Jeremiah Johnson is the telling of the story of a white man disillusioned by civilization, who enters Indian territory and, in the process, embraces and co-opts American Indian Culture and attitudes towards the environment. The reader will see that he is fully assimilated yet alone by the end of the film.
What is the theory of cultural adaption? The theory of cultural adaptation refers to the process and time it takes a person to assimilate to a new culture. (Cultural Adaptation, 2018).
John W Berry investigated what happens to individuals, who have developed in one cultural context, when they attempt to live in a new cultural context. He wonders “if culture is such a powerful shaper of behavior, then do individuals continue to act in the new setting as they did in the previous one, do they change their behavior to be more appropriate in the new setting, or is there some complex pattern of continuity and change in how people go about their lives in the new society? The answer provided by cross-cultural psychology is very clearly supportive of the last of these three alternatives”.
(Berry, 1997) The movie shows Johnson as he slowly adapts to his new environment, using what he must to survive and grow. He embraces all the survival techniques his friends in the wilderness show him, as well as gains a respect for the Indians he encounters.
Two terms that come into play in studying this movie are: Acculturation Strategies: A person’s attitudes or preference toward acculturating as well as his or her behaviors.
Four acculturation strategies have been identified: integration, assimilation, separation, and marginalization (Berry, 2006) and Integration: Immigrant’s preference to maintain both ethnic identity while interacting with other groups (Berry, 2006).
Jeremiah Johnson the movie was based on two books: Crow Killer: The Saga of Liver-Eating Johnson and Mountain Man: A Novel of Male and Female in the Early American West. Crow Killer was about the real Johnson, John Garrison, a mountain trapper in the mid-1800s.
During the 1800’s the mountain men were very important after the fur trade collapsed, they became guides for explorers of the western areas and then guides for the army and settlers. At the time in the movie, the Crow and Black foot and Flathead Indians are living in the area that Johnson decides to escape to. Many of the interactions in this movie show the Native Americans in an accurate light. There are not too many stereotypes and the ceremonies and behaviors are accurately portrayed. For example, when Bear Claw (another mountain man) and he run into Paints his shirt Red and his tribe. Bear Claw had explained that they were on Crow land and that the Crow would consider them trespassers and take their horses and guns unless they were offered a bribe.
Bear Claw offered him some bear claws but Paints His Shirt Red said he had enough of them, so Jeremiah offered up his pelts. This is an accurate representation of what white man did to all Indians. We went into their lands, stole their source of food and economy and made ourselves at home as unwelcome visitors. The settler who takes up residence in the crazy lady’s house must hide his kids in the corn crib when he thinks the Indians are near because they are trespassing on the Indians land.
As the movie begins Jeremiahs backstory is told in song and narration. The narrator tells us a bit about the man we are going to see as the title character, “His name was Jeremiah Johnson, and they say he wanted to be a mountain man. The story goes that he was a man of proper wit and adventurous spirit, suited to the mountains. Nobody knows where abouts he come from and don’t seem to matter much. He was a young man and ghosty stories about the tall hills didn’t scare him none.” (McIntire, 1972) We watch him as he gathers the supplies he needs to become a mountain man all fresh faced and eager to disappear into the woods. He asks a towns man where you can go hunt so you can have pelts and hides to sell, like he is an experienced hunter already.
As we watch Jeremiah transition into a Mountain Man, we see that he is terrible at it. He is a terrible shot, can’t fish and has a hard time setting a fire, or finding safe shelter. At one point he is in a freezing river trying vainly to hand catch a fish when we see our first Indian. Although he appears to be a stereotypical Indian, we know from readings that he is an accurate representation of a Crow Indian. Standing tall in the saddle, feathers in his headdress riding a horse laden down with fish and furs he apparently had no trouble catching. We later learn his name is Paints his Shirt Red. As he rides up to Johnson and basically sneers at him and rides away. Showing the viewer that the Indians are not happy with the inept white man coming onto what is Indian land.
