Monday, February 22, 2010

Avatar - Dancing With Wolves - Sitting Bull and His World

 Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

I am far from the only person to compare James Cameron's epic Avatar to Kevin Costner's epic "Dances with Wolves." (Nor am I the first to see in Avatar the influence of Star Trek or  Edgar Rice Burroughs' Martian series -- several books of which I have just read.) But I may be one of the few who followed up seeing Avatar with a visit to a museum exhibition about the destruction of  traditional Native American life on the American plains: an exhibit on Sitting Bull and His World at the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna.

As many have noted, the plot of Avatar  follows that of Dances with Wolves in a number of ways -- most simply put, a battered "white" soldier charged with subduing an indigenous population takes up the cause of the people he is supposed to suppress and (in part thanks to the love of a woman) eventually "goes native." This storyline has made Dances with Wolves very popular with American Indian hobbyists in Germany and elsewhere in Europe -- in effect, the Kevin Costner character accomplishes what would be the ideal for many of them.

(More people today are probably familiar with Dances with Wolves than with the Burroughs' Martian (or Barsoomian) series, written around the time of World War One -- but these books, too, deal with a battered soldier, in this case Civil War veteran John Carter, who loves a local princess and becomes part of an indigenous people (Martians). Apparently James Cameron alluded to Burroughs' works as an inspiration for Avatar -- and even visually I noticed Burroughs touches in some of the creatures created to populate Avatar's planet Pandora.)

I saw Avatar in Vienna over the weekend and the next day we to the the Sitting Bull exhibit (which is up until March 15). It uses photographs and objects to tell the life and afterlife of Sitting Bull, whose image remains one of the visual icons of the West, just as his story has become legend.

Here's how the museum describes him:
Sitting Bull – freedom fighter, „holy man“, rabble-rouser and troublemaker, poet and painter, media star. 
It was, of all days, July 4, 1876 – the day America celebrated the centenary of her independence - when a dismayed public first learned about the “victor of the Battle of Little Bighorn”, who had annihilated the 7th U.S. Cavalry Regiment and killed its commander, the popular hero, George Armstrong Custer. Since then, deeply contradictory images of Tataka Iyotanka, or “Sitting Bull”, have been published and propagated. „He never told the truth if a lie served him better“ claimed one of his earliest biographers in a book published shortly after December 15, 1890, the day on which the Hunkpapa chief was shot while resisting arrest by members of the Indian Police. At about the same time, however, a contemporary described him as the „oracle of secrets and of knowledge that remains hidden from the masses, even from other chiefs who listened to his words and respected his authority as the highest and final expression of wisdom”. Even his own people were deeply divided; they relished the glory of his martial exploits but shuddered at his familiarity with spiritual powers. Eventually, however, most rejected his policy of resisting the all-powerful United States.  
Today, the man who in 1884 criticised Capitalism („The white man knows how to produce goods but not how to distribute them“) is celebrated as a model for heroic management strategies. His spiritual closeness to nature and his anti-Americanism make him the precursor of every alternative way of life. His posthumous popularity has turned him into a successful advertising vehicle for a wide range of products.  
Sitting Bull was one of the most frequently depicted „Native Americans“. The club he holds in one of his final photographs identifies him as an unreformed warrior, the crucifix around his neck as a candidate for imminent conversion; his sunglasses document the partial paralysis of the face that increasingly handicapped him; his many different head-coverings reflect his many different roles. His public face suggests lofty gravity or half-disguised anger, but his family photographs show a smiling Sitting Bull, a man who liked women and loved his children and grandchildren.

More than anyone else, Sitting Bull personifies the contradictions inherent in our Western conceptions of “Native Americans”. He is both a tragic symbol of a doomed world and an inspirational figure for alternative ways-of-life in the post-industrial era.
Not to mention a T-shirt:

Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

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