Dances with Wolves revolve around the relationship between Lieutenant John Dunbar and the Sioux tribe. The movie shows the perspective of Dunbar as he spends time with the tribe. He is disillusioned by the way he is treated and the tribe’s way of life. He comes to realize that the stories that he had heard about the Red Indians did not hold any truth. On the contrary, the tribe led a very peaceful life however there were times when Dunbar and the tribe did not see eye to eye (Costner). This review will explore those moments through the lens of cultural relativism and discern if both sides were simultaneously correct in their beliefs and actions.
In the movie, Dunbar does not have any contact with the Sioux until one of them wanders into his fort where Dunbar confronts him but he runs off. It is later revealed that the person is the Medicine Man of the Sioux tribe named Kicking Bird. He informs the tribe of Dunbar and they decide to communicate with him. Slowly, they start to form an amicable relationship and it is through their limited communication, Dunbar learns that the tribe is looking for a buffalo herd. Later in the night as Dunbar sleeps, he is awoken by the shaking ground. He goes out to investigate and he sees the herd running past his dwelling. He quickly saddles up and informs the Sioux about the herd. They gather the very next day to find the herd for the hunt but the scouts of the tribe inform them that a few buffalos have been slaughtered for their hides and tongues. Dunbar is appalled by this news and as he surveys the area he notices a wagon trail leaving the scene. His heart sinks as he realizes that the culprits are his fellow white men. Later that night he learns that the tribe had tracked the perpetrators and slaughtered them. This makes him extremely sad and he spends the night away from the tribe because after all those men were still his men.
In another incident, Dunbar sees a tribesman wearing his hat. He asks for the hat to be returned but the tribesman refuses. Another tribesman named “Wind in his hair”, tells his fellow tribesman that if he wants to keep the hat then that is fine but he should trade something in its place. The tribesman agrees and gives Dunbar a dagger which he reluctantly accepts. Wind in his hair declares that it is was a good trade and the matter is considered resolved.
In the first example, Sioux kills the men that mercilessly slaughtered the buffalos which according to their perspective was the right thing to do. The reasoning behind this was that when you need something from Mother Earth only then do you take it, however; the white men not only took something mercilessly they also left the carcasses to rot. So punishing them, seemed reasonable to the tribesmen but Dunbar thought this was extreme as in his culture people who commit crimes are judged by authority. Taking the law into your own hands is wrong. The second incident involves a trade, Dunbar wants his property back as it is quite clear that it belongs to him and taking someone’s property without permission is theft and a punishable crime. However, according to Sioux’s perspective, whoever finds an item first, has ownership over it but if there is a conflict over the item a fair trade is conducted to resolve the situation.
Both perspectives are correct when observed through the lens of cultural relativism. As for the objections raised by Rachels and Midgely, is it not true that their perspective of right and wrong is also shaped by their culture? Some situations may indeed be too complex to understand simply through the concept of cultural relativism. That being said if some of the practices of the Red Indians were considered barbaric then the treatment they received by those who considered themselves “civilized” was also beyond barbaric and shameful.
Costner, Kevin. Dances with Wolves. 1990, https://www.netflix.com/title/60028940.