English aristocrat John Morgan is captured, enslaved, and treated like an animal by a Native American tribe. He comes to respect his captors’ culture and gain their respect. He is aided in understanding the Sioux by another captive, Batise, the tribe’s half-breed fool, who had tried to escape and was hamstrung behind both knees.
Determining that his only chance of freedom is to gain the respect of the tribe, he overcomes his repugnance and kills two warriors from the neighboring enemy Shoshone tribe, which allows him to claim warrior status. After his victory, he proposes marriage to one of the women with the horses taken in battle as bride-price and undergoes painful initiation rites, taking the native name “Shunkawakan” (or “Horse”) as his Sioux name.
When one of the warriors takes a vow never to retreat in battle, Morgan’s changing perspective is shown, as he turns angrily on the uncomprehending Batise, telling him, “Five years you’ve lived here, and you’ve learned nothing about these people – all his death is to you is a means of escape.” After successfully helping to fend off an attack by the enemy tribe, he becomes a respected member of the tribe and ultimately their leader.