Doing My Own Homework

Yes, I’m one of THOSE teachers; I gave my students homework over the week-long April break.  My writing workshop kids are reading (and, Goddess willing, taking good notes on what they read so they can engage each other in a conversation about the book when we get back from vacation).  To my juniors and seniors, I have posted this assignment:

For homework over the break, please compose, using the notes you’ve done for homework over the past week, a critical essay in which you explore, in depth, one of the central themes of Dances with Wolves (if you choose to investigate a theme we didn’t touch on in the homework assignments, please feel free; you’re not limited to those few we discussed in class.  I plan on doing my paper about the theme of trust, which is one we didn’t journal about – and yes, I’m doing this assignment, too).

Please refer to the handout you received last Friday (Writing the Critical Essay) and the OWL site on critical essays for guidance about putting a paper of this genre together.  Your rhetorical purpose is to analyze – you’re looking carefully at a theme of the text and using that text to support the claim you make about it – so you’re going to need a strong, defensible thesis statement.  Nailing a thesis statement is going to make your writing much easier, so please do put some thought and effort into composing a claim that you can really dig into.  Remember that the entire work needs to be firmly grounded in the text, but assume your audience is familiar with the film; you needn’t waste a lot of paper explaining a scene.

I am going to STRONGLY recommend that you get together with a classmate to workshop your papers (you can even post them on the Ning and send a notice to everyone that it’s up).  Get someone else to read and respond to your work; you’ll find that your writing will be better for it.

Your paper should be no more than 5 pages and should follow the Writing Standards outlined on the Ning page (papers that fail to follow this standard will be returned as incomplete).

If you have any questions, problems, or concerns, or if you want to talk about your ideas (or get a refresher about a scene from the film) please either email me or leave a comment on this post.

Please remember that we’ll have a guest speaker on the Monday we return from vacation.  I expect you to be respectful, engaged, and participatory; please honor the time and effort this man is offering us by coming to our class.

Have a great week!

Here, then, is my essay.

The essential relationship in Dances with Wolves isn’t between Dunbar and the Sioux people; neither is it the relationship between Dunbar and Stands with a Fist, the woman who would eventually become his wife.  While those bonds are certainly important, both to the evolution of the narrative and to Dunbar’s growth as a person, the most significant relationship in the film is the one between Dunbar and Wind in His Hair.  It is through that deep and profound friendship, forged grudgingly between two strong-willed men for whom confrontation is a central part of who they are, that both men are able to see beyond their own prejudice and fear.  It can be argued that Dunbar isn’t the main character of the story at all; Wind in His Hair seems to be the person who undergoes the most significant change over the course of the film, and it is he who is most profoundly affected by the appearance of this white man into the Indian society.

In his first encounter with Dunbar, Wind in His Hair charges the white man yelling “I am Wind in His Hair! Do you see that I am not afraid of you?”  Both men are armed – Dunbar with his gun and Wind in His Hair with his spear – but neither man attacks the other, though the situation is highly charged.  Instead, they seem to be at an impasse; neither one is sure of the other – or of himself where the other is concerned.  That neither man either attacks or backs down during that first meeting lays a necessary foundation for their relationship; they recognize the warrior in one another and are able to relate, at first on a limited basis, as equals.  It is this foundation, based on trust and mutual admiration, that serves the men well as they begin to build a deep and abiding friendship.

Wind in His Hair approaches this first encounter having discussed the presence of the lone white soldier with the other men of his tribe; his attitude and behavior are tempered by the thinking of those other, deeply respected voices.  Wind in His Hair’s elders are thoughtful and curious; they see the strangeness of a white man alone on the prairie as a possible sign that this white man may be unlike the others they’d encountered, and they see that as reason to investigate the matter further.  Despite his stating that he wants to test the white man’s “medicine” with arrows, Wind in His Hair’s hand is stayed in that first encounter with Dunbar not only because he trusts the wisdom of his elders who told him that more must be known about this strange man before any action is taken, but also because he sees this man hold his ground in the face of the imposing figure that Wind in His Hair presents.  The Sioux warrior recognizes, in this other, a bit of himself.

