Welcome to this week’s installment of Geek Girl Authority Indigenerd Wire, wherein we shine a spotlight on the indigenous people in pop culture. This bi-monthly column will feature the people, shows, movies, art and books that celebrate the progress of indigenous perspectives in mainstream pop culture.
‘The follow-up [to Smoke Signals] was very shallow in Hollywood, audiences deserve the Native American ‘Black Panther.’ – Chris Eyre, Variety.com
Every filmmaker dreams of making a feature for worldwide release. There has been only one commercial feature film distributed nationwide that was written, directed, and co-produced by Native American/First Nations people, about Native Americans. That movie is 1998’s Smoke Signals. Filmmaker Chris Eyre (Cheyenne-Arapaho) teamed up with author/screenwriter Sherman Alexie (Spokane-Coeur d’Alene) to make Smoke Signals. The film stars Adam Beach (Saulteaux Ojibwa Nation), Evan Adams (Coast Salish Indian), Irene Bedard (Inupiat/Cree), Gary Farmer (Cayuga/Haudenosaunee/Iroquois Confederacy), Tantoo Cardinal (Cree) and many more Native American and First Nations actors. The film debuted at Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Audience Award and the Filmmakers Trophy for Eyre. And after twenty years, the film still resonates with Native people across the country.
Smoke Signals is a story about a young Native man’s journey of self discovery and forgiveness. Beach plays the lead character Victor Joseph, who must travel to Arizona to retrieve his deceased father’s remains. His childhood friend, Thomas Builds-The-Fire, played by Adams, accompanies him on their first trip off of the reservation. Thomas fills the trip with embellished stories and a childlike sense of wonder. While Victor sulks, expecting the worst of people.
Victor and Thomas’ relationship with Arnold Joseph (Farmer) is the focal point of the story. While Victor remembers his father as a drunk who beat him and his mom, Thomas remembers him as a kind man who took him to Denny’s. Victor was angry before his father left and abandonment made Victor cold and short tempered. But Thomas never gives up on Victor, hoping to make him smile and realize that despite the past, Arnold loved his son.
The movie is based the short story “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” from Alexie’s book, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. Most of the short stories in the book center around Victor and his life on the reservation. Victor’s journey provides a familiar coming of age story and his trip to Arizona also gives the movie a buddy road trip plot line. What makes the movie so unique is the native humor and cultural references that Native people can relate to.
Victor and his friends like to joke around about Apaches being three feet tall and how Victor and Thomas need passports and vaccinations to leave the rez.What I see as a cultural reference could be interpreted as humorous by non-natives. The car that only goes in reverse is representative of a rez car or an Indian car. Cars that aren’t in working order, but they get you where you need to go.
And then there are Thomas’ stories. Thomas takes actual events and adds his own twist that makes the story he’s sharing more engaging. The way he tells the story…eyes closed…intense look…and that accent, makes you believe every word he’s saying. There are little nudges of humor here and there that only Native people will get. When you hear an ‘ennit’ or ‘aye’, sometimes that relates to an inside joke or an experience. There is something about the humor in the movie that is inherent. I didn’t grow up on a reservation, but I get it. It’s just something that is lived and can’t be taught.
Of the many cultural references, there are a few that stand out. The haircuts. Arnold cuts his hair short after the fire that killed the Builds-The-Fires. Victor cuts his hair when he picks up his father’s ashes. For some tribes this is a sign of mourning. The shorter the haircut, the more grief a person feels. When a person no longer feels grief, they will grow their hair long again. Another standout is storytelling. Tribes used to pass down histories through stories. There aren’t many traditional storytellers left.
And then there’s the frybread. The thing about frybread is that it is not a Native American tradition food. When Native Americans were forced onto reservations and Indian Territory, they were given rations of flour, lard, grains, and sometimes meat. Frybread became a Native American food because sometimes that’s all they had to eat and because of this, it became a part of Native American culture. Recipes are passed down through families and vary depending on what part of the country you’re in. The frybread has also created health issues among Native Americans. Diabetes and heart disease are the number one killers of Native Americans due to poor diets.
Smoke Signals touches on social issues that plague the reservations and Indian communities. Alcoholism and domestic violence are still prevalent in Native communities today. Racism is another. Victor and Thomas encountered strange looks, condescension and suspicion of wrongdoing after they left the reservation. There is a lot of mistrust from Native Americans towards non-natives, in particular, white people. This stems from the broken treaties signed between some tribes and the United States government. There is still a lot of mistrust of the government and a hesitation to sign anything.
On the bus, Victor says everything that Thomas knows about being an Indian comes from Dances With Wolves. Although Dances With Wolves is a close representation of the Lakota people in the past, it did give the wrong idea about Native people of today. Victor also has a skewed interpretation of Native people. He tells Thomas to be stoic and to look like a warrior. That is a misrepresentation in that Hollywood created that image. Indians in the movies are quiet, speak broken English and sometimes just look scary. Victor uses the stoic look so no one will bother him, thinking it makes him look like he hunted buffalo. Thomas then reminds him that their ancestors were fisherman and never hunted buffalo.
This conversation is why we need more movies like Smoke Signals. To show non-natives that we are not the same. Our Native cultures are different. Not all of us were from the Plains, lived in tipis and hunted buffalo. The plains people didn’t even wear buckskin, they made their clothes from buffalo hide. Some were fisherman and wore furs year round in the Pacific Northwest. Some lived in adobes and used the red clay of the Southwest to make pottery for everyday use. And the buckskin was probably worn in the southeast, where the people lived in huts and cultivated beans and squash for food.
Indians Watching Indians
Smoke Signals has some great performances. Beach received an award for Best Actor at the San Diego Film Festival. Adams won the Independent Spirit Award for Best Debut Performance. Farmer and Bedard were praised by critics for their performances as well. Bedard’s Suzy Song is the only character that is not from the Coeur d’Alene reservation. In fact, she lives in Phoenix and works a government job.
Native Americans have not been the focus of a commercial film since Smoke Signals even though there are more Indigenous filmmakers than ever before. Sundance’s Native Program supports Indigenous filmmakers through fellowships, filmmaking labs, and grants. The objective is to give filmmakers the experience to make their films and promote those films at film festivals and in native lands. Some artists have started their own production companies to distribute their films, but none have caught the attention of a Hollywood studio like Smoke Signals did.
I can’t recall when I first watched the movie, but I know I felt a sense of pride about Smoke Signals. There were Indians on my screen and they were like me. They were brown people, dressed in modern clothes, and were dealing with issues I could relate to. Like many Native people, I am waiting for the next Native American blockbuster. We are long overdue for a hit.
Lim lemt.sh (Thank you, in Coeur d’Alene) for reading!