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Dances with Wolves Summary
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Dances with Wolves by Michael Blake.
Michael Blake wrote his 1988 novel Dances with Wolves after many years researching the lives of Native Americans in the middle of the nineteenth century in preparation for writing a movie. After the success of the novel, Blake adapted it into the well-known film version, which changes the ending somewhat. The novel tells the story of a Civil War soldier who retreats into solitary life at an abandoned camp, only to find himself drawn to a nearby tribe of Comanche. The novel is critical of the way white settlers and soldiers ran roughshod over the previously unspoiled landscape of the American West, becoming an elegy for a lost era of history.
In 1863, during the American Civil War, the white Lieutenant John Dunbar has always dreamed of seeing the Western frontier, predicting correctly that it would all soon be wiped out by “civilization” in the form of invading whites. He requests to be posted at a distant fort, but when he gets there, the army post has long been abandoned. Enjoying the solitude and surroundings, Dunbar decides to stay there with his loyal horse Cisco. He befriends an old wolf, whom Dunbar names Two Socks because of his white paw markings.
Dunbar has a few accidental encounters with a Comanche tribe that lives nearby – first, a few try to steal Cisco, who always finds a way to escape and return to Dunbar; and then, he runs into the tribe’s medicine man, Kicking Bird.
Eventually, Kicking Bird and the tribe’s strongest warrior, Wind In His Hair, visit Dunbar. But their attempt to get to know their new neighbor is frustrating because of the huge language gap, and because Wind In His Hair is deeply resentful of white people for invading his homeland.
Despite clearly being fascinated by the tribe’s ways of living, Dunbar at first resists growing closer to them. It is at this point, that Kicking Bird realizes that the only way to connect is to have a common language. He asks his adopted daughter, Stands With A Fist, to teach Dunbar Comanche – something only she can do because, as a white woman who was taken by the tribe as a child, she has retained some of her English-speaking abilities.
Dunbar eventually leaves the fort to live with the tribe, getting to know its customs. He is impressed by the calm wisdom of Kicking Bird, who communes with the Great Spirit in order to give advice to his people. He watches the chief, Ten Bears, lead a daily council in which he gives respectful consideration to every viewpoint that is offered before deciding how to address a given problem. Dunbar also sees how Wind In His Hair is praised for his warrior’s skills but is often ignored because of his hotheaded reactions to any perceived slight. Over time, he and Dunbar bond over their shared experience fighting in war and become best friends.
Over time, Dunbar learns more about how Stands With A Fist came to be one of the tribe. After another tribe attacked her home, her entire family was slaughtered, and she was left a defenseless orphan in her preteens. The Comanche found and rescued her, but although she is treated well, she has always felt slightly out of place in the tightly knit community.
To test out whether Dunbar can really fit into the life of the tribe, the men invite him to participate in the buffalo hunt – a deeply meaningful and important ritual. The night after the successful hunt, in which Dunbar proves himself, he celebrates by dancing around his campfire accompanied by a leaping Two Socks. Seeing this, the Comanche give him his new name: Dances With Wolves.
The love between Dances With Wolves and Stands With A Fist grows, and they decide to get married. The wedding ceremony is spiritual and moving, but is also almost matter-of-fact in its simplicity. When the bride and groom cross the threshold of their new wigwam, they are now considered a married pair.
Meanwhile, because Dunbar has stopped sending reports from his fort posting, the army goes in search of this ostensibly “missing” soldier. However, when they get to the fort and realize that Dunbar has deserted in order to live with the Comanche, the army unit attacks the Native people. No longer answering to the name “Dunbar,” and unwilling to return to his life as a soldier amid what the invaders call “civilization,” Dances With Wolves makes the decision to fight against the white military in a battle where both Cisco and Two Socks die and the tribe is routed.
The novel ends with the remaining members of the tribe choosing to retreat into the forest, disappearing so well that the attacking army can’t find them.