Smoke Signals

After years of misrepresentation in the media, Native American filmmakers are taking control of their own stories, including in a new breakthrough film produced, directed, and written by Native Americans

I remember the first time I had a connection with an Indian on television. I was eight years-old, and my cousin Cathy and I were watching a stereotypical cowboy and Indian western. The Native characters were dressed like nothing we had ever seen in our world. At one point, two warrior-type characters entered the scene, and when asked by the lead Anglo character how many enemies they had spied, they replied “na'kii.”

Cathy and I looked at one another in amazement and began jumping for joy. We ran to tell our family that we had just heard an Indian on television speaking our Apache language. We felt like the world had finally had a glimpse of our lives as they really were, and from that point on, everything would be different. We watched more and more Westerns after that, waiting and hoping that maybe we would see ourselves on television or hear our language one more time. We never did.

Now, almost 20 years later, a movement that has not been visible to many is coming into its own. Last January at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, the first feature film written, co-produced, and directed by Native Americans premiered. It has since been distributed and shown nationally at hundreds of theaters. That film, Smoke Signals, is the result of 20 years of hard work by the Native media world. It is also hard evidence that we are finally reaching a point where Native audiences don't have to search the television and movie screens as hard as my cousin Cathy and I did for a small glimpse of our lives.

What does this new movement mean? Elizabeth Weatherford, the head of the National Museum of the American Indian's Film and Video Center in New York, believes that the shift in the source of the narrative is indicative of a shift in the entire consciousness of society.

“The perennial stereotyped images of Indians – apparent since the 1890s invention of film – are finally being set aside,” says Weatherford.

Beyond savages and sidekicks

For the past two decades, Native Americans have worked steadily toward direct participation in media. During the early 1970s, the growth of independent media began about the time that political activism blossomed in the Native communities across the country. Native Americans embraced the opportunity to convey their stories to the broader world.

The development of Native media – including film, video, radio, electronic media, and multimedia arts –has not been without its challenges. Securing financial backing and gaining access to training are major obstacles, but the real challenge lies in countering the decades of misrepresentation of Native Americans by non-Natives.

We have all seen the evidence of the categorization of Native Americans in Hollywood westerns and television programs, and surely we all remember the crying Indian of the nation's anti-littering campaign in the 1970s. To date, most media images have categorized Native Americans as the savage, sidekick, love interest, or noble warrior.

The effects of such misrepresentation may not be easy to understand for one who is non-Native. Why does it matter whether the images are accurate or not? For Native people, however, the ramifications abound. Inaccuracies and stereotypes undermine indigenous languages and cultures because the mainstream media promotes assimilation. The inaccuracies also affect the political process that is so vital to upholding tribal sovereignty and the relations between the 557 tribal nations in the US and the federal government.

Former Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation Wilma Mankiller says, “It's hardly any wonder you can go speak with a senator or Congressman and have them know anything about Indians. What little they do know, they get from the media and from movies.”

The influence of movies on the US government was apparent, for example, the year the movie Dances with Wolves won several Academy Awards: During that year, the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs had the highest number of senators wanting to serve on it.

The most serious effect media stereotypes have, however, is on Native individuals' thoughts and perceptions of ourselves and the world we live in. In an article written for The Indian Historian in 1974, the late Gerald Wilkenson of the National Indian Youth Council wrote, “As media consumers, Indian people are in a particularly harmful position. We consume the thoughts of others about ourselves and the world.

Too many of us have patterned ourselves after that image. It is time now that we project our own image and stop being what we never really were.”

A glimpse into Indian Country

Stereotypes not only affect the Native community's perception of itself, they also influence what consumers want in Indian movies. Smoke Signals director Chris Eyre, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma, encountered his share of obstacles as a Native American director who wanted to make movies where the fully-developed characters happened to be Indian. In pitching ideas to the film industry, he found that Native movies were expected to be spiritual or political.

Plus, says Eyre, “it often boils down to making a movie the populace wants, and the time period of 1860-1890 is the commodity that sells Native American movies.”

Not one to be swayed by the dictates of Hollywood, Eyre managed to stay true to his original vision. Since his early interest in making films, Eyre has been involved with the Native American Producer's Alliance (NAPA), a network of Native media artists. The dream of many of those artists is not necessarily to release a feature film and have it be a commercial success, but rather to have the opportunity to accurately portray Native people. NAPA and other institutions – such as Native American Public Telecommunications and Native production companies like Yellow Two Band Productions – have all been formed out of the Native media movement.

Eyre was a graduate student in film at New York University in 1995 when he read The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, a collection of short stories by well-known Spokane/Coeur d'Alene writer Sherman Alexie. Eyre liked the material so much that he called Alexie and proposed turning the story “What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” into a film. They worked together to develop the screenplay and find a production company that would support the effort. After a couple of test starts, Eyre and Alexie convinced Shadowcatcher Entertainment in Seattle to come on board to produce the movie.

Fully completed in six months, the movie was screened in Los Angeles and New York after preliminary inquiries from production companies who were drawn to Alexie's reputation and intrigued by the movie's all-Native cast and crew. Although Eyre had set his sights on picking up a small film distributor at the Sundance Film Festival like many independent films, the buzz around the movie and its talented new director caused bids to come in much earlier than anticipated. Miramax won the bidding war and renamed the film Smoke Signals. When the movie premiered at Sundance, it was greeted with enthusiasm, winning both the Sundance Audience Prize and the Director's Prize.

Smoke Signals does not capitalize on any particular commodity that sells movies like Dances with Wolves. It is, quite simply, a glimpse into the contemporary reality of Indian Country. There are parents who split up, grandmothers raising grandsons, young men playing basketball, and the central theme: sons redeeming what never really was between them and their fathers. Not an issue that solely impacts Indian people is it? But, the film does subtly touch on the issues Wilkenson mentioned of patterning ourselves after an image. At one point the two leads of the film have a session of “how to be Indian,” in which Victor instructs Thomas on how to be stoic, how to wear his long hair loose and free, and most importantly, to always look like he has just come home from hunting buffalo. When Thomas reminds Victor that their people weren't buffalo hunters but instead were salmon fishers, Victor replies, “This ain't Dances With Salmon.”

A message to mainstream America

The Native media world is a tightly knit community. Eyre says, “You know how there are only six degrees of separation? Well, in the Indian world, there are only two.” Because of this smallness, the collective Native media world has been able to join in the celebration of Smoke Signals' release. Many Native media artists feel this is only the beginning of more great works to come to the big screen.

George Burdeau, head of Yellow Two Band Productions and director of Surviving Columbus, the first documentary series produced by and written about Native Americans, says, “For years, those few of us in film have aspired to do what Chris did – to make a feature film by and about Native people. I'm so happy that all of our hard work paid off, and someone was finally able to do it.”

Eyre recently formed his own production company and is reading the piles of screenplays that are sent to him daily by writers seeking his expertise and hoping he will direct their films. He's still waiting for the right one to come along, while writing screenplays of his own that he hopes to bring to the big screen in the near future.

In the meantime, s is letting the world know that Indians are alive and well in America. Not only does this film deliver that message to mainstream America, it also lets Indians know that they have reached another milestone marking their progress in a world that has neatly categorized them for too long. Just as in the film, Native Americans are saying as they always have, “It's a good day to be Indigenous.”

N. Bird Runningwater is of the Cheyenne and Mescalero Apache Tribes. He was born and reared on the Mescalero Apache Reservation in New Mexico and did his graduate work at the University of Texas at Austin's LBJ School of Public Affairs. A former program associate with the Ford Foundation, he is a freelance writer based in New York.
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