Smoke Signals (1998): Native American Chris Eyre and Sherman Alexie Award-Winning Debut

Smoke Signals, made by the Native American filmmakers Chris Eyre and Sherman Alexie, a prolific writer who was raised on the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation, premiered at Sundance, where it won the Audience Award and the Filmmakers Trophy.

“This is a new voice from our oldest culture, and it’s about time,” said Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein, who released Smoke Signals. “It gives an insight into people we’ve never really understood. We needed them to tell us a story, and we needed to hear it in their words.”

Based on Alexie’s story, “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,” Smoke Signals concerns two young Native Americans, Victor (Adam Beach) and Thomas (Evan Adams), who travel from Idaho to Arizona to pick up the ashes of Victor’s father. Along the way, the movie sends up Indian stereotypes (the stoic Indian warrior face), while grappling with what Alexie described as “our dysfunctions,” namely, parental abandonment and alcoholism.

Initially, “Smoke Signals” was called “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” but Scott Rosenfelt, whose company financed the picture, knew that a distributor would change the title to something less mellifluous, because “mellifluous doesn’t play.” Centering on absentee fathers and wandering sons, “Smoke Signals” is about the kinds of endemic dislocations that Indian audiences can relate to. Unlike earnest and preachy films about Native Americans, “Smoke Signals” presents an affectionate portrait of friendship and rapprochement.

On the eve of July 4, 1976, a couple on Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene Reservation celebrate the bicentennial, but the party ends in a tragic fire in which they lose their lives. Thomas Builds-the-Fire, their baby boy, is thrown out a window and is caught by Arnold Joseph, who raises him with his own son, Victor.
The story cuts back and forth between the present and 1988, when Victor and Thomas were 12 and Victor’s alcoholic father (Gary Farmer) left his wife (Tantoo Cardinal) and their son at their trailer home.

Victor goes to Arizona to settle his father’s affairs and bring back his ashes, but he can’t afford to go without the financial help of Thomas, who insists on going along. Over the years, the two have grown into different kinds of men: Victor is proud and cynical, whereas Thomas is a bright and resourceful raconteur of outrageous tales. Victor has been bitter about his father’s drinking and abandonment, but in Phoenix he learns some truths about his father from a kind woman (Irene Bedard) who looked after him before he died. Structured as a journey, Smoke Signals is basically a coming-of-age story that emphasizes the need for reconciliation between father and son and between past and present.

White Americans have not made coexistence easy for Native Americans. When a group of people has been oppressed, it is not unusual for the oppressors to “ennoble” them, which explains the notion of the Indian as “the noble savage” in American culture. However, with their newly gained power, the filmmakers expect to fight white hostility with new weapons: their movies and books.

For Alexie, “Smoke Signals” is “our Great Train Robbery, a seminal Native American big bang.” Based on the notion that Indians are “fundamentally different and don’t want to change that,” the movie is about “self-love.”
Alexie was influenced by all those historical romance novels about Indian warriors ravaging virginal white schoolteachers. If Indians were depicted as blue-eyed, it’s because half-breeds were perceived sexier then full-blooded Indians. Indians in novels always performed “animalistic” acts, inspiring white women to commit acts of primitive ecstasy. In the movies, Indians were always accompanied by ominous music.

The only mainstream films to portray contemporary Indians were the “Billy Jack” films, an attempt to cash in on the exploitation fare that had proved successful with black viewers. Indians cheered as Billy Jack fought for every single Indian, conveniently ignoring the fact that the actor Tom Laughlin was not Indian. Prominent actors, such as Charles Bronson, Burt Reynolds, Burt Lancaster, and Charlton Heston had already portrayed Indians.
When it came to the movies, Indians learned to be happy with less, as Alexie observed: “We didn’t mind that cinematic Indians never had jobs, were deadly serious, and were rarely played by Indian actors.” Cinematic Indians were supposed to climb mountains or wade into streams and sing songs. Indians became so passive to the possibility of dissent and so accepting of their lowered expectations, that they canonized a mediocre film like “Powwow Highway” (1989).

But times have changed and when Alexie rewatched Powwow Highway for the first time in years, he reportedly cringed in shame and embarrassment over its blatant stereotyping, such as the scene in which the protagonists Philbert and Buddy wade into a stream and sing to the moon.

The commercial success of “Smoke Signals,” which grossed $7 million, has already had enormous effect. “Every dusty Indian screenplay that’s been sitting on a shelf for 15 years is offered to us for development,” Alexie said. “Every loincloth movie in Hollywood has been resurrected.”

However, Alexie is committed to creating a new image, “a native character with a career, a teacher, a lawyer.” For him, moral responsibility is at stake: “There are boys and girls who are going to see themselves on screen, who are going to know that Chris and I directed and wrote it, who are going to know that all the actors in it were Indians playing Indians, and it’s going to hand them dreams.”

Released by Miramax on June 26, 1998, Smoke Signals was commercially successful, earning about $7 million at the box-office.