Smoke Signals in Context


 

Now is the time when thoughtful and determined Native Americans are
flying over the cuckoo’s nest that is Hollywood. Indian filmmakers and actors intend to
suffocate the old images and convert the screen Indian into a real Indian. Tonto, you may
yet have your revenge.

—Rennard Strickland, Tonto’s Revenge 1998

 

In 1911, James Yang Deer, a Winnebago Indian, directed a film
titled Yacqui Girl, one of several commercially successful productions he completed before
going off to make documentaries in France during World War I. Upon resuming in 1919, Young
Deer found his once-promising career had inexplicably come to an abrupt halt.
Conspicuously disemployed in his chosen trade for nearly fifteen years, he was finally
picked up as a second-unit director an Hollywood’s ‘ Poverty Row" during the mid-30s,
grinding out B-westerns and serials.

Meanwhile, Edwin Carewe, a Chickasaw, had completed The Trail of
the Shadow in 1917. The film was distinguished enough to land him the director’s berth in
a whole string of movies over the next decade, culminating in the sensitive and
critically-acclaimed 1928 screen version of Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona. With that,
Carewe’s career ended just as suddenly as Young Deer’s, and with even greater finality. He
was never hired to work in cinema again.

For the next seventy years, with the exception of a brief flurry of
self-produced releases by Cherokee comedian/radio commentator/actor Will Rogers, no
American Indian was allowed to direct a major motion picture. For that matter, despite
Rogers’ monumental success and the Penobscot Molly Spotted Elk’s having carried her weight
as the lead in Silent Enemy (1930), no Indian actor was slotted in a significant film role
until 1970, when Arthur Penn cast the Squamish leader, Chief Dan George, as Old Lodge
Skins in Little Big Man.

Nor were things better for native people trying to work in
filmdom’s "background" capacities. Cherokee Lynn Riggs, for example, was cited
by no less than Bette Davis as being among Hollywood’s "most important
contributors" to screenplay development. In 1930, Riggs completed a stage play
entitled Green Grow the Lilacs which most people have never heard of, mainly because it
became famous as Oklahoma! after Rodgers and Hammerstein gloamed on to it.

So bleached-out had America’s cinematic sensibilities become that
when Cherokee actor Victor Daniels ("Chief Thunder Cloud") was hired for the
non-speaking title role in the 1939 version of Geronimo, he was required to don heavy
make-up so that he’d more closely resemble the white actors audiences had grown accustomed
to see portraying Indians during Saturday matinees.

All told, more than 350 "name brand" Euro Americans had
made their mark appearing in redface by 1970. They included women like Mary Pickford and
Lillian Gish, Debra Paget and Donna Reed, Jennifer Jones and Julie Newmar, Delores Del Rio
and Linda Darnel. The roster of men included Jeff Chandler and Rock Hudson, Sal Mineo and
Anthony Quinn, Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, Chuck Connors and Ricardo Montalban.
Fortunately, although he was cast as the Mongol leader Genghis Khan in The Conqueror
(1956), John Wayne was never selected to fill the bill as a Hollywood Indian.

During the near half-century when real native people were all but
frozen out of the movies, the studios cranked out something in the order of 2,000 films
dealing with what are called "Indian themes." Another 2,500 or so were made as
t.v. segments between 1950 and 1970. Given this saturation—there is no other
word—of imagery, it is fair to say that three consecutive generations of Americans
were conditioned to see native people in certain ways, for clearly definable purposes.

While most of what was produced consisted of squalid potboilers in
which Indians served, as Oneida comic Charlie Hill puts it, as "pop-up targets to
give the cowboys and the cavalry something to shoot at," some of the films at issue
must be considered as serious cinema. In this sense, they must also be assessed as
conveying as deeply virulent a message of racial triumphal­ism as anything ever produced
by Goebbles’ Ministry of Propaganda during Germany’s nazi era.

One can debate whether John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) was really
the most racistly anti­Indian movie ever made, or whether that dubious distinction more
rightly belongs to Robert Mulligan’s The Stalking Moon (1969) or John Huston’s Unforgiven
(1960), but the fact is that there are a vast number of contenders. And, as Indians were
systematically converted Al screen to America’s equivalent of untermensch, the herrenvolk
most directly responsible for perpetrat­ing genocide against us were just as
systematically heroicized, a matter which remained true from Errol Flynn’s portrayal of
George Armstrong Custer in They Died With Their Boots On (1941) to Robert Shaw’s in Custer
of the West (1969).

