Smoke Signals was released in 1998 as the first film to be written, produced and acted by Native Americans. Sherman Alexie who worked as the co producer also wrote the film. Alexie adapted the screenplay from his book of short stories The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven. Two critics at the time of the film’s release stated that Every few years or so, press kits arrive at the offices of film magazines announcing that a forthcoming film about Native Americans decisively breaks with the stereotypes of the past.
Smoke Signals also advertised itself as such an innovative film in its press packs but it had the added weight of actually being a Native American production. Native Americans not only wrote and produced the film but they starred in it. The film was about Native Americans and how they dealt with problems in their lives, it also dealt with the types of hostilities they encountered, but it also reflected their humour and their humanity on a personal level, not from a white mans perspective or from a white man’s narration.The fact that the film comes straight from the Indians perspective in itself sets the film up to dispel pejorative stereotypes standardised from the beginning of European and white contact with the Indians. The Indians have been written about and the subject of studies by white or Euro Americans for hundreds of years rarely has an Indian been able to speak for his or herself. The Indian is translated through the views of those around them, which distorts the viewpoint because it is another’s interpretation of it. That is people who were not Indians and therefore with no real knowledge of what Indians think or feel or actually look like told the Indian’s story. As Sherman Alexie stated in an interview with CineasteWhat is revolutionary or groundbreaking about the film is that the characters in it are Indians, and they’re fully realized human beings.
They’re not just the sidekick or the buddy, they’re the protagonists. Simply having Indians as the protagonists in a contemporary film, and placing them within this familiar literary and cinematic structure, is groundbreaking.Thomas who is one of the two main characters an Indian, and a real one at that narrate the story. Thomas relates his story and that of his friend Victor through his own words and his own feelings; there is no interpretation by a white actor or even a white screenwriter.This is a truly innovative way of challenging pejorative stereotypes by removing the possibility of misinterpretation by using another race telling the story.
Such as the paintings such as John White’s Indian Man and Woman Eating (1585) or in books such as Fennimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans. The movie takes the power of relating history and storytelling a way from the white conqueror that had for the past hundred years of cinema history been able to manipulate the images of Indians seen around the world. Smoke Signals took this power of story telling away from the white man and gave it to the Indian who could refute pejorative stereotypes.The CharactersThe characters in the film are not the stereotypical Indian of the 1940s and 50s, they do not have feathers in their hair or war paint on their faces and they are certainly fluent speakers of the English language.
As the film starts we see the remnants of a party that could be placed in Belfast, Paris, Pretoria or Bombay, until we see the colour of the man’s skin and the facial features that delineate him as an Indian.Arnold Joseph is dressed in denims and a western shirt, not the stereotypical buckskin, although he is drunk he is alert enough to save a child (Thomas Builds-the-Fire) that was thrown out of the window of the burning house. Although Arnold has started the fire that kills Thomas’s parents throughout the film is seen with a drink problem and therefore falls into the stereotype of the drunken Indian, it is the reactions to his alcoholism by the other Natives around him that break the stereotype down to its parts with the whys and wherefores of it.VictorVictor is the protagonist of the story and it centres around how he survives the relationship with his father and fights the demons of that relationship whilst on a journey to collect his father’s ashes. Victor is tall and has the traditional long hair, he is athletic, and the audience sees him playing basketball with his friends. The hardy Indian who is athletic and can show prowess in sport is a traditional stereotype, but the game that the Indians are playing is not traditional. Basketball is an American sport usually associated with African Americans and on screens both movie and television every American home has a basketball hanging above the garage door.We expect Native Americans to be playing about on horses, the Indians in the Smoke Signals however are carrying out average American activities, such as a bunch of young men playing basketball in shorts and t-shirts, activities that we the audience are somewhat surprised to see Indians taking part in.
Due to conditioning through films whites and especially Europeans believe that Native Americans live in tents in desert landscapes, the Indians in Smoke Signals however do not live up to this very tight stereotyping, they have houses, they play main stream American sports and they have emotions.Victor is really shown in depth through the flash backs he has on his journey to claim his father’s ashes. Victor works through the relationship that he has had with his father and the complexity of it in flashback. The illustration of the relationship between the father and son is not a topic that is accredited to the Native American in film, except for the very convoluted film made by John Ford in 1964, Cheyenne Autumn. Cheyenne Autumn was a film of the times when audiences were becoming more sympathetic to Indians and no longer wanted to see films with only savage Indians in them.Both Cheyenne Autumn and Smoke Signals are the only films to even hint that Native Americans are capable of complex relationships. Victor’s relationship with his father is an atypical relationship that has been played out in many other films featuring people from around the world, such as Angela’s Ashes where similar problems between father and son are depicted.
If we compare Victor to Frank both have alcoholic fathers and both show the classic characteristics of the frustration a child has with an alcoholic parent and the anger that the two had towards their respective parents.The ability to compare Victor an Indian character to an Irish character is one way in which Smoke Signals manages to combat pejorative stereotypes, by making its characters appeal to a wide ranging audience. Victor is a character that appeals to a mainstream audience because he deals with problems much the way in which we all do. Therefore the Victor the Indian is now Victor the human being, Victor is now one of us. As Sherman Alexie stated in a PW interview, I write what I know, and I don’ t try to mythologize myself, which is what some seem to want, and which some Indian women and men writers are doing, this Earth Mother and Shaman Man thing, trying to create these ‘authentic, traditional’ Indians.
We don’t live our lives that way.