How ''Dances With Wolves'' got real
From costumes to props, meticulous care was taken to make Kevin Costner's epic look authentic
In the Lakota Sioux ritual known as ”hanbléceya,” Indians spend four nights alone fasting on a mountaintop and praying for a vision that will reveal their destiny, with a medicine man nearby. Cathy Smith, who has spent her life restoring Indian artifacts, has participated in that rite for the last 10 years. But it wasn’t until two years ago, when she was hired to make the historically accurate Indian costumes on Dances With Wolves, that the purpose of her work became clear to her.
”I spent my life learning as much as I could (about the Sioux) and perfecting that knowledge,” says Smith. ”This was the opportunity for the knowledge to come forth.”
Until Dances, Smith’s work was entirely for galleries, museums, and private collections. The movie gave her and fellow consultant Larry Belitz the chance to reveal the beauty of Sioux culture to a mass audience. Conversely, the movie was an opportunity for Hollywood to create a realistic picture of how the Indians lived; a perfectionist about accuracy, Costner kept Smith on hand for nearly every scene to check the costumes and sets and act as a historical ombudsman.
Smith operates a restoration and reproduction business out of her Santa Fe home. She had never worked on a film before and was referred to Dances‘ costume designer, Elsa Zamparelli, by word of mouth. In making the costumes, Smith used traditional Lakota skills, including brain tanning (in which buffalo brains are rubbed on skins to soften them), beading (using antique beads from Venice, like those that 19th-century Indians traded for), and affixing porcupine quills to costumes. In addition, she advised the makeup artist on Lakota war paint, like the black-and-white-striped face makeup worn by Wind In His Hair.
”Dances set a standard,” says Smith, who has since worked on ABC’s Son of the Morning Star. ”I don’t think there has ever been a film about Indians that was done correctly in terms of costumes or props. Dressing all these warriors and having them in front of you on horseback going on a buffalo hunt was like going back in time.”
While Smith was responsible for the look of the Indians themselves, Belitz, a restorer of artifacts from Hot Springs, S.D., recreated an 1860s Lakota village complete with correct tepees, cooking utensils, and weapons. ”There was one thing about this movie,” he says. ”They really listened to you. This was as authentic as Hollywood could get.” In all, Belitz made about 400 pieces worth about $60,000, including buffalo stomachs for use as cooking pots, buffalo bladders for canteens, and buffalo-hair robes and pillows. He was especially impressed with the decision to use a number of tepees made of buffalo hides; movies typically use commercially dyed canvas. Even the warriors’ weapons were genuine: The war clubs had stone heads and wooden handles wrapped with rawhide, the bows were made of ash, and the arrows were made of red willow or chokecherry wood.
Belitz and Smith say their work on the film was not especially profitable given the amount of time they put in. But both relished the opportunity to illuminate, on such a grand scale, the beauty of the Indian culture. ”On the very last night of shooting,” Smith says, ”it was 3 in the morning and seemed like 10 below zero when they yelled, ‘Wrap!’ for the last time. Kevin came over and hugged me and said, ‘This is where two dreams met. Yours and mine.’ That, to me, made it all worthwhile.”
Dances with Wolves