Dances With Wolves is a 1990 movie that won an academy award for “Best Picture.” It’s also the Sioux name of the movie’s main character, Lt. John Dunbar. Dunbar begins as the quintessential army lieutenant of the Civil War period, but—after being posted to a deserted South Dakota fort and coming in contact with the Lakota Sioux Indians—Dunbar is transformed by the experience. He adopts the Sioux culture, language, and a new identity as Dances With Wolves.
So, when captured and interrogated by a U.S. Army detachment, Dunbar suddenly stops speaking in English and addresses his tormentors in the Lakota language, startling and discomfiting them. In Lakota, he says, “My name is Dances with Wolves. I have nothing to say to you. You are not worth talking to.” Earlier, he mused to himself, “I had never really known who John Dunbar was. Perhaps because the name itself had no meaning. But as I heard my Sioux name being called over and over, I knew for the first time who I really was.” At the end of the movie, Chief Ten Bears says to Dunbar, “The white man the soldiers are looking for no longer exists. Now there is only a Sioux named Dances With Wolves.”
Well, I can admire Dunbar’s transformation from one identity to another. I have two identities in my psyche: one is that of a secular rationalist, the other is that of an antique Friend like Isaac Penington. While there are advantages to having two identities, the phenomenon creates an unpleasant tension and cognitive dissonance. I wish I could destroy the secular rationalist and transform completely into a 17th Century Quaker.
Of course, that’s impossible. Perhaps it’s God’s will that I “dance” between faith and reason, between certainty and doubt. Perhaps I must live with ambiguity and paradox. Or maybe I’m just not as lucky as John Dunbar.
~ Richard Russell
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