In Louise Erdrich's poem “Dear John Wayne,” the speaker and a companion are sitting on the hood of their Pontiac, watching a movie at the drive-in and seeing how the movie settlers of the Old West die beautifully when the movie Indians' arrows hit them. Let's examine the deep irony in this poem.
The speaker and apparently some of the other movie attendees are Native American. Yet here they are watching a movie where the Indians are the bad guys. The Indians are shown killing the settlers, yet descendants of both Native Americans and white people are sitting together at the movies that night, watching the conflicts of history played out before them.
Then John Wayne comes on the screen, and the crowd cheers. He sends his message that the fight will not be over as long as the Indians resist and that everything now belongs to the white settlers. Some of the Native Americans in the audience burst out laughing, spill their popcorn, and slide down the hood of their car. Here they sit watching “history” played out on the screen, or at least someone's interpretation of history.
The final stanza brings the irony to its high point. The speaker and the others hear the lines from the movie in their minds, how the white settlers wanted the Indians drunk and running so they will give up their land. The speaker describes John Wayne's disease as “the idea of taking everything,” perhaps symbolizing imperialism's destructive nature, making all its victim.