Major Samuel Smith of the U.S. Cavalry wants the Indians moved to the reservation.

As Tokei-ihto is asked by another tribal leader, Tashunka Witko, to join in battle against the occupiers, we see a characteristic visual presentation of Tokei-ihto — bare-chested with contracted abdominal muscles to accentuate the scupted quality of the upper chest.

… followed by a reverse shot that shows Kate pointing a gun at Tokei-ihto.

Tokei-ihto returns Kate unharmed to the fort, which emphasizes his qualities of nobility and benevolence.

The Dakota Indian village sits in a green valley, lush and populated with Tokei-ihto’s tribe. Yet a motif of lifeless trees once again frames the image, a lingering reminder of sorrow and loss.

Tokei-ihto’s approaches his mother, who greets her son with pride. Note the rigid and formal postures, distinctive of many of the film's characters.

Red Fox and Tobias enter the village to negotiate with the elder chief. Note that Red Fox wears a sheep-skin. He dresses in an animal hide, like the Indians, trying to be perceived as like them.

Tokei-ihto remembers Red Fox as the murderer of his father. He won’t negotiate with this man.

Instead, Tokei Ihto talks with Tobias in his tent. Tobias tells of the war-torn life of his tribe, the Delawares. Many of the braves are dead, and “our wives can only wail.”

Red Fox and his band enter into the Dakota village and begin a massacre of civilians.

The camera comes to a stop when it reaches the elder chief and Red Fox. The Chief tells Red Fox that his peace is only “stones and death.” The camera then picks up the movement of another character, and follows him to a different group of Indians, thus further defining the space.

Tokei-ihto’s release order has arrived. He reluctantly signs the treaty and prepares to join his people on a reservation.

Tokei-ihto gets free from his captors. Tobias, now siding with his fellow Indian, returns Tokei Ihto’s weapon to him.

The Elder Chief won’t let Tokei-ihto fight occupying forces unless he first consults the tribe’s totem, Great Mother Bear.

When Tokei-ihto goes to Great Mother Bear’s cave, this totem and symbol of the ancestors, dies but has a cub, which the warrior takes with him as a sign of “new life.”



Generic Western landscape

The Sons of Great Mother Bear employs a number of aesthetic and narrative strategies to accomplish this effect. Along with the image of the Indian, the film's landscape, as well as costumes, set design, music, and story elements, all have the quality of being imitations drawn from the history of the U.S. Western. And as with the image of Mitic as Indian, these elements become re-contextualized, not without a degree of cynicism, yet without overt parody. I will begin a discussion of this practice by first addressing the use of landscape in the U.S. Western and its variations, and by comparing landscape in these films to its use in select scenes from The Sons of Great Mother Bear. One of the most-often noted characteristic of the U.S. Western is its setting in the U.S. West. No sooner are these words spoken than a number of contradictions come to mind. From 1908 to 1911, for example, the early silent Westerns were in fact set in the eastern part of the United States, most notably New Jersey and New York, and are often called “Eastern Westerns," or “Eastern Filmed Westerns."[12][open endnotes in new window]These Eastern Westerns were set in wooded areas, amidst lakes and streams, and had a pastoral quality with stories to match.[13] Moreover, a significant number of these films were billed “Indian and Cowboy stories” because of the prominent presence of the “noble savage," and because they often told idyllic tales of the land and the Indian’s unavoidable vanishing from it.[14] When the film industry moved its location to Los Angeles in 1911, however, the shift in the location also caused a change in the story line of the Western. The landscape of the U.S. West, with its wide open, even terrifying, deserts and plains fostered a new tone and suggested a new story.[15] The Indian now became part the threatening landscape and took his position as the personification of wilderness, and so the antagonist to the forces of advancing civilization.

The Indians attack the wagon train. They are effective in battle.

Tokei-ihto uses bow and arrow in this attack. He is a skilled and courageous fighter.

A proper directional match cut shows that Tokei-ihto's arrow has hit its mark.

Some shot linkages are mildly disruptive. Kate has survived the attack ...

… cut to a reverse shot of Tokei-ihto as he approaches...

… incongruously, a jump cut from inside the wagon momentarily disorients the viewer …

In the 1960s, the alteration of the Western’s landscape was a significant feature in the films of Sergio Leone. In Once Upon A Time In The West (1969), for example, the setting still meant to signify the North American West, but the actual location of the shooting had shifted. The open secret is that of Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns were often shot in Spain or in the Southern regions of Italy, rather than in the U.S. West. Certainly these locations were chosen for financial reasons, but the results of the physical displacement were used to aesthetic effect. The dislocation mobilized an intellectual and visual double exposure: an ironic clash between the U.S. film genre and this imitation, one that lent to an anti-Western, often anti-capitalist reading of the texts. As an Italian Marxist filmmaker, Leone had purposefully usurped the language of the powerful U.S. genre and re-presented it in depleted, displaced form. With this gesture, his films offered the viewer downtrodden environments, deformed replicas of the original Westerns, with characters and stories to match.

