In 1863 Tennessee, wounded Union Army Lieutenant John J. Dunbar overhears that his foot is about to be amputated and escapes the hospital tent. He returns to the battlefield, where Union soldiers have reached a stalemate with the Confederates. Mounting a horse named Cisco, Dunbar embarks on a suicide mission by riding along the Confederate front lines. The enemy soldiers shoot at him, but he survives. While the Confederates are distracted, the Union soldiers attack and put the Confederates to rout. For his heroism, Dunbar is decorated and awarded the horse. He also receives the medical treatment necessary to save his foot. Given the choice of any post, Dunbar opts for the western frontier. A crass wagon driver named Timmons leads him to the remote post of Ft. Sedgwick, where he is to report to Captain Cargill. However, they find the post abandoned and in disrepair. Although Timmons does not want to abandon him, Dunbar insists on staying there alone. He spends his days cleaning up the fort, writing in his journal, and admiring the beautiful terrain. Soon after, Pawnee Indians see Timmons traveling on his own and kill him. Nearly a month passes with no sign of Cargill. A wolf with white paws begins to make regular visits to the fort and Dunbar names it “Two Socks.” One day, Dunbar returns from bathing in the river to find “Kicking Bird,” a Sioux Indian, inspecting the fort. Dunbar approaches, and Kicking Bird retreats in fear. Dunbar writes about the encounter in his journal, and decides to bury his armaments so they do not fall into enemy hands. Back at the Sioux village, Kicking Bird discusses Dunbar with the tribe in Lakota, their native language. Although a younger Indian named “Wind In His Hair” denounces all white men and doubts Dunbar’s ability to survive on his own, Kicking Bird is impressed by Dunbar’s independence and believes he might be peaceable. Wind In His Hair leads a group of Sioux to steal Cisco, but the horse breaks free and returns to Ft. Sedgwick. Dunbar dons his army uniform and sets out to visit the Sioux village. On the way, he comes upon a white woman in Sioux garb, who is bleeding from a self-inflicted wound. The woman screams when she sees Dunbar, but passes out. He takes her back to the village and tells the Sioux, “She’s hurt,” but they do not understand. Wind In His Hair takes the woman, and Kicking Bird discourages other Sioux from attacking, promising that Dunbar did not come to fight. Later, at the behest of their chief, “Ten Bears,” Kicking Bird and Wind In His Hair make the first of many friendly visits to Ft. Sedgwick. Dunbar gives them coffee and sugar, and attempts to communicate using gestures. He learns they are in search of buffalo, but assures them he has not seen any. Kicking Bird asks Stands With A Fist, the white woman Dunbar rescued, to act as translator, but she claims the white man’s language has died inside her. She recalls her childhood on the frontier, when she narrowly escaped an Indian attack on her family. After Kicking Bird and Wind In His Hair deliver a buffalo hide to Dunbar, the soldier writes in his journal that Indians are nothing like the negative stereotypes perpetuated by white people. He is invited to the Sioux village, where Kicking Bird offers him a pipe inside his teepee. Stands With A Fist appears and uses broken English to translate their conversation. Dunbar is not surprised to learn that Kicking Bird is a holy man. Back at Ft. Sedgwick, he awakens to the thunderous sound of a buffalo stampede. He rides to the Sioux village to inform them, then joins in their buffalo hunt. They come upon a field of slain buffalo, killed only for their hides. The Indians lament the wasted animals, and Dunbar feels guilty knowing white hunters must be the culprits. When they catch up to the herd, the Sioux use arrows to kill buffalo, while Dunbar uses his rifle. “Smiles A Lot,” a younger Sioux boy, is knocked off his horse and nearly killed by a buffalo, but Dunbar shoots the animal just in time. The Sioux celebrate the hunt with an all-night party. Wind In His Hair trades his breastplate for Dunbar’s army jacket, and Dunbar proudly wears the traditional garb. He is dropped back off at Ft. Sedgwick, where Two Socks awaits him, but he soon becomes lonely without the Sioux. Three days later, he sets out for an unannounced visit to the village. Two Socks follows, prompting Dunbar to chase the animal away. On their way to visit Dunbar at the same time, a group of Sioux observe as Dunbar and Two Socks run in circles in a field. They offer him his own teepee at the village, and Dunbar settles in there. Kicking Bird asks how many white people are coming, but Dunbar cannot bring himself to admit that the Sioux will soon be outnumbered. A war party is assembled to fight the Pawnee Indians, enemies of the Sioux. Dunbar asks to fight, but Kicking Bird wants him to stay behind and watch over his family. Dunbar agrees, and Kicking Bird calls him by his new name, “Dances With Wolves.” Dunbar learns how to say the name in Lakota, and uses it to identify himself henceforward. While the war party is away, Dances With Wolves and Stands With a Fist get to know each other over language lessons. Stands With A Fist reveals how she came to live with the Sioux at a young age. Dunbar asks why she is not married, but she refuses to answer. He learns from an elder that her husband was killed recently, and Stands With A Fist will be in mourning until Kicking Bird, who rescued her as a young girl, decides she is ready to move on. Later, Stands With A Fist is dismayed to find Dunbar has returned to Ft. Sedgwick. There, he sketches her in his journal and writes that he loves her. Dunbar finally coaxes Two Socks to eat out of his hand, just before Stands With A Fist appears. She kisses him and says they must be careful not to get caught before she is out of mourning. They return to the village and make love in his teepee that night. They are interrupted by a commotion outside. Dunbar learns that the Pawnee are headed to the village, so he retreats to Ft. Sedgwick to retrieve his store of guns. Armed with U.S. army rifles, the Sioux easily defeat the Pawnee. At the urging of his wife, “Black Shawl,” Kicking Bird tells Stands With A Fist that her mourning period is over and officiates her wedding to Dances With Wolves. Dunbar finally reveals to Kicking Bird that droves of white people are bound to overtake the land. The Sioux chief, Ten Bears, says they will continue to fight for their territory, just as they have throughout history. The next day, they migrate to their winter camp. Dances With Wolves returns to Ft. Sedgwick to retrieve his journal, concerned that it may tip off the soldiers to his whereabouts, but he is discovered by Union Lieutenant Elgin’s command and taken prisoner. Accused of treason, Dances With Wolves is severely beaten and sentenced to hanging at Ft. Hayes. Wind In His Hair leads a group to rescue Dances With Wolves. Two Socks follows the soldiers’ trail, as well, but the animal is brutally shot by Dances With Wolves’s captors. At a river crossing, the Sioux attack Lt. Elgin and his men, killing the soldiers and rescuing Dances With Wolves. They arrive at the Sioux winter camp, where Stands With A Fist embraces her husband, and they fall into the snow together. Dances With Wolves informs Ten Bears that the soldiers will continue to search for him now that he is a confirmed traitor. He needs to leave the Sioux and suggests that they move their camp as well. Before he and Stands With A Fist leave, Dances With Wolves receives a gift from Kicking Bird, who observes that they have come a long way. Smiles A Lot surprises Dances With Wolves with his journal, which he retrieved during the skirmish with Lt. Elgin’s men. As U.S. soldiers search the mountains, Dances With Wolves and Stands With A Fist ride away. Watching the couple go, Wind In His Hair calls out that he will always be a friend to Dances With Wolves.