Being perfected was what Cherokee aesthetician Jimmie Durham terms
"America’s Master Narrative"—Gramsci might have called it
"hegemony"—that is, indoctrination of the popu­lace with a mythic
(mis)understanding that nothing really wrong had transpired in the course of U.S. history.
On the contrary, it had all been a noble undertaking, carried out by a combina­tion of
gallant leaders and brave settlers forging a better future. If anyone had gotten hurt
along the way, namely Indians, it was because they’d "brought it on themselves"
by being essentially subhuman in the first place and then compounding the defect with
persistent and aggressive attempts to prevent whites from making things "work out for
the best."

Not all Indians were seen as bad, of course. Some were even
depicted as being noble, too. These were the ones who perceived a "tragic
inevitability" in being overrun by a self­anointedly superior race/culture, and who
therefore evidenced the good taste to simply "vanish" with dignity rather than
complaining about it. Even better were those who not only accepted the innateness of white
supremacy, but who used their insights to provide actual serv­ice to Euroamerica, helping
the invaders get on with it. Such notions are not unfamiliar to colo­nial literature, as
even the most cursory reading of Joseph Conrad will reveal. The Lone Ranger’s Tonto is,
after all, simply Rudyard Kipling’s Gunga Din recast in feathers, as is Chin­gachgook in
Last of the Mohicans.

Once"revisionist" films like Little Big Man and Soldier
Blue began to appear in 1970, mainly as a sop to mounting protest of the Vietnam War,
previously glorified martial figures like Custer began to lose their allure. The Master
Narrative was consequently reworked to ad­mit that unconscionable atrocities had been
committed against Indians over the years, just as they were being committed against
Indochinese at the time. Such "historical excesses" were then attributed,
however, quickly and quite uniformly, to "anomalous" Custer-like characters.

Always, these highly personalized embodiments of evil were
counterbalanced by the cen­trality of sympathetic white characters—Candice Bergen’s
Christa Marybelle Lee and Peter Strauss’s Honis Gant in Soldier Blue, as examples, or
Dustin Hoffman’s Jack Crabbe in Little Big Man—with whom Euroamerican viewers might
identify Always, the Indians in such films serve as mere plot devices intended mainly to
validate the main white characters’ alleged sen­sitivities, and to convey forgiveness to
"good" (i.e., most) whites for the misdeeds of their "bad" (i.e.,
atypical or "deviant") peers.

Although one can readily imagine the response had Hollywood opted
to depict the Euro­pean Holocaust of the 1940s in a similar fashion, albeit Steven
Spielberg comes uncomfortably close with Schindler’s List, the convention has been adhered
vis-a-vis the American Holocaust with almost seamless precision for the past twenty-five
years. Most recently, it has been mani­festly evident in Kevin Costner’s 1990 epic,
Dances With Wolves, as well as Michael Apthed’s Thunderheart a couple of years later and
such mid-9Os teletrash as Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.

The propaganda function served by the revisionist formula is to
allow constituents of Amer­ice’s dominant settler society to avoid confronting the
institutional and cultural realities which led unerringly to the historical genocide of
American Indians. Moreover, in first being led to demonize men like Custer, and then
helped to separate themselves from them via the signification of characters like Jack
Crabbe, Christa Lee and Costner’s Lt. Dunbar, white audi­ences are made to feel
simultaneously "enlightened" (for have being "big" or "open"
enough to concede that something ugly had occurred) and "good about themselves"
(for being so different from those they imagine the perpetrators to have been).

Thus reassured, mainstream moviegoers/TV. viewers are
psychologically positioned to join Sully, the "nice white guy" in Dr. Quinn,
entoning in unison that, since they who are so different from Custer now comprise it and
despite what "he" did to the Indians, "this is still the best country in
the world." Translated, mainstream audiences feel-ever-so-much more entitled to
participate in the American system, and to gorge themselves an the material benefits
accruing from it, after viewing a movie like Dances With Wolves than they did before.

At the same time, contemporary Native Americans, from whom much of
the wealth sup­porting the Euroamerican standard of living continues to be extracted, are
maintained in a state of near-total disempowerment and correspondingly deep destitution.
As Cherokee analyst Ren­nard Strickland has observed, one result is that the "Indian
health level is the lowest and the disease rate the highest of all major population groups
in the United States."

