Great Character Moments: Stand With A Fist in Dances With Wolves (1990)
Character: Stands With A Fist
Actor: Mary McDonnell
Film: Dances with Wolves
Role: The white adopted daughter of Souix medicine man Kicking Bird, taken in after her family was killed by Pawnee warriors.
Stands With A Fist, or Napépȟeča Nážiŋ Wiŋ in Lakota, was a small child living with her brother and parents on the open prairie of the American mid-West when a group of Pawnee Native Americans attacked their home, killing her family while she escaped to the open grass. She was found by Kicking Bird (Graham Greene), the Medicine Man of the peaceful Sioux tribe, who, with is wife, raised her as one of their own. Educated and trained in the ways of the nomadic horse-people, she was accepted into the clan and even married. When her husband is killed in battle, Kicking Bird imposes a period of mourning where she must remain until he releases her. Distraught and overwhelmed by the loss of her husband, she separates from the village and attempts to end her life under a tree on the prairie. She is found by John Dunbar (Kevin Costner), an American Army Lieutenant stationed alone in a nearby fort who is looking to make contact with the tribe. When he realizes what she has done to herself, he approaches and tells her he wants to help her. Frightened by Dunbar in his uniform, and perhaps seeing a white man for the first time since she was a young child, she screams and then faints. Dunbar carries her back to the village where he is aggressively greeted, but eventually not seen as a threat and even welcomed into the community. Meanwhile, Kicking Bird, who has already recognized the kindness in Dunbar’s heart, wants to communicate with him but can’t speak English. He asks Stands With A Fist to “make the talk” and help him speak with the soldier and after she initially refuses, finally relents and serves as the go-between in a meeting where Kicking Bird invites Dunbar into his tent.
The Moment: Led into the compound of teepees by a shroud of men on horses, Dunbar finally sits in Kicking Bird’s teepee and the two men sit in silence as the Medicine Man offers a toke on a peace pipe. There are awkward stares and they are both uncomfortable while they wait. Stands With A Fist soon arrives, and receives a disgruntled sneer for being late from her adoptive father, before kneeling beside him. He speaks to her and she translates, uttering her first words in English in what is surely decades: “Hello. You here good.” It immediately shifts the tone of the feeling in the tent and Dunbar smiles. Introductions are made as she struggles to find the proper words. She explains Kicking Bird’s name as best she can and then mimes her own name, standing up and making a fist. Then comes his turn. He speaks his name, John Dunbar, and she repeats it, getting the pronunciation and then introducing him to Kicking Bird, who, unfamiliar with the sounds calls him Dumb Bear.
Why It Matters: Meeting a person with whom you can’t communicate is one of the more frustrating things in life, especially if that communication is really important for you or them. Both John Dunbar and Kicking Bird are desperate to build a bridge but are hindered by language and culture. Both have made a few attempts to reach out to each other prior to this meeting, with Kicking Bird and a few others riding out to the soldier fort and offering buffalo hides while Dunbar shares coffee and sugar. Lots of sugar. There is a wonderful sense that these two men are of the same mind and much can be accomplished if they were able to speak their minds to each other. With Stands With A Fist, that chance is made, and her effort is the link that binds these men together, creating a stage for the first steps at understanding. A proud figure, she is a powerful voice in this story, being much, much more than just the love interest in a “man’s” movie. Her arc has weight, introducing the Pawnee antagonists, and gives the audience a sympathetic character who owes her life to the Sioux tribe. In this moment, she is more a member of the people who have taken her in than what she was before. She has fully embraced the lifestyle, and in fact, because of her young age when rescued, perhaps knows little else. Speaking English again is nearly impossible and as she does, we can hear the struggle, and more so, the anguish. What memories do the sounds of her native language conjure? What’s really remarkable is how convincing McDonnell is as she tries to bring back the words her character hasn’t spoken in decades. She delivers such fierce authenticity to the moment that she wholly outshines her two co-stars. It’s a great character moment.