Soon after, Johnson comes across the frozen corpse of another mountain man, Hatchet Jack, who has left a will pinned to his jacket bequeathing his first-class rifle to its next finder, who he hopes is not an Indian. He is slowing adapting to his environment but still not very successful. He runs into yet another Mountain man, Bear Claw who has most certainly successfully adapted to his environment and culture. He knows all about the Indian ways, as a matter of fact when they are returning home through Crow Indian territory, they are stopped by tribe members led by Paints His Shirt Red, whom Bear Claw identifies as a mighty warrior, and Johnson recognizes from their meeting in the river.
Even though Bear Claw has adapted to his environment by learning and speaking the Crow language, the Indians are threatening until Jeremiah offers the freshly killed elk, thereby earning Paints His Shirt Red’s respect. A white man was giving the Indians two things: a gift and respect. In true Indian fashion he has earned some respect from Paints his Shirt Red. After he leaves Bear Claw, he run into Paints his Shirt Red again, and is seen smoking a pipe with him, seeming to cement their relationship and he is welcomed into their tribe. We assume he spends some time with them, Learning their ways and appreciating their culture and ceremonies and learning about their Spirituality and “big medicine” This will come into play later in the film.
As he travels Johnson comes upon what is left of a family that had been murdered by the Indians. The mother is crazy with grief and makes Johnson take her son with him. Johnson and the boy who he calls Caleb set off into the wilderness once again. The two run into a white man buried up to his neck in sand. He is another mountain man and his name is Del Gue and he tells Johnson and Caleb that Chief Mad Wolf of the Blackfeet Indians had stolen his horses, pelts and buried him. The two dig him out and they seek out the three Blackfeet responsible.
Johnson just wants to get what belongs to Del Gue and get out of there without the Blackfeet knowing, showing a kind of respect for them, not wanting to start a war. They sneak in in the dead of the night and almost are almost successful, Del Gue has a different agenda, he starts attacking the Blackfeet and they end up killing all three of the Blackfeet. Del Gue scalps the Indians and offers them to Johnson. He doesn’t want them, perhaps out of respect or perhaps because it is something he doesn’t think is culturally acceptable and knows it will be seen as a very bad thing.
A little farther along and Johnson and company meet the Flathead Indians They are very happy to see the Blackfeet scalps taken from the three Blackfeet earlier, they feel they are a very powerful token. Johnson gives the excess horses and equipment to the Flatheads. Again, he is showing respect for the Indians and that this is their land. This makes Del Gue very nervous. He tells Johnson he may have just insulted the Flatheads because now they must give him a gift of equal or higher value than the one he gave them. Much to Johnsons dismay, the Flatheads come up with a good gift: he is offered the chiefs daughter, Swan. Johnson does not want her, but Del Gue insists that he marry her, or they would be offending them and could end up with big problems. So Johnson now has a wife. The ceremony seemed to be a realistic interpretation of ceremonies we have learned about.
Jeremiah who was escaping into the wilderness alone now has a wife and child, neither of whom can communicate with him. The boy, Caleb who is still mute and Swan, who speaks, Indian, French and is Catholic. Her praying seems to annoy Johnson as does her cooking, however he seems to soften and shows cares for the pair as they travel on together. It takes many days for Jeremiah and Swan, to trust each other, but she appears impressed by his ability to provide for them. While hunting, he spots an ideal site to build a house, and as they work together to erect a log cabin, and create a home, the three grow into a close and loving family. We see them playing Baggataway, an Indian game similar to lacrosse and we hear that Jeremiah has learned Indian words to communicate with Swan. Showing that he has indeed adapted to the culture and environment he now seems to be fully embracing.
One day a group of soldiers from the Third Cavalry arrive at the families door-step. They are from the Department of Colorado and are on their way to rescue settlers in broken down wagons further into the mountains. Johnson does not want to leave his cabin to lead the soldiers to their destination, but they shame him into it. They travel across the land and come upon a sacred Crow burial ground. We see that skeletons on the stands. This is an accurate representation of Indian burial ceremonies and according to Crow burial rituals the burial ground appears to be an accurate representation of a Crow burial ground. Jeremiah tells them that they must change direction, that they cannot step through this sacred ground. He tells them they cannot cross it, it is Big Medicine and spirits guard it. They challenge that he doesn’t really believe that does he? His response is no, but they do. Showing respect for the culture he is encountering.
