This movie came out in 2002 on VHS (I still have my copy at my parents’ house) and followed a spirited stallion on his journey throughout the American West. A few weeks ago, my roommates and I decided to have a movie night and reminisced while watching this film. Spirit is a movie that I grew up watching and loving, especially after I lived in the Southwest for four years. Within my Native Peoples of North America class, we have often discussed how Native Americans are portrayed in the mainstream media, ranging from the bloodthirsty Indian to the “Noble Savage.” Therefore, I thought it would be interesting to write a post about the movie’s representation of Native Americans as well as its presentation of their lives and struggles during this historic time period.
First off, I have to say that the soundtrack to this movie is phenomenal. These songs get stuck in my head for days and make me want to ride a horse (which I have no idea how to do) just so I can feel the wind in my hair! So, I am going to be linking videos with songs from the movies throughout this post in the hopes that you will understand how wonderful they truly are. Here is the first song, called “Here I Am,” so enjoy!
For those who have not seen the movie, here is a brief summary. In the movie, a stallion named Spirit gets captured by cowboys and taken from his herd to an American fort out West. While there, he meets a fellow captive, a young Lakota boy named Little Creek, and faces off against the Colonel, the leader of the fort, who makes it his goal to break the horse’s spirit. However, both Spirit and Little Creek manage to escape the fort after which Spirit is once again taken against his will by Little Creek and his friends to their village. During his time in this village, Spirit meets a female horse named Rain who, along with Little Creek, try to show him the positive aspects of living in the village. Without warning, the village is attacked by soldiers who capture Spirit and shoot Rain while they are trying to protect Little Creek. After he is taken, Spirit becomes a draft-horse and is used by the Americans to help build a railroad that travels to the West. Realizing that the train is headed for his homeland, Spirit breaks free with some help from Little Creek and wreaks havoc on the railroad. Afterwards, the duo travel back to the Lakota village where Rain is alive and waiting for their return. The movie ends with Little Creek setting Spirit and Rain free and the two horses traveling back to Spirit’s herd where they can live and run free.
I chose to write about this movie for two reasons. First, the movie demonstrates the sharp contrast between the Native American and the European American way of life through its portrayal of the American military fort and the Lakota village. Looking at the military fort where Spirit is first taken, the audience is given insight into the American values at the time, such as conformity, discipline, and obedience. When Spirit is taken to the fort, the officers immediately try to change his appearance to look like the other horses in the camp by cutting his hair, fitting him with horseshoes and a harness, and branding him. Although they are not entirely successful, this routine shows the American emphasis on uniformity in appearance, a value that is also represented by the similar clothing that all of the officers wear in the fort. When Spirit rebels against the officers’ attempts to domesticate him, the leader of the fort punishes him by restricting his access to food and water for several days. These harsh actions demonstrate the value placed on obedience and the measures taken to prevent rebellion. Finally, Spirit is corralled into a pen where several soldiers ride him in the hopes of forcing him to conform and act the way that they want. The leader of the fort is the only one who succeeds although his victory is short lived. Yet, through their actions, the officers show the American emphasis on discipline and control. Overall, Spirit’s time in the military fort shows the rigid and oppressive way that Americans live and the strict values that they live by.
By contrast, Spirit’s captivity in the Lakota village is a very different experience. When he arrives at the village, Little Creek places Spirit in a smaller pen and removes the harness that he was forced to wear in the fort, allowing Spirit to return to how he originally looked. Instead of restricting his food and forcibly riding him, the Lakota give Spirit apples to eat. When Little Creek does attempt to ride Spirit, he is gentle and cautious as he approaches the horse. He tries to show Spirit that he does not want to hurt him and doesn’t force him when Spirit resists. Even when Spirit is rebellious and disobedient, Little Creek only laughs and tries again rather than punishing him like the officers in the fort did. When his efforts are not successful, Little Creek changes his methods and ties Spirit to Rain so that she can show him their lifestyle. Together, Rain and Little Creek show Spirit around the village where he interacts with the Lakota people and the other horses. Compared to the fort, the Lakota village is much more relaxed and flexible. Instead of discipline and punishment, Little Creek tries to earn Spirit’s trust through kindness and friendship. This contrast can also be seen by the way other horses act in both the fort and the Lakota Village. In the fort, the horses are subdued and sullen; whereas, the horses in the village are friendly and happy when interacting with Spirit and the Lakota villagers. These two depictions show the stark difference between the American and the Lakota values and lifestyle, with the first emphasizing discipline and control and the second focusing on friendship and trust. Additionally, it is interesting to note that the American way of life ends up in a more negative light when compared to the Lakota lifestyle.
The second reason that I chose to write about this movie is because Spirit’s journey throughout the film can be seen as a metaphor for the Native Americans’ removal and forced assimilation into American society during historic times. In the movie, Spirit is forcibly removed from his homeland and thrust into a completely different environment, the military fort. Once there, the officers attempt to force him to look and act the way that the other horses do. This story sounds very similar to the Native American boarding schools, where children were removed from their homes, forced to abandon their cultural ways, and made to adopt American clothing and lifestyle. However, just as the Colonel was not entirely successful in breaking Spirit of his rebellious ways, the boarding schools were not able to fully eradicate the traditional values and beliefs that were instilled in Native American children by their parents. Even Spirit’s friendship with Rain could be seen as a representation of the friendships that developed between children of different tribes during their time in the boarding schools as well as the Pan-Indian movement that later arose. However, this parallel ends when Spirit is set free, and he and the mare return to his herd and are accepted back into society. With many of the Native American children who attended boarding school, they were not able to fully re-assimilate into their Native American tribes when they returned as adults because they had not learned the culture, customs, and traditions that they needed in order to be considered a member of the tribe. Although Spirit’s ending was a happy one, many Native Americans were not as lucky.
In terms of accuracy and authenticity, there is not much I can say because we did not cover the Lakota tribe specifically in my class. However, I feel that the movie has a fair, even possibly leaning a little towards the “Noble Savage,” representation of Native Americans. Furthermore, the movie definitely highlights the drastic changes that were happening in the West at that time in history, including the railroad and population expansion, and some of the negative consequences that resulted from these shifts. Finally, although I was not able to find any information on whether or not Native Americans were consulted during the making of the film, which was disappointing, I do know that the filmmakers used real horses for the sounds and animation. Overall, I think one of the key things to realize is that this movie only presents one image of Native Americans of which there are many more available. For kids, this movie is probably a good introduction into an important issue (and probably a more accurate representation than most). However, in order to get a more well-rounded understanding of Native American history and lifestyle, it is important to continue from this starting point and learn about different Native American tribes and cultures through other sources. This knowledge was not something that I had as a kid but that I think is very important to instill in the younger generation so that they will have a better understanding of Native Americans in both the past and the present. Regardless, I enjoyed watching this movie and will always have a soft spot for Spirit.