Twenty-one years ago, the film Smoke Signals — directed by Chris Eyre — debuted at the Sundance Film Festival to a positive response. It was written, directed, and co-produced by Native Americans thus marking a new milestone in Native filmmaking and representation. Since then, the film has stayed relevant within Indigenous communities. The cultural impact is evident with the online vendors that sell homemade goods with one of the film’s many iconic quotes or the memorable moments that make their rounds on social media. Smoke Signals has a unique ability to discuss a variety of culturally-specific topics with a cinematic language that keeps this coming of age story specific to an Indian reservation and a favorite in many households.
Despite Smoke Signals being this big moment for representation, it does not define all the tribes that exist because that would be impossible. In the United States alone, there are over 560 federally recognized tribes. Each tribe is its own sovereign nation with its own origin story, set of traditions, and history — both before and after European contact — that adds to their specific culture. For example, I am a citizen of the Cherokee Nation who doesn’t have a common type of reservation due to our land removal journey but rather a legal jurisdiction on our tribal land. We never indulged in fry bread — a common provision found on many reservations that is mentioned constantly in the film — though you can find it being served at a couple restaurants in our capital of Tahlequah, Oklahoma. I have found common ground with other Natives from various tribes regarding fried Spam, traditional beading, Little People, the Three Sisters, and pucker toe moccasins. Still, I am able to find commonality with the main characters as they find out what being Indigenous means to them.
The story of Smoke Signals follows Victor (Adam Beach) as he leaves his home on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation to deal with his absent father’s sudden death. The road trip is only possible with the help of Thomas (Evan Adams) — the geeky guy on the Rez — who offers his piggy bank money to fund Victor’s journey of reconciliation. These two boys might have grown up together but they are as different as summer and winter. Victor has long, dark hair he only pulls back when playing basketball. His anger masks his smile — a direct result of his alcoholic father leaving when he was just a kid. Thomas is a kind soul with long braids who enjoys telling the same stories over and over again. His everyday uniform consists of a suit and his wide-rimmed glasses with the plastic frames that take up a majority of his face.
The biggest difference between Victor and Thomas is in their perception of ‘being a real Indian’. This question is a result of colonization — which sought to erase our ancestor’s existence and still attempts to tarnish the bits and pieces of culture that we hold close to this day. Citizenship and blood quantum are concepts that are not original to Native communities but are highly debated topics that add to certain dysphoria within our cultures. The common question regarding our blood from non-Native individuals showcases that belonging to an Indigenous group is misunderstood.
While ignorance cannot be excused, some of this misunderstanding is because of miseducation and misrepresentation. The common image of a Native American is an archetypal figure that includes a feathered headdress, a tipi, and a tomahawk. It is assumed that most of us have died out and those that are still around are spending our lives on reservations, living more like creatures from a fiction story than actual human beings with thoughts and feelings.
The reality is we are diverse, varying from tribe to tribe and as individuals. We like binging a new Netflix show, writing poems, eating fast food, and all the other things that humans enjoy doing. We have opinions on politics and current events. A majority of us actually do live in cities and are attempting to indigenize urban areas while reservation life is where others find their home, like the characters in Smoke Signals. This question of ‘being a real Indian’ is a unifying factor that brings almost the distinct Indigenous communities that exist here in the United States together and connects us to our cousins in other parts of the world.
When Victor brings the topic of ‘being a real Indian’ up to Thomas, he teases him about how many times he has watched the 1991 Best Picture, Dances with Wolves. “100…200 times?” he says. “Oh Jesus, Thomas, you have seen it that many times?” Access to accurate representation in movies and television is much better nowadays and continues to improve. A nice group of talented Native filmmakers are emerging, with new projects that are creating a new standard of Indigenous media but for awhile, Dances with Wolves and its white savior complex was the best the industry gave us. Of course, Smoke Signals changed this less than a decade later, making this conversation in the film a moment of self-awareness.
Despite the differences from my own culture, Smoke Signals does a great job of capturing the Native experience in an entertaining way while still appreciating the characters and their relationship to their Coeur d’Alene heritage. The characters are not exploited but rather are given a platform to educate the audience on their own experience which allows us to sympathize. Just as Victor and Thomas can be appreciated for their differences, different cultures even within the Indigenous communities of the United States can be appreciated for their own.
Smoke Signals does have some ridiculously humorous moments, but it also deals with heavy subjects. Alcoholism and addiction are too common of an occurrence in communities. According to the 2017 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, American Indian and Alaska Natives had the highest rate of substance abuse and dependency yet the epidemic is not receiving the attention or help that it needs. It has become the new normal for many of our family members so much so it is expected of the next generation to develop an addiction of their own. This is a stereotype that we have to stop accepting within our communities while we remember the ones who are no longer with us because of this epidemic.
The treatment and stereotype the boys experience from non-Natives — like the two cowboys who steal their seats on the bus — is still true, even in 2019. This constant discrimination is a common ground that brings us together, despite being from different tribes and backgrounds. Most of these false stereotypes that fuel discrimination are based in ignorance which is why an accurate academic curriculum that includes the truth about Indigenous cultures along with media created by Native artists in this content-streaming age is vital for breaking down prejudice ideals against us.
In 2018, the film became one of just 750 films included in the National Film Registry meaning it is vital enough to make sure it doesn’t disappear. This doesn’t mean Smoke Signals is perfect — which brings me to the awful wig that Adam Beach wears in the last scenes of the film — but it is significant, especially to Native communities. Thus Smoke Signals is proof that we can be filmmakers, screenwriters, producers, actors, and crew that takes control of our own representation through the medium of film.