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Race & Hollywood: Native American Images On Film
Remind Me
,Smoke Signals

Smoke Signals

When released in 1998, the groundbreaking significance of Smoke Signals almost outshone its considerable strengths as a film. The contemporary road movie about two Native Americans on both a literal and figurative journey was the first feature film to be written, directed, and co-produced by American Indians. In addition, the majority of roles were portrayed by Indian actors, including the two protagonists played by Adam Beach and Evan Adams. Nearly every review began with this fact, though some erroneously pared down the film's claim to be "the first feature to be directed by a Native American," which is not accurate. During the silent era when Hollywood was freer from industry systems and practices, James Young Deer, a Winnebago, and Edwin Carewe, a Chickasaw, directed narrative films with Indian characters and plotlines.

Chris Eyre, a Cheyenne-Arapaho who graduated from the renowned NYU filmmaking programming at the Tisch School of the Arts, directed Smoke Signals from a screenplay by writer Sherman Alexie, a Spokane-Coeur d'Alene Indian who adapted it from his collection of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Eyre and Alexie also coproduced with Larry Estes, Scott Rosenfelt, and ShadowCatcher Entertainment. Both Eyre and Alexie were new to feature filmmaking, though the latter had cache as a writer particularly after Granta named him one of the 20 best American novelists under the age of 40 and The New Yorker called him one of the 20 best writers for the 21st century.

Part of the reason Eyre and Alexie were able to get their film produced for $1.7 million dollars-or, perhaps produced at all-was because Eyre developed it through the Native American and Indigenous Program at Sundance Film Institute. Robert Redford, who has always been involved in Indian causes, opened this special workshop in the early 1990s to foster the talents of indigenous filmmakers. Redford recognized that the oral storytelling tradition of many Native American groups might translate well into narrative filmmaking, and their films would serve to counter the Hollywood or Anglo image of Indian history and culture. At Sundance, Eyre was free to make mistakes and try ideas that did not work out before embarking on the actual production of the film. Smoke Signals was then entered into the Sundance competition, where it won the Audience Award for Dramatic Films and the Filmmakers Trophy and was nominated for the Grand Prize. Redford himself hosted a special screening for the film, which was picked up for distribution by Harvey Weinstein through Miramax long before it even entered into competition.

Smoke Signals was highly celebrated at the time of release because it made film history and because big names like Redford and Weinstein supported it. But, the film lived up to its accolades, and it is more than a footnote in cinema history.

Adam Beach and Evan Adams star as Victor Joseph and Thomas Builds-the-Fire, characters whose lives have been intertwined on the Coeur d'Alene Reservation since childhood. While attending a party to celebrate "the white man's bicentennial" in 1976, Victor's father, Arnold, saved Thomas when the infant was tossed out of the window of his burning home. Unfortunately, the fire killed Thomas's parents. When the boys were 12 years old, a hard-drinking Arnold abandoned his wife, Arlene, and Victor to leave the reservation for good. Victor becomes hardened and cynical and resents Thomas's annoying questions and intrusions on his family. The boys grow up to be complete opposites: Victor is tall, handsome, cool, and athletic, while Thomas is a skinny bookworm in horn-rimmed glasses who seems oblivious to the way his constant patter annoys those around him.

When news of Arnold's death in Arizona reaches the reservation, Victor decides he should settle his father's affairs, but he lacks the funds to get to Arizona. Thomas offers to give him the money on the condition that he accompanies Victor on the trip, and the latter reluctantly agrees. Like most road movies, the physical trip becomes a metaphor for the inward journey that the two characters take toward maturity, reconciliation with past grievances, and true friendship.

Smoke Signals explores the nature of Native American stereotypes in popular cinema by both seriously challenging them and humorously poking fun at them. At times, the reference to standard Indian clichés, types, and stereotypes takes the form of a simple line of dialogue or a joke; at other times it is interwoven into the fabric of the characters. In one scene, cynical Victor chides sentimental, naïve Thomas about how many times he has seen Dances with Wolves (1990), while characters throughout the film humorously spin off the famous line from Little Big Man (1970): "It's a good day to die." As Victor shoots hoops in the gym, he cracks, "Sometimes it's a good day to die; sometimes it's a good day to play basketball." Elsewhere, Arlene jokes, "Sometimes it's a good day to die, and sometimes it's a good day to have breakfast." The disc jockey on the reservations radio station declares, "It's a good day to be indigenous."

On the bus to Arizona, Victor notes that Thomas smiles too much to be an Indian and decides to teach his nerdy companion how to be more native. "Keep stoic," he says. "Look mean, like you just got back from killing a buffalo." He also changes Thomas's hair and mode of dress when the bus makes a scheduled stop. The bookish Thomas wears a suit, with his hair neatly twisted into two long braids, but Victor persuades him to change into a t-shirt and unravel his braids so that his hair is long and flowing. After the pair return to the bus, they are bullied out of their seats by two white men. They retaliate by singing a song they make up on the spot called "John Wayne's Teeth," based on Victor's assertion that the Duke never showed his teeth in his movies. They chant the song in traditional Native American style, effectively co-opting the image of the ultimate subjugator of Indians-John Wayne-and destroying it through humor.

American popular film generally focuses on two Indian stereotypes-the warrior and the shaman. In Smoke Signals, Alexie and Eyre simultaneously play into and subvert those stereotypes by depicting Victor as a warrior and Thomas as a shaman. Victor's athleticism, handsome physique, and short temper peg him as the warrior, while Thomas's tendency to transform real-life events from their past into pleasing stories and myths helps the characters to make sense of their world, like a shaman does through parables. However, Victor and Thomas are grounded in the everyday world of contemporary America-they play basketball, endure family problems, eat fast food, and reference pop culture. In this way, they are not merely the representatives of some exotic culture completely foreign to us (the "other"), they are very much like the rest of us.

The title Smoke Signals also plays into and subverts an Indian stereotype. On the surface, the image of Indians in blankets sending Smoke Signals is the simplest of stereotypes, most often found in old cartoons. But, smoke signals, whether an accurate portrayal of native customs, or not, were a form of communication in times of trouble or distress. Victor and Thomas, who are on the verge of manhood, struggle to communicate with the rest of their community and with each other. It's no accident that a fire generating a heavy amount of smoke that reaches far into the sky occurs near the beginning of the film and near the end of it.

That Alexie chose the genre of the road movie as a vehicle to explore issues of stereotyping and cultural representation suggests that he wanted to appeal to all viewers of popular films, not just Native Americans. Likewise, the coming-of-age story with a bittersweet theme involving reconciliation between fathers and sons makes for a narrative that all people from all cultures can relate to. Smoke Signals effectively exposes the nonnative audience to Native American perspectives and life experiences through universal structures and themes, and it does so with humor and warmth.

Producer: Larry Estes, Scott Rosenfelt
Director: Chris Eyre
Screenplay: Sherman Alexie (screenplay and book)
Cinematography: Brian Capener
Art Direction: Jonathan Saturen
Music: BC Smith
Film Editing: Brian Berdan
Cast: Adam Beach (Victor Joseph), Evan Adams (Thomas Builds-the-Fire), Irene Bedard (Suzy Song), Gary Farmer (Arnold Joseph), Tantoo Cardinal (Arlene Joseph), Cody Lightning (Young Victor Joseph), Simon Baker (Young Thomas Builds-the-Fire), Monique Mojica (Grandma Builds-the-Fire), John Trudell (Randy Peone), Leonard George (Lester Fallsapart).
C-89m. Closed Captioning. Descriptive Video.

by Susan Doll


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