Published January 27, 2018
By Suzan Shown Harjo
Hostiles is a new movie in an old genre, the western. It opens with a boots-and-saddles staple: burning of a log cabin and butchery of a settler and his innocent children by scary looking Indians in warpaint. In short, it starts like the same old western, complete with braids, hats, mustaches, horses, fire and blood.
But, keep your seats, because the movie soon departs from the full panoply of clichés. While the picture is always familiar and there are genre tropes and homages aplenty, there also are images of Old West realities long hidden by false narratives in dime novels, cowboy movies, stereotypical cartoons and other manifestations of popular culture.
Hostiles is an epic tale of two small families that have an intimate relationship with war and lives on the run. One is a family of men, American soldiers, with an unexpected addition of a settler woman whose life had been shattered. The other is a Cheyenne family with a sole young child standing for the future – they’ve been stripped of freedom and possessions, but remain as evidence of an ancient continuum and heirs to a legacy of cultural magnificence and wisdom.
A Cavalry veteran of the Indian wars is ordered to guard a dying Cheyenne Chief and deliver him and his family along a thousand miles of the Rocky Mountains from New Mexico to their Montana homelands. Army officers often were assigned escort duty to aging chiefs, and sometimes to entire Native Nations, primarily to assure the settler public that captivity of the savages tamed them and their resistance to giving up their lands is pacified
Along the trail, U.S. Army Captain Joseph J. Blocker, his small military escort and their prisoners come upon the dazed Rosalie Quaid, who is in deep, disorienting mourning over her murdered family. Chief Yellow Hawk is focused on the near future when he will cross over to be with his Tsistsistas (Cheyenne) ancestors. He and his remaining family have been in military prison for years for being “Hostiles.” “When we lay our heads down here,” says the Captain, “we’re all prisoners.”
These war-weary veterans have past combat history and neither relishes the trek or the company.
Hostiles is set in the year 1892, when being branded a “Hostile” was tantamount to a death sentence. “Hostile” was the official governmental term under the U.S. Civilization Regulations, which criminalized everything that made Native Peoples Native – praying, dancing, singing, healing and defending freedom – “crimes” that landed offenders in prison or starved, or both.
Traditions, ceremonies and medicine ways were banned as “pagan” and “heathenish,” from 1880 to 1936 – for over a half-century of religious and cultural oppression. Native religions, languages and people were driven underground; many never reemerged.
The federal rules specifically outlawed the Sun Dance and all other “so-called ceremonies.” They banned roaming off the reservations, which meant no traveling to burial or ceremonial grounds or to fishing, gathering, hunting or holy places. Forbidden was any interference with the “progressive education” of children, which referred to the English-only/Christian-only boarding schools of corporal punishment, sexual torment, hard shoes, short hair and lye soap in the mouth and eyes.
Suzan Shown Harjo
Two years before the Hostiles setting, in 1890, Chief Sitting Bull (Hunkpapa) and his half-brother Chief Big Foot (Minnecoujou) were hunted down and murdered for dancing in the banned Ghost Dance. They were officially “Hostiles,” as violators of the Civilization prohibition against dancing, and the arrest order stated they were “Fomenters of Dissent.”
When Sitting Bull was killed at his Standing Rock Sioux home, his people escaped to Big Foot’s Cheyenne River Sioux Cherry Creek camp, and they fled on horseback for Oglala Lakota country. Nearly all were massacred there, at Wounded Knee, and buried in a mass grave pit by the 7th Cavalrymen, who received Medals of Honor for the “battle.” The U.S. apologized for the Wounded Knee Massacre a century later, in 1990, but without using the word “apology.”
“Hostiles.” The very word fills me with dread. Many relatives of the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Sioux, Kiowa and other Nations were killed because they were “Hostiles.” The most barbaric massacres of Native Peoples resulted from attempts to impose or enforce Civilization.
My own ancestors were branded “Hostiles” for being part of the Cheyenne resistance, which was led for much of the later half of the 1800s by my mother’s great-grandfather, Chief Bull Bear. He was a ceremonial leader, who healed with colors, and a head of the Dog Men Society, Tsistsistas Hetomitoneo, at a time when over half the Cheyenne Nation was comprised of Dog Men families, as well as resistors from other Plains Nations.
The Cavalry Corps, blood still hot from the American Civil War, were led on the Great and Southern Plains by the likes of Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, who spawned the phrase, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian;” and Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer, who never missed a chance to desecrate holy places and people. Custer and his 7th Cavalrymen were killed at the 1876 Battle of Little Bighorn, where Chiefs Bull Bear, Sitting Bull and Big Foot did not lose.
