In the 1990 Western film, Dances with Wolves, director and star Kevin Costner plays the character of John J. Dunbar, a Civil War First Lieutenant on the Union side. Through a series of adventures, Dunbar becomes deeply involved with the life and culture of the Sioux Indians, ultimately becoming as one with them and sacrificing himself for their safety. The film was both extensively honored in Hollywood with multiple Academy Awards and has been preserved in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress as a highly significant cultural contribution. The Sioux Nation also honored Costner with induction into the tribes as an honorary member.
Injured in battle in 1863, Dunbar decides that, rather having his wounded leg amputated, he will face death by riding into the enemy. The action, however, gains him honor, as well as allows him to select his next assignment. He chooses to venture into the diminishing Western wilderness and transfer to Fort Sedgwick, in Colorado. The Fort is abandoned, and Dunbar, coming to enjoy the peace of being alone, sets to work repairing it. In the solitude, he records his impressions and thoughts in a journal.
In time, a nearby Sioux tribe attempts to capture Dunbar’s horse. Aware of their desire to repel him from his place at Sedgwick, he decides to try to open a dialogue of some kind and journeys to the Sioux territory. On the way, he meets up with a hurt woman known as Stands with a Fist, who is white but has been adopted as the daughter of the Sioux medicine man, Kicking Bird. Dunbar tends to Stands with a Fist and returns her to the tribe, where his decent attentions toward her create a respect for him in the Sioux. Soon, with the aid of Stands with a Fist as translator, the ways of the Sioux become ingrained in Dunbar. He essentially becomes one with the tribe. The cultural immersion is rendered complete when, after watching him play with a wolf cub he has nurtured, the Sioux give Dunbar the name of Dances with Wolves. Dunbar’s ties to his old life are forever severed when he is allowed to marry Stands with a Fist.
When the Sioux determine that, to avoid the threatening Pawnee tribe, they must move, Dunbar is resolved to go with them. First, however, he returns to Fort Sedgwick to find his journal. He is stunned to learn that the Fort has been re-occupied by the army, which force takes him for a Sioux and captures him. When the reality of the situation is better known to the army, Dunbar’s prospects do not improve; they demand that he serve as an interpreter for them in their dealings with the tribes, he refuses to so betray his new people, and the military tries him for treason. He is shipped east, as a prisoner of the army he once served.
The wolf that Dunbar had befriended, Two Socks, follows the army caravan transporting its master, and the soldiers shoot it. This triggers a Sioux attack, and they ambush the army transport, kill the soldiers, and release Dunbar. He knows, however, that his presence within the Sioux now translates to a further threat to their existence, as the army will be relentless in seeking his recapture. Their survival is his primary concern, so he and his wife, Stands with a Fist, leave the tribe to forge what lives they can independently. Army personnel repeatedly hunt for Dunbar, but never find him. In a striking epilogue, it is revealed that, thirteen years after these incidents, the Sioux Nation had been completely overtaken by the United States, closing the chapter on Native American opposition to America’s conquest of the West.