Louise Erdrich

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What is an analysis of Louise Erdrich's poem "Dear John Wayne"?

"Dear John Wayne" is a poem by Louise Erdrich, a member of the Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, that portrays the experience of Native Americans watching a western film starring John Wayne, highlighting the inherent racism of the genre.

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The poem "Dear John Wayne" is written in the form of a letter addressed to the actor John Wayne, who starred in numerous western films. This genre was set in the western United States and often featured cowboys of European descent as heroes and Indians or Mexicans as antagonists. These...

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The poem "Dear John Wayne" is written in the form of a letter addressed to the actor John Wayne, who starred in numerous western films. This genre was set in the western United States and often featured cowboys of European descent as heroes and Indians or Mexicans as antagonists. These films emphasized action, adventure, and violence in spectacular western settings, often with panoramic scenery, horses, and an idealization of small-town life and values. Erdrich's poem tries to show how a Native American audience responded to these films and in doing so critiques how the films were part of a form of cultural propaganda and oppression.

The poem consists of four stanzas written in free verse. It is narrated in the first person plural from the viewpoint of native American teenagers watching a film at a drive-in movie theater. The plural narrator emphasizes that this poem reflects a universal Native American experience rather than just an individual viewpoint.

In the poem, rather than the audience perceiving Wayne as the hero, the viewers sympathize with the tribes who valiantly shoot arrows at the European invaders and transform watching the film from a moment of oppression to an act of cultural resistance.

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Louise Erdrich's poem "Dear John Wayne" is about Native Americans who are at a drive-in to watch a John Wayne movie in which he fights Indians. As they watch, mosquitos bite them, and the mosquitos are a reminder of how they feel in their own skin in a country in which their deaths are celebrated. 

The middle stanzas of the poem describe the action in the movie, in which Plains Indians mount an attack on white settlers. The incoming Indian warriors are compared, in a metaphor, to "ICBM missiles." The white settlers die, like "dust weeds," and Erdrich then brings the action to the current day, saying that their deaths bring us "into the history that brought us all here." In other words, the action in the movie is the history that affects the immediate reality of the people watching the movie. 

Then, John Wayne's face appears on the screen, and the crowd cheers. His face is compared to "a thick cloud of vengeance," and his words are rendered in italics as he promises to take revenge on the Indians in the movie. In a situation filled with irony, Indians at the drive-in movie laugh when they see John Wayne. When the movie is over, the audience feels "speechless and small," and they scratch at their mosquito bites. Their bites remind them that they still have to walk around in their skin in a country in which vengeance against them is still sought. As they leave the movie, John Wayne's words ring in their ears. The poem is about the ways in which the past is still present for Native Americans.

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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 rut,

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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