It could be said that The Sons of Great Mother Bear, and many East German Indianerfilme, operate in a similar fashion since they too refer to the U.S. Western but are not shot in the U.S. West. The East German films are notorious for being shot on location in Soviet Bloc countries such as Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, or Bulgaria, thus infusing the generic U.S. landscape with a Socialist subtext. While watching The Sons of Great Mother Bear one gets a feeling of a double exposure, with the assumed U.S. film (not a specific film, it must be noted, but a vague Western imaginary that now stands as its referent) shifting in compliance, and in contradiction, to the actual image on screen. But in Mother Bear, the clash between the two is not strong enough to present one form as a clear critique of the other and is not sufficiently supported by other elements of the text. Instead, the new film, in a kind of blank parody, re-presents images and conventions of the U.S. Western while infusing landscape, story, character, and language with German cultural resonances.

In contrast, at the fort, Tobias, a Delaware Indian scout, is shown about to be flogged. His employers in the U.S. Cavalry mistreat him.

Tokei-ihto confronts the occupiers of his land: the U.S. Cavalry and Red Fox, the frontiersman. “I come as the Lord of this prairie,” declares Tokei-ihto. "This is my land!"

And while this and other East German Indianerfilme have often been interpreted as delivering a critique of the United States and of U.S. capitalism because of their pro-Indian stance and because of their depiction of the mercenary and genocidal strategies of the United States against its native population,[16] additional readings can be garnered, deeper ones that might explain why these films so attracted East German audiences, making the Indianerfilme the single most successful film genre produced by DEFA. In order to probe this question more carefully, we must first inquire as to the particular effects of positioning U.S. Western genre conventions within an East German context.

The Dakota Indian village is full of life and the activities of children, wives, mothers, and the elderly.

Infants are shown as a valued part of the Dakota community.

Tokei-ihto and his victorious braves return to their home camp.

Tokei-ihto frolics in the pure stream running through his village.

Two-tiered reading

The opening image of The Sons of Great Mother Bear can be useful in understanding this dynamic since it begins a two-tiered process of reading, one that privileges the film's fiction and another that resonates with regionally pertinent historical references. The Sons of Great Mother Bear, for example, tells the story of Tokei-ihto, the son of a murdered elder chief, who must now face the prospect of having his people banished to a reservation, a situation symbolically resonant within a divided Germany, especially after the raising of the Berlin Wall. In the opening sequence, the first time we see Mitic as Tokei-ihto, he is framed in a wide shot and shown walking with two saddled but rider-less horses. Although this is a Western-like image, elements begin to gather that allow for an increasingly regional reading of the events. Quite traditionally framed, the shot presents horses and Indian walking slowly across a landscape. One of the horses is brown, while the other has a grey and white spotted coat that mimics the gravel-strewn terrain that surrounds them. Grey white stones dot the green grass, as a cloudy blue sky rises over a snowcapped mountain range in the distance. In the foreground, a lifeless tree frames the image, a symbol of war and sorrow that will be repeated throughout the film.

Compared to a paradigmatic U.S. Western, such as The Searchers (1956), with its shots of Monument Valley, its intense blue skies, russet bluffs, and lone Western hero on horseback (a scene inspired by the 19th century landscape paintings of Fredric Remington which meant to connote the rejuvenation and freedom inherent in the U.S. West landscape), the image at the beginning of The Sons Of Great Mother Bear is a rather melancholy one. This feeling is confirmed in the following sequence by the murder of Tokei Ihto’s father, Manatoupa, and by a shot of his riderless horse as it now gallops alone across the rubble-strewn landscape. The visual tropes presented in here are then elaborated upon as Mother Bear progresses.

In a later sequence, for example, we see a landscape in extreme wide shot, a view that again mimics the style of the U.S. Western. On a narrative level it presents us with the first altercation between the Indians and the wagon train and can be read in anti-imperialist terms since it shows the defeat of the Americans by the superior skill and bravery of the Indians. And while the image imparts a characteristically Western feeling of liberation because of the expansive use of space, it is never completely free of its status as a copy, and a somewhat displaced one at that. This effect is perhaps created by the cloudiness of the blue sky, the stagy perfection of the costumes and makeup, or by the actors’ faces themselves, all regional, “non-Hollywood” performers, thus mobilizing a set of visual disruptions from the assumed original Westerns. The film's aural elements also have an impact here. The use of German language grounds us in the film's historical and geographical context, while the musical score recapitulates this displacement by interlacing Western-like film music with other musical references, most significantly, with German ones.[17]

Lastly, one cannot fail to mention the rocky terrain across which the characters ride. Uncharacteristic of the paradigmatic Western landscape, this terrain at once recalls the U.S. genre while also bringing to mind significant German historical images. Here white rocks once again dot the field, a rubble-like land that may recall the fields of war pictured in news photographs of postwar Germany and also in films of this period, ones known as “Rubble Films” because of the rubble-strewn environment characteristic of their mise en scene.[18] Although this reading may at first seem incidental, the expressive use of a rubble-like landscape, and its opposite, a lush fertile terrain, plays a particularly important role in The Sons of Great Mother Bear and will be elaborated upon both visually and narratively in later sequences of the film.

