Art

‘Smoke Signals’ was needed, but it doesn’t hold up

The seminal film, while important for finally having Native representation, relied on stereotypes.

 

“Smoke Signals” was released in 1998 and marketed by Miramax as “the first feature film written, directed and produced by Native Americans.”
Screen capture from “Smoke Signals”

I remember watching Smoke Signals in Oklahoma City many years ago and thinking, “Yes! Finally, somebody has made a film about us, for us.” I was 21 at the time. “Now they’ll learn, and from an actual Indian screenwriter and director,” I thought. But today, Smoke Signals feels clunky, even cringe-worthy. The film’s creative team seems to have been inspired by the same impulses I had as a young idealistic kid: People didn’t know anything about Indians, I was usually the first one they’d met, and I often felt the need to teach them a few things, whether they wanted to hear about them or not. 

Since its release in 1998, Smoke Signals has become a seminal movie in Indigenous cinema and Indian Country. It was the first real Indigenous film, written, directed and largely acted by Indigenous people, and it did what no other Native film had done before: It successfully crossed over to mainstream. The film did well at the box office, grossing nearly $7 million, and was even added to the National Film Registry in 2018. But today, in light of our evolving notions of Indigeneity and what it means to be a Native person in this century, the film feels dated. One need look no further than the title card in the opening credits and the use of that damn Papyrus font. 

Essentially a buddy picture — a road-trip movie about self-discovery — the film explores how Indians relate to American popular culture as well as to ourselves, along with the power of story and the lies we tell others within those frameworks. There is a missing father; there is alcoholism; there are notable rez accents. There is redemption. 

Yet the film relies almost entirely on Western, pop-culture-influenced notions of Indigenous people, referencing classic Hollywood tropes about Indians being warriors or acting stoic, culminating in a musical number with a catchy song about John Wayne’s teeth — a moment I’m still unclear about. At one point in the movie, Gary Farmer asks his son, “Who's your favorite Indian?” It’s a ludicrous statement, written for a white audience, as if Indians sit around and think of themselves in this pop-culture way. Americans have always loved this kind of narrative, and the film often tries to “Indigenize” clichés for laughs, but in the end, Smoke Signals mines Indian stereotypes much the way Quentin Tarantino mines ’70s exploitation cinema, only far less elegantly. 

Smoke Signals is a film that constantly stops its own narrative to teach viewers how an Indian is supposed to act. It commits one of the cardinal sins of screenwriting in order to do so: It tells rather than shows. Still, as Janet Maslin of the New York Times put it, the movie’s protagonists, Victor and Thomas, played by Adam Beach and Evan Adams respectively, were “enormously likable characters.” That meant that white people could discuss the film at dinner parties and feel good about themselves, while Indigenous people were just happy to see ourselves represented on the screen. 

But even in the arena of representation, there is a rub: Smoke Signals employs ideas of Pan-Indianism so heavily that the writing feels downright lazy. It’s not surprising, considering that author and screenwriter Sherman Alexie’s prolific body of fiction and poetry regularly plays in this sandbox. By leaning away from any sense of a tribally specific identity, it manages to talk about Indians without really talking about Indians. Today, Indigenous cinema is best when it embraces specificity, or brings Indian Country into a popular genre rather than the other way around. Jeff Barnaby’s (Mi’gMaq) upcoming film Blood Quantum recently screened at Cannes and may prove to be an exciting exercise in the zombie genre, while Navajo director Sydney Freeland has done a deep dive into various genres that have nothing to do with Indigenous themes.

Many of us who grew up watching and loving Smoke Signals grumble when we think of how influential we found a film that is based on short stories by Alexie, especially given that the prolific Spokane author’s career has effectively been cancelled following allegations of sexual harassment. Yet the film remains alive in our collective memories. “Hey, Victor” is burned into our brains after viewing the film, and “Frybread Power” shirts can still be purchased.  

When Smoke Signals hit theaters, Indigenous people were thirsty for representation. Hell, we’re still thirsty. The lack of understanding of what it means to be Indigenous still looms large in American movie theaters. But we don’t overcome it by playing into those stereotypes; at least we shouldn’t anymore. When Smoke Signals was made, it was overdue. Necessary, even; many of us cried silently in the theater when we saw ourselves finally represented on the screen. But it would be disappointing to see a film like it made today.

Jason Asenap is a Comanche and Muscogee Creek writer and director (and an occasional actor) based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • FEATURES DIRECTOR - HIGH COUNTRY NEWS
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Features Director to join our editorial...
  • GENERAL MANAGER
    The Board of UYWCD seeks a new GM to manage operations & to implement our robust strategic plan. Details at www.upperyampawater.com. EOE
  • IN TUCSON, FOR SALE: A BEAUTIFUL, CLASSIC MID-CENTURY MODERN HOME
    designed by architect David Swanson in 1966. Located a block from Saguaro National Forest, yet minutes to Downtown and the UofA campus, 3706 sqft, 6...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Friends of the San Juans is seeking a new leader guide our efforts to protect and restore the San Juan Islands and the Salish...
  • 80 ACRES
    straddles North Platte Fishery, Wyoming. Legal access 2 miles off 1-80. Call 720-440-7633.
  • DIRECTOR OF PRODUCT AND MARKETING
    High Country News seeks a Director of Product and Marketing to join our senior team during an exciting chapter of innovation and growth. This individual...
  • OWN A THRIVING MOUNTAIN GUIDE SERVICE.
    Eastern Sierra guide service for sale to person with vision & expertise to take it onwards. Since 1995 with USFS & NPS permits. Ideal for...
  • IMPROVED LOT
    Private road, hillside, views. Well, pad, septic, 99 sq.ft. hut. Dryland permaculture orchard. Wildlife. San Diego--long growing season
  • UNIQUE INVESTMENT OPPORTUNITY
    Profitable off-the-grid business located 2 miles from Glacier National Park. Owner has 6 years operating experience. Seeking investor or partner for business expansion and enhancement....
  • REMOTE SITKA ALASKA FLOAT HOUSE VACATION RENTAL
    Vacation rental located in calm protected waters 8 miles from Sitka, AK via boat with opportunities to fish and view wildlife. Skiff rental also available.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.
  • CONSERVATIONIST? IRRIGABLE LAND?
    Stellar seed-saving NGO is available to serious partner. Package must include financial support. Details: http://seeds.ojaidigital.net.
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Colorado Plateau Natural & Human History Field Seminars. Lodge, river, hiking options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • WESTERN NATIVE SEED
    Specializing in native seeds and seed mixes for western states.
  • CHUCK BURR'S CULTUREQUAKE.COM BLOG
    Change will happen when we see a new way of living. Thinking to save the world.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • OJO CALIENTE COMMERCIAL VENTURE
    Outstanding location near the world famous Ojo Caliente Mineral Spring Resort. Classic adobe Mercantile complete w/living quarters, separate 6 unit B&B, metal building and spacious...