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American Culture in a Film “Thunderheart” by M. Apted Essay


The relationships between Native Americans and the settlers, as well as the descendants of the settlers, have never been easy. In a retrospective, the story about the conquest of the American continent was rather harsh, with violence being the key to the relationships between the Natives and the settlers to be based on.

However, the cultural issues were soon ousted by nonetheless important discords regarding the economical and financial aspects of the Americans’ lives (Porter 374).

Even though there is nothing more to be done about the inhumane methods in which the American lands were conquered, with the help of the present-day movie industry, some light can be shed on the issues regarding the culture clash and the economic, financial and political arguments between the Native Americans of the present day and the rest of the U.S. population (Deloria and Salisbury 403).

By combining the elements of fiction with the details borrowed from the history of the United States, Michael Nozik managed to direct a movie that both enthralls the viewers with an original storyline and compelling characters, and comments on the issues regarding the Native American culture destruction, therefore, pointing at the negative effects of judging other cultures, particularly, the Native American culture, the perils of cultural assimilation and the need to encourage cultural awareness so that the incidents like the destruction of the Native American culture should not happen again.

Weirdly enough, for a movie that is supposed to tackle the ambiguous issue of the conflict between Native Americans and the rest of the U.S. population, Nozik’s film allows the issues above to take a back seat to the character development and the development of the plot lines. The elements of the social context are always there in the background, providing the foil for the character growth and the twists of the plot.

For example, the issue of assimilation and the effects that it had on the Native Americans all over the continent is never mentioned directly, and yet is constantly being referenced throughout the entire movie. Nozik opposes city to the country as a place where progress blurs the line between different cultures: “No, Maggie. But you’re gonna have to join me for a ride. I’m taking you to Rapid City.” (Nozik and Apted).

Also, the city is represented as the place created by Americans for Americans, with no Native residents allowed. For instance, in Thunderheart, very few Native Americans are portrayed as the dwellers of reservations – quite on the opposite, most of them are shown as the dwellers of the newly built cities: “Anyone who fought or spoke out against it, wound up dead or in jail. And the people wound up here on a reservation” (Nozik and Apted).

By showing how fast the Native Americans adapted towards the culture that was foisted onto them by the colonists, Nozik makes it obvious that Native Americans were losing their identity quickly.

With their choice limited to either accepting the culture of the colonists, or to be doomed to death in reservations, Native Americans assimilated and, thus, were ripped off their identity. This is the “Loss of culture” (Macionis and Parillo, 109) that Kunstler was talking about.

The specifics of the Native American culture are also rendered in the movie in a rather detailed manner, though, again, Nozik does not specify what exactly is wrong with contemporary society.

One of the most impressive things about the Thunderheart is that most of the complex ideas and concepts, such as ethical and racial issues, or the conflict of nature vs. nurture, are not talked over, but shown through the visuals of the movie and the interactions between the characters.

Likewise, the “Washington redskin” subplot renders the issue of the Native American culture being trodden upon by the culture of the American people.

At some point, Nozik nearly mentions the source of the discord, making it obvious that colonists were never willing to treasure the cultural values of the Native Americans; more to the point, the Native American burial grounds were used as the building sites for housing and industrial complexes, which doubtlessly was a slap in the face of the Native Americans and their culture: “’ Leo’s been out here too long, man. I’m taking him to ceremonial burial.’ – ‘This is a restricted area’” (Nozik and Apted).

Thus, the movie shows that the people exploiting the American land for commercial and business purposes could not be concerned any less about its cultural value and significance for Native Americans (Sackman 203).

The last, but not the least, cultural awareness is the most obvious element of Nozik’s movie, being the plot line that the director put all the stakes on. The risks paid off fully, seeing how the movie nailed down the need for people of different cultures to reconcile in a very original and convincing way.

By showing how the dealing characters interact, Nozik makes a very witty and at the same time sad social commentary on human nature in general and the relationships between the conquered nation and the nation of the colonists in particular:

I know more about the law and the history out here than the people themselves. Let me tell you, I feel for them. They’re a proud people. But they’re also a conquered people. That means their future is dictated by the nation that conquered them. Rightly or wrongly, that’s the way it works, down through history. (Nozik and Apted)

Thus, Nozik makes it obvious that without coming to reasonable terms, two different cultures are doomed to deal with numerous misunderstandings and solve conflicts triggered by the latter. To make the matter worse, these misconceptions and amenity between two nations can lead to a destruction of the ethnicity, whose forces are inferior, as the example of the Native American culture shows (Zukin 75).

It is also remarkable that Nozik does not simplify the conflict between the Natives and the settlers to the mere concept of the greed of the white men. Quite on the contrary, Nozik manages to come up with a unique and original way to display the dynamics between the two cultures, which is truly worth appreciating.

Although the movie focuses on interpersonal conflicts and character development much more than it does on the historical accuracy, it still touches upon several important issues regarding how the settlers and their descendants were treating the Native Americans, and the effects to which this mistreatment led to.

It would be wrong to call the movie the exact representation of what happened in the course of the relationships between the Native Americans and the rest of the USA residents since the movie director was not pursuing historical accuracy when making the movie. However, Thunderheart still manages to capture the essence of the epoch, though softening the rough edges.

Providing enough space for character development exercises and at the same time leaving enough wiggle room for the discussion of complicated social issues, like the conflict between the Natives and the Americans, Nozik manages to set a rather gloomy yet very impressive and thought to provoke environment to plant his characters in.

Works Cited

Deloria, Philip and Neal Salisbury. A Companion to American Indian History. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, Inc. 2002. Print.

Macionis, John J. and Vincent N. Parillo. Cities and Urban Life (3rd Ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2003. 108–115. Print.

Nozik, Michael (Ex. Prod.) and Michael Apted (Dir.). Thunderheart. Culver City, CA: Tristar Pictures. 1992. DVD.

Porter, Joy. Place and Native American History and Culture. New York, NY: Peter Lang. 2007. Print.

Sackman, Douglas Cazaux. A Companion to American Environmental History. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, Inc. 2010. Print.

Zukin, Sharon. “Whose Culture, Whose City?” The Culture of Cities. 1995. 75–86. Print.

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