The Cavalry was waging war on some of the very Nations President Abraham Lincoln promised in the unwritten 1863 Treaty would be protected from further encroachment by the gold- and land-rushers, in exchange for the Nations agreeing to remain neutral in the Civil War. The leader of the Cheyenne Delegation was Chief Lean Bear, Bull Bear’s brother, who also was co-head of the entire Southern Plains Nations Delegates who made that Treaty with the U.S. in the East Room of the White House.
Lean Bear was murdered by Colorado Volunteers on his way home, as he was showing his Peace Medal and the Lincoln-signed letter of safe transit. The following year, the Volunteers carried out the Sand Creek Massacre (as Cavalry officers looked on), murdering and mutilating Cheyenne and Arapaho People, including the two other Cheyenne relatives and leaders who had made the Treaty with the U.S. President.
While the Grant Administration confined Native Peoples to reservations and outlawed travel to sacred, customary places, the Cavalry secured these off-reservation “public domain” lands, waters, gold and silver for the U.S. and to protect the railroads, mines and parks. The Cavalry also protected the whitemen who “hunted” buffalo by shooting them from trains on Indian treaty lands, because Sheridan saw the killing of the “Indian commissary” as a way to kill Indians. By 1874, the buffalo-killing whitemen had slaughtered some five million buffalo, and Sheridan testified, “Let them kill, skin and sell until the buffalo is exterminated.” And the buffalos and Indians were pushed to the edge of extinction.
Cavalrymen chased my relatives and other Native Peoples all over the Plains. They attacked at dawn, killed or enslaved everyone who did not escape and burned everything the soldiers did not loot: buffalo robes, tipis, paint, artwork, tools, deer and elk hide clothes, moccasins, jewelry, pipebags, medicine pouches, eagle and owl feather headdresses and staffs and other personal and collective patrimony. This helps to explain why museums and private collectors have almost all the Cheyenne materials from that period, while the Tsistsistas have almost nothing. Oral and written history is replete with remembrances of women, children and ponies screaming in the night at the hands of the Cavalry.
The intent of the Civilization rules was to destroy Native cultures; their ill effects were felt throughout the 1900s and into this time. We did not obtain a religious freedom law until 1978, when the U.S. declared that it is its policy to protect and preserve traditional Native religions. Laws to recover our relatives’ remains and cultural items from federally-assisted agencies, museums and educational institutions were not signed until 1989 and 1990. The first law for heritage language revitalization was not enacted until 1990.
Native Peoples today are the only segment of society in American jurisprudence that cannot use the First Amendment to protect our sacred places, as a result of a 1988 Supreme Court ruling. At the same time, everyone else’s churches and religious liberties are protected, even on public lands. Congress could craft statutory law to reverse the high Court’s decision, but no President or Congress has done that in these 30 years.
This is not ancient history in my family. My mother’s mother was born in 1888, only four years before the setting for this movie. Grandma’s parents were taken from Indian Territory in 1878 for the first class of hostage-students at the first federal Indian boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. That was 14 years before Hostiles takes place.
At that time, in 1892, Army officers were tasked with arresting or killing Indians who “jumped the reservations,” mourners who held give-away ceremonies or medicine people who treated the sick and wounded. The officers also had a “scientific” duty to “harvest” Native heads for the Army Surgeon General’s “Indian Crania Study,” and “collect” other body parts and funerary items for both the Army Medical Museum and the Smithsonian Institution.
Cavalry officers decapitated Native people on battlefields and from graves, weighed their brains, dipped the heads in lye, measured the skulls and to sent them by freight to Washington, DC, where thousands remain today branded with museum accession serial numbers. The hand-written reports and “medical data” of these Cavalry officers exist today in the National Anthropological Archives in Suitland, Maryland.
It is no wonder that many U.S. soldiers went mad or wandered off or committed suicide. Although most soldiers were educated with white supremacy and manifest destiny mythology taught as dogma, not all were genocidal maniacs, as we know from some journals and much testimony during military investigations into atrocities against Native People.
This is the world of Hostiles, where all the survivors are both mourners and killers. “I’ve killed everything that’s walked or crawled,” says the Cavalry Captain. “If you do it enough, you get used to it.” The displaced settler woman says, “Sometimes I envy the finality of death. The certainty. And I have to drive those thoughts away when I wake.”
The Chief and his family show great kindness and consideration for those in emotional distress, pain and abject sorrow – they have been there and are able to see beyond the horizon of violence and vengeance. The ways in which kindness and consideration manifest in the film are both instructive and touching. Their journey of a thousand miles to the Cheyenne homeland is not as long as the distance between the wartime existence of each character and the prospect of making peace with themselves and with each other. In their own ways, each wants life to go on in seasonal and orderly ways, as in the natural world.