The army refuses to go around, and they make their way slowly through the grave yard. You can tell Johnson is very uneasy about this. Once the men arrive at the place with the stranded settlers, Johnson quickly turns around and heads back to his family. On his return journey to his cabin, as he walks respectfully through the Indian burial ground, he seems to have a foreboding of something bad having happened to his family. There are things hanging from one of the graves that appear to be Swans blue trinkets. Jeremiah rushes to the cabin, he finds Swan and Caleb dead, killed by the Crows. The viewer also gets a hint as to who is responsible, Paints his Shirt Red’s arrow is in the door. Johnson is devasted and prepares the bodies and lays them in bed as if they are just sleeping and then sets the house on fire.
He once again sets off alone into the wilderness. He soon runs into the Indians he believes responsible and massacres all of them except one. One Indian runs off and just as Johnson is going to kill him, he sings a chant that appears to be a death chant or prayer and Jeremiah leaves him alone, allows him to live, perhaps to run back and tell his tribe what Jeremiah did, or because the Indian ran, and there can be no worse shame for a Crow who would abandon his party when they are under attack or that the Indian brave reminded him of Swan.
For months he wanders aimlessly, killing any Crow he catches sight of. He is now really an enemy of the Crow and must constantly keep his guard up. Indians attempt to kill him multiple times and they do succeed in wounding him, but he cannot be defeated. They seem determined to kill him, attacking continuously, one at a time.
One day, he meets up with Del Gue, after talking for a bit, the other trapper suggests that he leave the mountain. He also tells him he is lucky the Crow want him dead not the Apache, because they would send 50 at once to kill him. Del also says that with Indians greatness is determined by how mighty your enemies are, that seems to suggest that the Crow have a respect for Johnson. Now a true mountain man, Jeremiah refuses to give up and go back down. Meaning go back to civilization. Later, he comes upon what had been Caleb’s mother’s house, and finds that she has died, and settlers are inhabiting the cabin.
Qualen, the homesteader, shows him a monument the Crow have erected to Jeremiah on the property, and although Jeremiah assumes it is a grave, Qualen informs him it is more of a testimony to his might. It is a shrine that the Indians sneak up to at night to decorate with trinkets and bones. This is interesting to think about, the Indians are fearing him, revering him and hunting him all at the same time. There is a scene where Del and Johnson run into a Flathead scouting party, and Del says the Indian wants to know if you are the great warrior who avenges the crazy women that lives in the Wolf Tail Valley. She’s big medicine and you are too, if you be that man? This is where the legend of Johnson began for the Indians. Del then says the Indian fears Jeremiah.
Jeremiah spends years alone, fighting for existence and moving farther and farther up the mountain to escape the Crow. He is fighting an entire nation alone in a vast and unforgiving wilderness. One day, Bear Claw finds him and greets him as if no time has passed. They share some small talk Johnson wonders what month it is, and Bear Claw says he has no idea. Realizing Jeremiah is lost and lonely, Bear Claw speaks to him gently tells him he has done well for himself, keeping his hair when so many want it. Jeremiah has become a legend. He even encourages him to leave the wilderness and return to civilization, Jeremiah refuses.
Jeremiah again wanders the wilderness, alone fending off attackers. The movie ends with Jeremiah meeting up with Paints His Shirt Red. In the final scene, Jeremiah is riding his horse through a snowstorm. He comes upon yet another lone Crow. Thinking he once again has to defend himself, he reaches for his gun, he then sees that it is Paints His Shirt Red. The two foes face each other, no shots are fired, instead the Indian raises his hand in a gesture of peace and respect. Jeremiah silently returns the salute. It is understood that by holding up your strong arm with the palm facing the person you are meeting is a form of greeting. It shows that you are not hiding anything in your hand. It signifies peace, which is how the viewers would interpret this gesture. Paints His Shirt Red seemed to be telling Jeremiah that his fight with the Crows was over. The fact that he is not wearing war paint is another indication that his intentions are not hostile. When Jeremiah returned the gesture, he was doing the same. The movie ends with the song that started the film….. “and some folks think he’s up there still” (McIntire, 1972).
Jeremiah Johnson accomplished whet he set out to do, become a mountain man. He became a legendary figure one both revered and feared by the Indians whose land he was treading on. He did adapt to their culture and learned from them and showed great respect for them. I believe the Crow felt the same about him.