The incidence of tuberculosis is over 400 percent higher than the
national average. Similar statistics

show that the incidence of strep infections is 1,000 percent,
meningitis is 2,000 percent higher, and

dysentery is 10,000 percent higher. Death rates from disease are
shocking when Indian and non­

Indian populations are compared. Influenza and pneumonia are 300
percent greater killers among

Indians. diseases such as hepatitis are at epidemic proportions,
with an 800 percent higher chance

of death. Diabetes is almost a plague. And. the suicide rate for
Indian youths ranges from 1,000 to

10,000 higher than for non-Indian youths…

Faced with such ongoing conditions, American Indians would
never—indeed, could never— have made films reinforcing the dominant society’s
coveted sense of smugly self-satisfied "I’m okay, you’re okay" complacency about
itself. Things for Indians are obviously not okay, and, in setting out to explain why that
is, we’re not about to accept critic John Lenihan’s "modest pro­posal,"
advanced in 1980, that the proper role of cinema should be to lead audiences to a
"mature" interpretation of history in which "ain’t none of us right."

Collectively, we’re more inclined to follow Navajo activist John
Redhouse’s suggestion, of­fered a few years before Lenihan’s, that such ideas will make
sense when, and not before, Euroamerica finds it as "harmless" for its children
to play "Nazis and Jews" as it always has "Cowboys and Indians."
Hence, by definition, American Indian understandings are counter­hegemonic, and that’s
why Hollywood has frozen us out so completely from such crucial func­tions as directing
and scriptwriting over the past 75 years or so.

Make no mistake, this has remained just as true after the supposed
"sea change in public sensibility" of 1970 as it was in 1930. In 1972, for
example, Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday sought financial/technical support to convert his
Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A House Made of Dawn, into the far more potent medium of
film. Rebuffed for more than a decade, Momaday finally organized the project himself and
ultimately came up with a reasonably competent movie in 1987. It died on the vine,
however, when every major outlet expressed a marked disin­terest in distributing
independent productions.

It might be plausible that this was simply a business decision, no
cultural/contentual bias involved, were it not for the fact that in 1976, a mere four
years after Momaday’s initial at­tempts, these very same distributors opted to put a
relatively unknown Italian actor named Sylvester Stallone an the map by hawking his
independently-produced Rocky. They had, moreover, long been handling the work of John
Cassavetes and other independent white film­makers when they deep-sixed Momaday. By the
mid-80s, independent production was rather common—ask Sam Shepard—but Hollywood
was no more willing to accept autonomous Indian efforts than it had been a decade before.

Even with respect to acting, the one area in which revisionist
cinema’s ever-increasing need to "authenticate" itself has allowed native people
to bleed into the industry, we continue to suffer a virtual eclipse in some very important
respects. While Jeff Chandler received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor because
of his stilted portrayal of Cochise in Broken Arrow (1950), the Creek actor Will Sampson
was not even nominated for his far more accom­plished performance as Chief Broom in One
Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). "Why should an Indian receive an award for
playing an Indian?" demanded one director at the time. By the same token, why should
Robert DeMro, an actor of Italian descent, have received a award for his portrayal of
another Italoamerican, Jake La Motta, in Raging Bull (1980)?

Although there is an entry for "Bugs Bunny" in the latest
edition of Ephraim Katz’s defini­tive Film Encyclopedia, there is none for Will Sampson,
despite his prominent roles in more than a score of major movies including such box office
hits as The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), The White Buffalo (1977), Orca (1977) and Fish Hawk
(1980). Nor is there mention of Graham Greene, the fine Oneida actor who actually did win
the Academy’s supporting actor award for his work in Dances With Wolves, and whose
accomplishments include remarkable perform­ances in Clearcut (1991), Thunderheart (1992)
and other films. Missing, too, is Gary Farmer, an­other Oneida, who has turned in equally
exemplary efforts in Powwow Highway (1989) and Dead Man (1996), among others.

If these virtuosos can still be slighted in this manner, what does
it say for the prospects of somewhat less visible but genuinely talented native actors
like Irene Bedard, Eric Schweig, Sheila Tousey, Adam Beach, Tantoo Cardinal, Evan Adams,
Tina Keeper, Michael Greyeyes, Elaine Miles, Tom Jackson, Sonny Landham, Molly Cheek,
Larry Littlebird, Cody Lightening, Michelle St. John and Michael Horse? I mean, really,
Native North America can’t rely en the cinematic establishment’s posthumous
acknowledgments of Chief Dan George and The Lone Ranger’s Jay Silverheels forever.

This is why the recent debut of Smoke Signals (1998), the first
release of a major motion pic­ture directed by an Indian since Will Rogers, is such a
vitally important event. Not only that, but the screenplay was also written by an Indian,
adapted from a book of his short stories, and virtually the entire cast is composed of
Indians. To top things off, the director, Chris Eyre, an Arapaho, teamed up with the
scriptwriter, Spokane author Sherman Alexie, to coproduce the venture. Smoke Signals is
thus, from top to bottom, an American Indian production, and that makes it historically
unprecedented.