It is this nexus of chaos and order that Hostiles so unflinchingly highlights; and it valiantly commends reconciliation and peacemaking as a human need for then and for this, our time. Director Scott Cooper brings to life a time long before there were initials or diagnoses for post-traumatic stress disorder – it simply was not recognized or discussed in polite society before the Vietnam War, even though it clearly existed in both the Great Wars, the Civil War and the Indian Wars. Native Peoples have ceremonies and ways for washing away the blood and tears of war and other tragedies, often involving name changes to represent their new lives after survival.
Cooper (Virginian American), who also directed Crazy Heart, Out of the Furnace and Black Mass, was a writer and producer of Hostiles. An actor’s and writer’s director, most of his characters are portrayed as multi-dimensional, departing from their flat prototypes in predecessor westerns. Those who are haunted by what they have seen and done let that regret live in the same space as their sense of accomplishment in revenge. Some strive to reconcile the disparate parts of their lives and others no longer are able to live with the contradictions and the blood memories. The characters are complex and are intrigued with others’ complexities and how those inform the heart. Hostiles shows what reconciliation looks like – nothing noisy or big, but small steps along a peaceful path.
Christian Bale (English) is one of the finest actors working in film. His credits span decades and include The Promise, American Hustle, The Fighter, The Machinist, American Psycho, The New World and Empire of the Sun. In keeping with his artistic signature, Bale disappears into the role of the Captain, and delivers a nuanced performance that is riveting. And, his American and Cheyenne accents are so flawless they are not noticed as foreign to him.
Rosamund Pike (English) plays the settler whose family has been wrenched from her as a perceptive, purposeful woman who understands the power of grief and gains strength from it. Hers is an impeccable performance. She also has a perfect American accent. Among her many other acting credits are Gone Girl, Jack Reacher and An Education.
Wes Studi (Cherokee) plays the dying Chief. Among his dozens of credits are A Million Ways to Die in the West, Heat, Geronimo: An American Legend and Dances With Wolves. As always, he delivers a stellar performance, this time in a quiet role. He conveys in expressions more than words his reflection and serenity as he prepares to meet his relatives on the other side. A language savant, Studi’s Cheyenne also is excellent, with inflection fitting for his character’s position and stage of life.
The actors comprise a fine ensemble cast, and each could be singled out for essential contributions to the film. Among the Indigenous actors are Adam Beach (Lake Manitoba First Nation) as Black Hawk, the Chief’s son; Tanaya Beatty (Native Canadian) as Living Woman; Xavier Horsechief (Navajo) as Little Bear, the Chief’s grandson; David Midthunder (Assiniboine-Sioux) as Buffalo Man; and Q’orianka Kilcher (Quechua-Huachipaeri) as Elk Woman, the Chief’s daughter-in-law.
The American West landscape in New Mexico is captured beautifully by Cooper and Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (Japanese), who is known for Silver Linings Playbook, Warrior, The Grey and State of Play. The score by Composer Max Richter (English) is understated and matches the multiple truths at variance on the screen (other film scores include Miss Sloane, Morgan and Waltz with Bashir). Even the song around a campfire is refreshingly different and just as it could have been in someone’s real life in the 1890s.
Cooper opens his movie with a thematic quote by Writer D.H. Lawrence (English) from his 1923 definition of the “myth of the essential white America” in a commentary on The Deerslayer, by James Fenimore Cooper: “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.”
The quote is fitting for a movie dealing with genocide and what it does to everyone in the vicinity. It also is of interest that, when Lawrence wrote that, he was part of the New Mexico-based coalition of writers and artists – including Artist Georgia O’Keefe and Poet John Collier – that ended the half-century reign of the Civilization Regulations and removed barriers that impeded Native religious freedom and economic and authenticity rights in Native arts. How’s that for a note of optimism about recovering from genocide?
People need to see Hostiles, because it is a demarcation point in the evolution of the western. Native People need to see it to appreciate the extent to which these filmmakers are allies in the mighty work of stereotype busting and cultural reclamation, language revitalization and protection of our ways, treaties and inherent sovereignty. Other filmmakers need to see this, because it’s the best western depicting Native People as human beings.
Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne & Hodulgee Muscogee) is a writer, curator and policy advocate who has helped Native Peoples recover sacred places and more than one million acres of land. Recipient of a 2014 Presidential Medal of Freedom – the United States highest civilian honor – Dr. Harjo is President of The Morning Star Institute and Past Executive Director of the National Congress of American Indians. A Founder of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian, she is Guest Curator of its exhibition (NMAI Museum on the Mall, 2014-2021) and Editor of its book (Smithsonian & NMAI Press, 2014), both titled, “Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations. Her Tsistsistas name translates as Morning Star Woman and her Mvskoke name is Sweet Bird.