The concept of “Right Relations”, which has emerged from dialogue between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in North America, is that human beings can seek to interact in a good way, with a good heart, even with very different cultural backgrounds. The bridging of cultural gaps takes work but when respect is given to the other, a foundation for exchange is created. The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, provides a very dramatic example of an effort toward “Right Relations” between Indigenous peoples and settlers in North America.

This Western tells the story of a Missouri farmer who seeks revenge for the murder of his wife and son by pro-Union guerrilla gangs during the US Civil War. The film is an important Western as it reverses the common Hollywood presentation of Union forces as completely good. The Outlaw Josey Wales has been deemed a “revisionist” Western because of its portrayal of those darker Union army elements. Here is the trailer:

A second major aspect of this Western is its respectful representation of Native American characters. In the first segment of the film, the Josey Wales character (played by Eastwood) refuses to surrender to Union forces at the end of the Civil War and thus begins a life on the run. On his way to Texas he inadvertently gathers a quasi-“family” which includes an elderly Cherokee man named Lone Waite (played by Chief Dan George, a once First Nation chief in British Columbia), a young Navajo woman, a Kansas grandmother and her granddaughter.

The character of Lone Waite offers succinct appraisals of the Amerindian plight in the face of the expanding United States. Waite references the “Trail of Tears” – the forced relocation of over 15,000 Cherokee in 1838 which killed 4000 en route – and describes the approach of white society toward his people, “I’m an Indian all right….but they call us the civilized tribe. They call us civilized because we’re easy to sneak up on. White men have been sneaking up on us for years.” Here is that clip:

A key scene in the film is the meeting between Josey Wales and the Comanche chief, Ten Bears (Will Sampson). Wales rides to the camp of Ten Bears in order to establish his homestead on Comanche land through an honest parley – sharing that they can choose to live together or die together. The exchange between the two men serves as a critique of US government policy from the perspective of both men. Wales notes that with governments “you don’t always get a fair word or a fair fight” – this recalls the massacre of his unarmed comrades by the Union army – while Ten Bears remarks that “it is sad that governments are chiefed by the double-tongues”.

The character of Josey Wales states that his group of outcasts will take only what they need and will provide supplies to Ten Bears’ people when the Comanche travel by their homestead. Further, Wales will acknowledge the territory that they live in by putting the sign of the Comanche on their abode. Here is that scene:

This writer believes that it is a step toward Right Relations by the non-Indigenous settler, in this case Josey Wales, to say that they will live in balance with the environment, that they will provide assistance to local Indigenous peoples when needed and that they acknowledge the traditional territory in which they live – there is a lesson here for the current governments of the United States and Canada.

The agreement reached by Josey Wales and Ten Bears that they can indeed live together is both a statement on Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations in North America and the wider issue of multicultural harmony. The Outlaw Josey Wales is a progressive Western that articulates the need for the settler population to seek reconciliation here in the land known to Indigenous peoples as Turtle Island.

Chad Beharriell

(Copyright – September 26, 2011)


  1. I think the theme transcends that of North American goverrnments-Indigenous people relations. The message in this movie applies to other places and times where the native and rightful owners of a land face the same terrible choice of having not only to share their stolen land with their aggressors, but also to be forced to settle in the poorer areas designated by their invaders, such as the situation in Palestenian / Israeli relations. The universality of the theme adds to the poignancy of the movie’s message.
    Another important theme is the possibility to get over a bloody past and make a new start where victors and vanquished can build bridges of dialogue and mutual respect and understanding.

  2. To me, the European concept of ownership has permeated the rest of the planet so that one can’t just use land and property but one must possess the land. Manifest destiny in America could have been accomplished without moving one indigenous group, yet to have someone else have something to themselves was an aggrevating concept that the settlers couldn’t get their heads around.

  3. My Grandmother was full Lakota. As near as we can figure she was 5 when the battle of Custer happened and she could remember what her world was like after it. She raised me until she passed when I was 10. I grew up with a unique look on history.

  4. This movie should be shown in all classrooms as an example of how everyone should get along and how to do so…contracts of the heart and not of paper between men and not governments. An eternal problem. Thanks for sharing these thoughts. – Dr. Bob

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