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Louise Erdrich’s poem “Dear John Wayne,” like much of her work, reflects her Native American heritage and upbringing in small towns in Minnesota and North Dakota where prejudices regarding Native Americans sometimes ran deep. While perhaps unfair to the memory of the actor, and for a generation the predominant symbol of male virility on the Big Screen, John Wayne, whose roles and off-screen views were actually fairly sympathetic to Native Americans, Erdrich’s poem is nevertheless an apt indictment of the racial biases that were prevalent in American culture for hundreds of years. As “Dear John Wayne” begins, the narrator and another person – a boyfriend, perhaps – are at a drive-in theater viewing a Western, the genre that most prominently featured Wayne, and that too-often demonized the indigenous populations that settled North America well-ahead of the Europeans. The narrator’s description of the action on the large screen leaves little question as to the lens through which Erdrich viewed society:
“The drum breaks. There will be no parlance.
Only the arrows whining, a death-cloud of nerves
swarming down on the settlers
who die beautifully, tumbling like dust weeds
into the history that brought us all here
together: this wide screen beneath the sign of the bear.”
And, then, to mass applause from the overwhelmingly Caucasian audience, the larger-than-live visage of John Wayne fills the screen – the moral and physical symbol of white superiority:
“His face moves over us,
a thick cloud of vengeance . . .
each scar makes a promise: It is
not over, this fight, not as long as you resist.”
The idea of John Wayne serves as a metaphor for the dehumanization of Native Americans and their depiction in American culture as slovenly, drunken, thieves bent on the rape and pillaging of white people. For Erdrich’s characters, even the ubiquitous and relentless mosquitos represent the devastation of Native culture, as when her narrator, in the poem’s opening stanza, references the “hordes of mosquitos” intent on breaking “through the smoke screen for blood.”
Any analysis of “Dear John Wayne” has to emphasize the author’s Native American heritage and condemnation of the way Native Americans were depicted in American culture, especially in films and on television. The heroic white cowboy vanquishing the fanatical, primitive natives was a common theme of films and television shows for many years. Erdrich captures the sorrow prevalent among a population reduced to economic and social destitution by invading European settlers whose sense of racial superiority resulted in one of history’s greatest instances of genocide.
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