Sins of Omission

The Noble Savage

A sequel to Dances With Wolves is reportedly scheduled for release in 2011.  Not only did Dances create a romantic American Indian who never existed, it reversed the roles of the Sioux and the Pawnee.  This kind of thing has been going on for hundreds of years, beginning with various European writers who, far removed from the reality of life on the American frontier, described the “noble savage” of the American forests.  Americans got into the business also but only after the frontier was several generations removed from their reality.  For 40 years I watched the same thing happen at the university—first when I was an undergraduate, later as a graduate student, and still later as a professor.  The noble savage is a fiction, of course, but few had the temerity to challenge the notion.

The tribes who inhabited what is today the United States practiced torture, human sacrifice, cannibalism, gang rape, slavery, and polygyny.  They were illiterate and had not advanced beyond the Stone Age.  Before the arrival of the white man, they rode no horses, having hunted the horse to extinction thousands of years earlier.  The horse was reintroduced by the Spaniards, and by the middle of the 18th century most of the Plains Indians had developed a horse culture, using the horse for hunting, war, packing, and trading.  As an item of trade the horse could get a brave a wife—one horse,...

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