe member. As the Indians prepare to leave to another camp, John goes back to the fort to retrieve his journal containing sensitive information about the Sioux, only to find the fort occupied once more by troopers.

John is captured by the troopers at the fort and after interrogation, is sent with a traveling group to be executed in Fort Hayes. The Sioux tribe then attacks the travelers and John is brought to the winter camp. John decides that he is dangerous to the Sioux tribe if he stays with them, so he and his wife decide to leave. The movie ends after the army and some Pawnee tribe members reach the deserted Sioux village. A caption reads “Thirteen years later, their homes destroyed, their buffalo gone, the last band of free Sioux submitted to white authority at Fort Robinson, Nebraska.”

This film takes place shortly after the events of Little Big Man, during the US civil war. One of the Indian tribes from Little Big Man is present and has similar roles. For instance, the Pawnee Indians are allied with the U.S., and the Sioux Indians receive the unjust treatment, being driven from their lands, similar to the Cheyenne in Little Big Man, something Robert Baird refers to as “Noble Savages” (Rollins and O’Connor 160).

Dances With Wolves also introduces a Hollywood first, according to Ward Churchill, a writer of Indian history:

[Kevin Costner] invariably cast Indians to fill his script’s Indian roles […] To an extent surpassing anything else ever to emerge […] these Indians were allowed to serve as more than mere props. Throughout the movie, they were called upon to demonstrate motive and emotion, thereby assuming the dimensions of real human beings. Further, the film is technically and geographically accurate, factors superbly captured in the cinematography. (244)

Therefore, a much more personal account of the Natives took place. Not only that, but in the film, the Indians speak in the Sioux language (Wilson and Herman 37).

Many great lengths were taken to make sure that the Sioux were portrayed as accurately as possible. Wilson and Herman sum them up eloquently in their book American History On The Screen:

To assure historical accuracy, Costner hired an American Indian artifact historian, Cathy Smith. Smith was kept on hand for every shot to make certain that the costumes and rituals were correct. The costumes were made using traditional Sioux skills, such as brain tanning (using liquefied animal brains to soften skins) to provide authenticity. Even the war paint was based on traditional designs. American Indian artifact restorer Larry Belitz was in charge of creating an 1860s Lakota village with the correct tepees, cooking utensils, and weapons. Even the arrows were made of the same wood – red willow or chokecherry – used by the Sioux. (37)

Not only that, but for the movie’s props, “buffalo stomachs served as cooking pots, and buffalo bladders became canteens. Deer sinew instead of synthetic threads was used to sew the leather pieces together. The costumes were dyed with organic colors” (Sanello 96). There was only one exception. Since Eagle feathers could not be obtained for the headdresses, turkey feathers had to be used instead (Sanello 96). This attention to detail makes for a very accurate and very visually appealing set for the Sioux village.

The Pawnee Indians play an important role in this film. First of all, when Timmons leaves from the fort, he is ambushed by Pawnee Indians, just like when Little Big Man started out. However, this is unlikely since the Pawnee Indians were allied with the US military, and thus would have no reason to ambush a lone officer (Brown 108); it would theoretically make more sense for the Pawnee Indians to assist the lone officer back to where he came from. Also, near the end of the film, Pawnee scouts are shown with the US cavalry at the emptied Sioux village. This is likely to happen, since Pawnee scouts and cavalrymen did align to attack other Indian tribes together (Brown 111).

In the next historical event, John and the Cheyenne Indians are tracking buffalo, and find an entire herd of skinned, rotting buffalo corpses with wagon tracks leading away from the scene. John comments on the slaughter, coming to the conclusion that white men killed the buffalo. This is also very accurate, as Dee Brown recounts that “the stench of rotting carcasses fouled the very winds of the Plains; like the Indians, the great herds were being driven into the ground” (264-265). This was a tactic of the military, in General Sheridan’s words, to “kill, skin, and sell until the buffalo is exterminated, as it is the only way to bring lasting peace and allow civilization to advance” (Brown 265).

However, the film cannot be completely accurate, of course. Some critics argued that the film was too extreme, as the white men other than Dunbar were portrayed as “evil, demented, and/or rapacious…the American Indian [was portrayed] as the embodiment of virtue” (Wilson and Herman 38). Also, Sanello argues that “Costner replaced the previous Manichean view of [John] Ford and others…with an equally Manichean view that demonized the white man and beatified one Indian bribe while trashing another” (93).

Furthermore, Sanello finds that the Sioux, while very unjustly treated by whites, were not the selfless, helpless people portrayed in the film. At the time the Pawnees were helping the whites and encroaching on the lands of the Plains tribes, the Sioux went on a rampage of “killing, raping, pillaging, and burning in one of the most savage and bloody Indian uprisings in history,” according to Robert Utley in his book The Indian Frontier of the American West: 1846-1890 (qtd. in Sanello 95). In the film, “the Sioux always kill quickly, cleanly, and in self-defense, while the victims of the Pawnee die in agony” (Sanello 96). In actual history, the Sioux “killed so many Pawnee that during the 19th century their numbers declined from 12,000 to 2,000” (Sanello 96). Overall, while the Sioux did have more battles than shown in the movie, the film Dances With Wolves creates an overall very accurate portrayal of Native Americans and helps to reverse the stigma brought on Native Americans from Hollywood westerns.

These three films help to show a contrast between different perceptions of Natives at the time they were made. In his own way, each film director decided for one reason or another to pay strict attention to certain historical accuracies and ignore others. The different array of events and characters, as well as the portrayal of American Indians overall, make for an opportune discussion of why these accuracies and inaccuracies exist in each film. Since these films were released in different eras in America, these three films will help to show how perceptions may have differed or evolved during these different time periods, and how national identity at the time shaped not only the perception of American Indians in each film, but the overall message portrayed by each film.



Brown, Dee A. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1971. Print.

Cameron, Ian A, and Douglas Pye. The Book of Westerns. New York: Continuum, 1996. Print.

Dances With Wolves. Dir. Kevin Costner. Orion Pictures, 1990. Film.

Hilger, Michael. The American Indian in Film. Metuchen, N.J: Scarecrow Press, 1986. Print.

How the West Was Won. Dir. John Ford, Henry Hathaway, George Marshall. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1962. Film.

Hutton, Paul A. “‘correct in Every Detail’: General Custer in Hollywood.” Montana: the Magazine of Western History. 41.1 (1991): 28-57. 14 November 2011. Web. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/4519359>.

Kael, Pauline, and Will Brantley. Conversations with Pauline Kael. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1996. Print.

Kimble, Greg. “How the West Was Won – In Cinerama”. American Cinematographer. October 1983. Print.

Little Big Man. Dir. Arthur Penn. National General Pictures, 1970. Film.

Prats, A J. Invisible Natives: Myth and Identity in the American Western. Ithaca, N.Y: Cornell University Press, 2002. Print.

Rollins, Peter C, and John E. O’Connor. Hollywood’s Indian: The Portrayal of the Native American in Film. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998. Print.

Sanello, Frank. Reel V. Real: How Hollywood Turns Fact into Fiction. Lanham, Md: Taylor Trade Pub, 2003. Print.