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In Lousie Erdrich’s “Dear John Wayne,” the depiction of an on-screen battle between John Wayne’s character and a Native American Indian tribe mirrors a larger ongoing cultural battle between white colonizers and Native Americans. Italicized lines voice a rhetorical battle between the poem’s narrator and the figure of John Wayne as representative of the colonizers. Ultimately, it is the narrator who strikes the last, and most powerful, blow.

From its first lines, the poem sets up a scene suggestive of battle. In stanza one, the audience (composed of Native Americans) in cars at the drive-in movie can do nothing "to vanquish the hordes of mosquitoes" who "break through the smoke screen for blood." This violent imagery carries into stanza two, which begins to describe the action of the film, but without clarifying that this action occurs on-screen rather than in the present moment in the real-life space around the audience. The film screen is, like "the smoke screen," easily ruptured, suggesting the possibility of that the textual violence of the film can produce material effects. This conflation of on-screen space with 'real' space points to the power of popular representation to supply distorted cultural narratives about the history of colonization. It also reveals a hierarchy of values attached to indigenous bodies (which the film’s white characters seek to eradicate) versus bodies of:


[…] 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. (ll. 13-16)


The end of this third stanza reminds us again of the presence of the screen, and acknowledges how the present moment is informed by "the history" portrayed there.

Stanza four again dissolves the barrier of the screen as John Wayne's face fills not the screen, but rather the entire “sky." His giant "face moves over" the crowd of Indians "in a thick cloud of vengeance" directed at real people in the present moment. Wayne’s scars "make a promise: It is / not over, this fight, not as long as you resist." This call to battle continues in the next line, set off between the stanzas: Everything we see belongs to us. The white face that expands to cover the audience’s literal field of vision reads as a gesture to the saturation of whiteness in our cultural field of vision, as well as to the expansive white colonization of physical space.

As the narrator watches Indians in the crowd laughing (perhaps at the camp quality of the film?), she offers her counter to this claim of white ownership: "The eye sees a lot, John, but the heart is so blind. Death makes us owners of nothing." John Wayne, a mere image, cannot answer back, and the movie ends with the poem’s narrator seemingly getting in the last word.  

Yet despite the confident claim of their spokesperson, in the "true-to-life dark" the film’s spectators become "speechless and small." They are "back in our skins" -- that is to say, out of the diegetic world and back to the real and present world, where their "skins" (i.e. their racial identity as Native Americans) determine the material conditions of their lives. In this sense, John Wayne's assertion of ownership is accurate, as the narrator goes on to suspect in the final stanza, imagining Wayne's voice again:


How can we help but keep hearing his voice,

the flip side of “the sound track”, still playing:

Come on, boys, we got them

where we want them, drunk, running:

They'll give us what we want, what we need. (ll. 36-40)


The last two lines of the poem, however, offer a surprising evaluation of Wayne's philosophy, and act as the battle's final blow to the now-deceased actor and what his films represent:


Even his disease was the idea of taking everything.

Those cells, burning, doubling, splitting out of their skins. (ll. 41-2)


The lines are open to multiple simultaneous readings. At the most basic level, they assert that what takes everything destroys everything (even itself), just as that cancer that killed Wayne in real life died along with his body. The philosophy of domination and imperialism, Erdrich suggests, destroys both the owner and what is owned. Imperialism is figured as a self-defeating enterprise.

On another level, this ending can also lend agency to the Indians watching the film, highlighting their active resistance to imperialist domination. The repetition of "skin" -- the poem's final word -- echoes the earlier line that depicts the film's audience being "back in [their] skins." That the cancer cells are described as "burning, doubling, splitting out of their skins" also points toward the generative nature of both the disease and the act of colonization: the cells can be read as the colonized, who, burning with rage, will multiply and retaliate by “splitting out of their skins” -- that is, by exceeding the limits imposed upon them by virtue of their status as racial minority. Cancer acts here as a literal punishment to John Wayne and a metaphorical outcome of colonization. In this way, Wayne's earlier promise that the fight "is / not over... not as long as you resist" becomes recast as a rallying cry to the colonized.


Copyright © 2007 by Jaime Brunton