Critical reaction to the film has been interesting, to say the
least, consisting in large part as it does of chatter concerning its limitations and
technical deficiencies rather than the profound social significance of its very existence.
Such responses can be met head ON Smoke Signal is not great cinema. Trite in places,
cliched in others, it is much too obvious in its efforts to come off as something
explicitly, even stereotypically, "Indian" at nearly every step along the way.
"Enit?"

But, with that said, so what? Smoke Signals is nonetheless a good
movie in that it hangs together just fine, far better than most in that endless gush of
relatively uncriticized clodhop­pers aired on TNT’s highly-popular ‘doe Bob Briggs
Drive-In Theater" every Saturday night. Chris Eyre may not (yet) have attained the
level of sophistication evidenced by a Francis Ford Coppola or a Martin Scorsese in
communicating ethnic content, but he’s not an overindulgent twit like Michael Camino
either. More importantly, he shows no signs of being a subtextual racist like Arthur Penn,
or one of the more overt variety, like John Ford and John Huston.

Those tempted to critique Alexie’s script as being a bit frothy at
times might wish to re­member that they had rather less to say when Miwok/Pomo author
Greg Sarris came up with a much superior screenplay for HBO’s Grand Avenue (1996) only two
years hence. Left to his own devices—that is, freed from his hyperinflated,
publisher-generated reputation as a "man of letters"—Alexie might actually
get over himself sufficiently to produce material of compara­ble quality. In any event,
what he put together for Smoke Signals was markedly better than, to pull just one example
out the memory bank, a highly-touted specialist like Arthur Chabanian produced as the
script for Back to the Future. "Eh?"

Similarly, anyone arguing that the acting in Smoke Signals is
occasionally a tad thin would do well to recall their own relative silence when it came to
the superlative performances registered by Irene Bedard and Sheila Tousey while acting out
Sarris’s "gritty and unsparing depiction of urban Indian life." Instead of
chipping away at the imperfections of Smoke Sig­nals, they might do better inquiring as
to why Grand Avenue is at this point neither much shown on HBO or available on videotape.

Above all, let it be said that a "critical" establishment
such as that in the U.S., which has demonstrated a perpetual and truly astonishing
capacity to let pass with nothing resembling a probing analysis the likes of Stallone and
Steven Seagal—or to embrace as "legitimate enter­tainment" such
extravagant wastes of celluloid as Air Force One, Titanic, Armageddon and Godzilla, all
within the past year—has no business criticizing anybody’s cinematic achieve­ments,
no matter how meager.

Yet there is nothing in the least meager about what Chris Eyre has
accomplished. In his very first attempt at the "big time" he has established his
talents quite solidly. Given that this should serve as a license for him to stretch out a
little, gathering experience, maturity, and further professional credibility, it seems
likely that Eyre’s commercial efforts will rapidly evolve into works evidencing an
aesthetic stature equal to or surpassing that embodied in the art films he created as a
grad student at NYU. Indeed, the extent to which he has already suc­ceeded should stand
to pry open doors for other native directors aspiring to break into the trade.

Whatever its shortcomings, then, one cannot reasonably avoid
concluding that Smoke Sig­nals is a singularly important movie, not just a milestone but
a pivot point for Native North America in terms of our long and sorry (mis)representation
on the silver screen. The assessment is doubly valid in view of another recent and
momentous development, this one in Indian Coun­try itself. Based on a near half-billion
dollars in annual gambling revenues over the past dozen years, the Mashantucket Pequots
have begun to invest in—and have the capacity to fully un­derwrite and, if
necessary, distribute—the endeavors of native filmmakers. Several other peo­ples
have arrived in more-or-less the same financial situation, and have demonstrated an
in­clination to follow suit.

Correspondingly, Hollywood no longer holds the trump card with
which it has tradition­ally controlled the indigenous image. An autonomous native cinema
can thus be forged, whether the titans of tinseltown like it or not. As a consequence,
Eyre and his peers find themselves, uniquely, in a position to begin unraveling the codes
of domination upon which the portrayals of Indians in film have heretofore been
constructed, reinterpreting the meaning of America in a far more accurate manner than
their white counterparts, and generally crushing Hollywood’s fan­tasies of the master
race under the heel of a different future.

Whether they will measure up to the task of their opportunity
remains to be seen, but a t last the promise is at hand. One wishes that James Young Deer,
Molly Spotted Elk, Lynn Riggs, Will Sampson and all the others could be here to see it,
or, better yet, to participate. On second thought, they did participate. So, I guess maybe
they’re watching. And I’m sure they’re proud. . .