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The movie Hostiles, released January 2018, is set in the late 19th century as the American-Indian Wars were winding down. It takes place on a journey from New Mexico to Montana as an embittered U.S. Army captain escorts a dying Cheyenne chief to his native homeland, under orders from President Benjamin Harrison.
While the film’s characters and mission are fictional, the story is steeped in a true, troubled history. Familiarity with this background is helpful for understanding the complex relationships between the main characters, and the fraught, real-life history they represent.
We’ll explore some resources that provide valuable context for the movie Hostiles as well as offer deeper insights into the devastating, long-fought American-Indian Wars and the historic U.S. policies on Native American assimilation.
The title of the film Hostiles might be interpreted as a reference to the brutality expressed by each side in the American-Indian Wars. Set in 1892, the story begins abruptly with the shocking attack of a settler family by a group of Comanches, then switches to the U.S. Calvary’s vicious capture of an escaping Apache family who are forced into to a crowded army prison.
The mutual hostility is palpable.
But “hostiles” also historically refers to Native Americans who clung to their languages, religions and traditions, which were increasingly outlawed under U.S. state and federal governments’ push for assimilation to “civilized” American culture.
The plot of the film brings together two fictional characters – embittered U.S. Army Captain Joe Blocker (Christian Bale) and the dying Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) who were fierce foes at Wounded Knee, the massacre that took place December 1890. Awareness of this historic episode and events leading up to it are pivotal in understanding the complex evolution of the characters’ relationship.
The Massacre at Wounded Knee was triggered by a series of treaty violations against the Lakota Sioux, and their practice of the forbidden Ghost Dance. The U.S. Army perceived this ritual as a frightening act of aggression and deployed thousands of troops to control the situation. Tensions mounted over the course of several weeks, culminating in a massacre that left approximately 300 dead Natives – mostly women and children.
For many Natives, the bloodshed signaled the consequences of resisting assimilation.
Researchers who want to feel the immediacy of real history should check out ProQuest History Vault’s American Indians and the American West module. In particular, a collection called Indian Wars of the West and Frontier Army Life, 1862-1898: Official Histories and Personal Narratives provides an overview of army life on the frontier during the era in which the film Hostiles takes place. These documents uncover in-the-moment perceptions of Native American culture and expose white Americans’ attitudes as events were unfolding.
For example, author James P. Boyd struggled to reconcile the treatment of Native American “hostiles” with the values of “civilized America” in his 1895 book, Red Men on the Warpath. A Thrilling Story of Sunset Lands and Its Tragedies – wonderfully subheaded: The Peculiar and Interesting Life, Manners, Customs, Beliefs and Ceremonials of the North American Indians, and a Wholesome, Interesting Narration of the Tragic Events of Their Recent History, Delightfully Presented for the Entertainment and Instruction of Youth. Boyd wrote:
The annals of pioneering teem with hardships and exploits calculated to do credit to the white man's prowess, but how many of them are merely inexcusable aggressions or deliberate massacres, inviting still crueller [sic] ones in return. To justify massacre by massacre has always been a part of pioneering policy, regardless of the moral fact that, in matters of vengeance and blood, it really lowers Christian civilization to the level of that of the Savage; or, considering the superior claims of the first, it sinks it below the latter.
Chapter by chapter, Boyd went on to describe interactions with various tribes, and shared detailed observations of their practices and customs. This includes a lengthy examination of the history of the Ghost Dance and how observers confused a ritual performed as an act of religious ceremony with a dance performed as part of war preparation.
For another point of view, Boyd’s semi-sympathetic account of the Ghost Dance at the Lakota reservation can be juxtaposed with reports published in The New York Times, available from ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Written a month before the massacre erupted, an article from November 22, 1890, “The Ghost Dance: How the Indians Work Themselves Up to a Fighting Pitch,” illustrates how the impassioned dancers invoked intense fear and a sense of danger in many witnesses. As the reporter noted:
The spectacle was as ghastly as it could be: it showed the Sioux to be insanely religious…The ghost dance is simply a dance of cruel endurance which is far more barbarous than the sun dance, where the breasts of the warriors are torn open.
The writer continues to describe the exhaustion and bloody wounds suffered by the Sioux dancers and the “shrill yelping noise” they emitted, concluding “This is an accurate description of the famous ghost dances, to see one of which in this country at the present time is attended by the greatest peril.”
A follow-up article the next day in The Times declared “Dancers Threaten to Shoot: The Wounded Knee Fanatics Are Ready to Fight.” The story described the “Wounded Knee fanatics, including some of the most desperate and treacherous redskins in this part of the country,” going on to “dance in a wilder manner than has been known thus far” in a way that was interpreted by observers as preparation for battle.
The Ghost Dance, as well as the Sun Dance mentioned in The New York Times account, are just two of the Native American practices that were forbidden under “civilization regulations” enacted by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The U.S. government made a multitude of laws intended to eradicate every aspect of Native culture.
Native religions and “medicine” ceremonies were outlawed. Legislation mandated English as the exclusive language of instruction on reservations. Native children were compelled to attend boarding schools where they were “Americanized” in their education, clothing and habits.
Documents related to such activity are available from the ProQuest Congressional database. To explore specific policies on assimilation, perform an advanced search using the terms “Indians” AND “hostiles” AND other keywords, such as “ghost dance,” “ritual” or “clothing” to uncover relevant legislative records.
For example, searching “Indian” AND “hostiles” AND “Sioux” turns up documents associated with the Dawes Act, a critical piece of legislation created to abolish tribal rights of Native Americans in an effort to coerce assimilation.
Such primary source materials enable researchers to track U.S. attitudes and policies toward Native Americans, providing valuable context for the film Hostiles, as well as to inspire deeper awareness and understanding of this on-going chapter in American history.
For additional research:
Read letters and memoirs from History Vault’s American Indians and the American West, 1809-1971, including Trinidad Bardine’s story of being captured at age 10 and traveling with an Apache tribe, on SlideShare.
Alexander Street’s North American Indian Thought and Culture
Learn about historical events as told by the individuals who lived through them via previously unpublished, rare, or hard to find autobiographies, biographies, Indian publications, oral histories, personal writings, photographs, drawings, and audio files.
A recent ACRL/CHOICE review hailed ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global as “highly recommended for beginning students through professionals/practitioners.” Find a wide variety of richly cited and intensively researched papers on the subject of Native American assimilation. These are excellent starting points for research or for finding experts on the topic.
Cole, R. A. K. (1998). Assimilation Process as Seen Through Native American Literature (Order No. 1390587). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (304484434).
Sandler, K. A. (2010). Storytelling as Survival: The Native American Struggle for Selfhood and Identity (Order No. 3434778). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (847400423).
Genetin-Pilawa, C. (2008). Confining Indians: Power, Authority, and the Colonialist iIeologies of Nineteenth-Century Reformers (Order No. 3312686). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (304576918).
Stidolph, J. (2008). “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle”: Shoshone and Arapaho Women in the Wind River Region and Assimilation Policy, 1880–1932 (Order No. 1457057). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (304452361).
Emery, J. A. (2011). Writing against erasure: Native American Boarding School Students and the Periodical Press, 1880–1920 (Order No. 3457883). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (874271457).
ProQuest offers a specialized microfilm catalog with a complete listing of products for research in the area of Native-American Studies on page 108.