Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Dear John Wayne;Manifest Destiny and America's Cowboy

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In Louise Erdrich’s poem “Dear John Wayne,” she describes the glorification of the white man’s extortion of land and life from an Indian perspective. Laying on the hood of a Pontiac in a drive-in movie, a group of Indians watches the face of America’s favorite cowboy as he defeats “the Sioux or some other Plains bunch.” Their American made car, named after the Ottawa Indian Chief Pontiac, sits in the dark lot in a white man’s world. As the movie ends, they realize the bleak reality of their existence in John Wayne’s world; they are the descendents of a defeated civilization, reduced to paying for this distorted view of their history.


In “Dear John Wayne,” Erdrich explores the cowboy’s manifest destiny. “Everything we see belongs to us” she says, displaying the imperialist soul of John Wayne. The Indians are “spread north to south, barring progress” and preventing the cowboys to move westward. The settlers deserve this land; it is theirs to civilize. In the movie, the Indian defeat is a heroic victory, not the brutal slaughter that Erdrich sees.


John Wayne was more than just a movie cowboy, but his soul was not far off. “Even his disease was the idea of taking everything. Those cells, burning, doubling, splitting out of their skins.” He had cancer, and to Erdrich his body was simulating inside what Wayne’s characters were doing outside; spreading, taking what did not belong to them and making it their own. For the Indians, the white man was a cancer, a horrible infectious disease that killed off their culture and their people. Unlike John Wayne’s movies, this history was hardly a graceful and beautiful one, but one of pain, death, and disease.





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