When Tokei Ihto returns to his Dakota Indian village, for example, the landscape's color and texture dramatically changes from rocky sterility to verdant lushness. In contrast to earlier sequences, the film is now awash with the rich colors of grassy knolls and overhanging trees, shimmer of bright sunshine, and blues of fresh water pools. The pastoral is evoked by an idyllic community of wives, mothers, sisters, children and friends, all of whom happily cluster in this valley. As the story progresses, however, the landscape is carefully manipulated to reflect aspects of recent German history.

Red Fox convinces the elder chief by offering him trinkets. The Chief agrees to send Tokei-ihto to the U.S. Cavalry fort to negotiate.

The camera pans over the tribe. The image contains little movement as all members of the tribe retain their rigid poses.

At the fort, Tokei-ihto tears up the treaty that would send his people to a reservation. He is a fearless and loyal leader.

For his refusal to comply, Tokei-ihto is interned. He is forced to hand his weapon over to Lt. Roach.

The first unarmed Indian is killed.

Many Indians are killed.

The Indian people in a forced march on their way to the reservation.

The sun sets on the Indian people on their forced march to the reservation.

The Dakota tribe has arrived at the reservation. They have been banished to a lifeless terrain.

The camera follows the Indian brave as he slowly walks across the rubble-like landscape. The characters in the background hold their poses, tableau-like. The music that accompanies this image supports the sadness of the moment.

When Tokei Ihto refuses to move his people out of their ancestral lands, the army rides to massacre and then forcibly removes them. The sorrow of this action is visualized in a long shot of the slow march of the Indian people over an arid terrain (an image visually evocative of the Allied-enforced mass expulsion of almost 12 million ethnic Germans from various European territories after World War II), a trek that finally culminates with their arrival at the reservation.

In The Sons of the Great Mother Bear this new home is shown to be little else than stones: only small patches of ground show through as rubble-like white rocks cover the whole of the area. Here the Chief proclaims, in a phrase that could be directed equally to the U.S. government of the 1870s depicted in the film, or to the U.S. and Soviet forces in recent German history:

“Your peace is not sun and green grass. Your peace is stones and death.”

In sharp contrast to the idyllic life in the verdant valley of their rightful lands, the Indians have been banished to an unlivable terrain. This image must have been resonant to East German audiences who just 20 years before, in addition to the experience of mass expulsion, had also faced their own postwar environment with cities like Berlin, Dresden, and Munich reduced to rubble. These audiences knew full well places of stones and death, as well as the pain of partition, and the loss of nationhood.

German historical context

German connotations and issues of unification further take hold as the story of The Sons of the Great Mother Bear continues, a story that must now be read on both literal and allegorical levels. Escaping the U.S. Army prison, Tokei Ihto returns to his people on the reservation. Seeing the despicable conditions under which they live, he vows to lead the Indians back to their rightful land beyond the border of the Missouri River. (A river, it must be added, that divides the east and west regions of the United States, symbolically, as Germany was divided into East and West.) With this goal, Tokei Ihto unites with other tribes of Indians: men who now understood each other to be brothers and part of one nation. After he is victorious in battle, Tokei Ihto treks over the land on his way home. Through this remarkable sequence we are presented with images of purification as the warrior swims across sparkling rivers to finally reach a land of green valleys, majestic mountains, and large freshwater lakes.

The landscape views in this segment of Mother Bear not only look much more like German valleys, lakes, and mountains than images typically used to signify the U.S. West, but they are also accompanied by German traditional music on the soundtrack. Since a Western-like musical score has accompanied almost the entirety of the film, the inclusion of a German song at this point is especially notable. Here we are presented with a German language song, significantly one sung and orchestrated in the style of German folk music, with lyrics that tell of a better future:

“Waves and ocean currents take with it all of the sorrows of yesterday. A better day approaches before his eyes and will bring the lights again.”

In this pastoral environment, then, Tokei Ihto is re-united with his gallant people in their rightful homeland. As the sequence comes to an end Tokei Ihto walks across a verdant terrain to a woman who waits for him. This is a chaste and symbolic moment. Man and woman view each other from a distance. Motionless and without touching, they stand in this lush valley that speaks to the promise of a fertile future in united land, with a united people.

If we look at the characters in The Sons of the Great Mother Bear as types rather than as individuals, they can be divided into four major groups:

  • the hero (Takei Ihto);
  • the occupying forces (the U.S. Cavalry, led by Major Samuel Smith, and the frontiersmen, led by “Red Fox” Clark);
  • the warring native tribes (the Dakota, the Delawares, the Siksikas); and
  • the Indian people.

The plot functions and character types proceed in the following sequence:[19]

  1. The hero witnesses the murder of his father.
  2. The hero plans to join with other tribes against the occupying forces.
  3. The occupying forces plan to move the Indian people to a reservation.
  4. The occupying forces imprison the hero.
  5. The occupying forces banish the Indian people to a reservation.
  6. The hero escapes.
  7. The hero discovers the secret of his fathers.
  8. The hero unites to fight with other Indian tribes.
  9. The hero fights the occupying forces.
  10. The hero defeats the occupying forces.
  11. The hero leads the people to their own homeland.
  12. The hero is untied with the woman in his homeland.

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