Dunbar has no context for that first meeting beyond the fact that this is the third time these Indians have tried to steal his horse.  Everything he knows – or thinks he knows – about the native peoples of the frontier offers him no reason not to shoot this screeching Indian off his horse and be done with it.  Dunbar’s culture taught him that Indians are dirty, thieving, bloodthirsty savages.  Timmons echoes the popular sentiment when he tells Dunbar “you’d just as soon not see ‘em less’n the bastards are dead.  Nothing but thieves and beggars.”  It doesn’t seem a great leap to think that, given the Indians’ three attempts to acquire Cisco, Dunbar would think that the popular assessment of the native peoples is correct.  With Dunbar’s upbringing in white culture – and his recent experiences with these particular Indians – the audience is left to wonder exactly what keeps Dunbar from pulling the trigger.

That first and confrontational meeting with Wind in His Hair is the spark that Dunbar needs to do something.  To this point, he has been “waiting for something,” and he writes in his journal that it is now clear to him that he has “become a target, and a target makes a poor impression.”  He steels his resolve, outfits himself in his dress uniform, and proceeds to ride out and meet his Indian neighbors.  Of course, this does not go as he intended, and he finds himself walking into the village carrying a bleeding tribeswoman he encountered on his way.  It is Wind in His Hair who receives this woman, yelling and gesturing at Dunbar that he is not welcome in the village and ordering him to go away.  It is interesting to note in this scene that it is Dunbar’s horse, not Dunbar himself, who flinches at Wind in His Hair’s menacing gestures.  Even though he can’t understand Sioux, Dunbar clearly understands Wind in His Hair’s intent – it would be difficult not to, given the warrior’s fierce face and the club he’s carrying -  yet Dunbar makes and maintains eye contact with Wind in His Hair through the entire encounter.  This fact isn’t lost on Wind in His Hair who, after dragging the injured woman back to the gawking villagers, turns to stare back at Dunbar with what seems to be a mixture of confusion, admiration, and open disbelief.

Wind in His Hair’s chief, Ten Bears, sees something between the men in that scene in the village, and he sends Wind in His Hair with Kicking Bird, the village’s medicine man, as ambassadors to meet Dunbar at the fort.  Ten Bears’ intent here is twofold; he sees in Dunbar much of the same stuff he knows Wind in His Hair is made of – strength of character and bravery – and he wants for Wind in His Hair to recognize that in this strange “other” because that point of commonality may be helpful in establishing a rapport between the tribe and the soldier.  Ten Bears also needs Wind in His Hair’s cooperation in the chief’s plans for dealing with the soldier.  Wind in His Hair is clearly the alpha warrior in the village and, as such, his attitude toward the village’s new neighbor will have a great influence on how many of the other warriors behave toward him.  Ten Bears’ decision to send Wind in His Hair with Kicking Bird on that first formal diplomatic mission is both political and personal; Wind in His Hair is acting as an ambassador from his village, but he’s also opening himself up to the possibility of a relationship with this white man.  Ten Bears, as wise and observant as he is, just sees that possibility long before Wind in His Hair does.

For all of Wind in His Hair’s impatience and incredulity – he tells Kicking Bird that Dunbar’s “mind is gone” as Dunbar is on all fours imitating a buffalo during that first formal meeting – he is fascinated by this man who is so clearly different from himself but who bears, nevertheless, an energy and character that Wind in His Hair understands.  Dunbar recognizes that sympathy of spirit as well, saying that “the Fierce One, as I call him, seems a very tough fellow… from the little I know of him, he seems to be very honest and direct,” qualities that Dunbar clearly admires and which, judging from his behavior throughout the film, he himself exemplifies.

After the buffalo hunt, as Dunbar is becoming more and more integrated into the village culture, he and Wind in His Hair make a trade – Dunbar’s coat for Wind in His Hair’s breastplate.  While Wind in His Hair doesn’t see much in the exchange – for him, it was simply one ornament for another – Dunbar interprets the trade very differently.  He openly admires the breastplate – we’d seen him eye it earlier in the film – and the gift of such a fine thing impresses him.  Later, in the lodge, we see that Wind in His Hair has truly turned a corner in his relationship with Dunbar when he stands up for the white man when an Indian comes into the lodge wearing the hat that Dunbar had lost in the buffalo hunt.  Wind in His Hair argues that the hat belongs to the soldier and that, if the man wants to keep it, he needs to offer something in exchange.  This is done, Dunbar accepts the offering, and Wind in His Hair, who was once in favor of killing this white man, has instead become his advocate.  Dunbar writes in his journal at the end of that scene that “many times [he’d] felt alone, but [until he left the tribe to return to his fort after the hunt, he’d] never felt completely lonely.”  He recognizes here that he’s making genuine human connections in the tribe, and one of the most significant connections is the one with Wind in His Hair.

Perhaps the most important scene in understanding the distance that Wind in His Hair travels in becoming Dunbar’s friend is when Wind in His Hair is telling him about Stands with a Fist’s first husband.  This man, who died early in the film in a battle with a rival tribe, was important to Wind in His Hair.  “He was my best friend,” Wind in His Hair explains.  “He was a good man.  It has been hard for me to like you.  I’m not the thinker Kicking Bird is.  I always feel anger first.  There were no answer to my questions.  But now I think that he went away because you were coming.  That is how I see it.”  In telling the story, Wind in His Hair explains that Dunbar didn’t just come for Stands with a Fist; he was coming for Wind in His Hair, too.  We are led to understand that, despite his claims to the contrary, Wind in His Hair really is a thinker; his friendship with this strange white man has given him much to think about, and it is clear that he is pleased with the outcome.

Late in the film, when Dunbar announces to the council that he will be leaving the village because his staying represents too great a threat to the people, Wind in His Hair cannot stay in the lodge; he yells “No” over and over and leaves in a rage that he uses to cover his pain and fear.  We watch as Wind in His Hair struggles to find the courage to approach Dunbar’s lodge later in the scene; he wants desperately to talk to Dunbar, but can’t bring himself to do it.  His pain and frustration are plainly evident on his face, and we understand clearly that Wind in His Hair is anticipating a loss that will be difficult for him to reconcile.

The final scene of the film is an incredibly touching look into the depths of Wind in His Hair’s feeling for Dunbar and the relationship that they share.  High on the bluff, Wind in His Hair yells to Dunbar “Dances with Wolves!  I am Wind in His Hair!  Do you see that I am your friend?  Can you see that I will always be your friend?”  His voice breaks, and it is evident that he is crying.  With this parting, Wind in His Hair comes full circle; he heralded his first encounter with Dunbar by challenging him with, “Do you see that I am not afraid of you?” and solemnized his last meeting by asking “Do you see that I am your friend?”  The emotional distance that Wind in His Hair had to travel to come to that final scene was vast; he overcame fear and prejudice and was able to see himself in the face of another who he originally thought could not be more unlike himself.  He came to understand, in a profound and almost visceral way, that if one is willing to take the chance, one will likely find that there is no such thing as an “other.”

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6 Comments

Filed under analysis, critical thinking, film as literature, I love my job, Mrs. Chili as Student, writing

6 responses to “Doing My Own Homework

  1. Pingback: Six Word Saturday « The Blue Door

  2. I completely love the ways in which you both manage to use technical language but also engage your students as if you are speaking to them even IN the assignment description itself. This shows a love of your students while also demonstrating your clear high expectations of them (and a general “we’re all in this together” feel). Great stuff!

  3. I believe the Native Americans were treated as bad as the slaves. “A People’s History of the United States, 1492 – Present” by Howard Zinn is an excellent and moving read, and presents history from the perspective of the oppressed.

    Dr. B

  4. Great assignment. I had to laugh at the title of your post because I also always make it a point to complete any assignment myself before giving it to my students. Good post and assignment.

  5. Concerned Parent

    This year marks the 33rd anniversary of the last time I dealt with a Senior class English teacher. I happened to come across your blog and read your essay about the central relationship contained within Dances with Wolves.
    First, I regret not having an English teacher in high school (or college, for that matter) who wasn’t either just a warm body with tenure or a twit on sabbatical from some ivory tower. From my brief exposure to your blog the appearance that you are neither is refreshing.
    Second, the poignancy of your closing paragraph struck home with me – my Dad passed away 19 days ago, and evidently part of my grieving process has been to come to the realization that he was my best friend. Thank you.

    • I am amazed, and humbled, by the number of people I reach with my writing. I’m honored you came to visit me, and I thank you for your kind words.

      I helped my mother die last year (our journey was chronicled on my personal blog, theinnerdoor.wordpress.com. I started writing about it in March of last year). You have the condolences of someone who understands your loss. I wish you peace.

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