From Stagecoach to The Lone Ranger, Hollywood has a long history of representing Native Americans in stereotypical, often damaging, ways. The recent documentary Reel Injun gives a fascinating overview of this. What is less well-known in Hollywood is cinema made by and for Native Americans. I only know a handful of films like this (I'm sure there are more): The Fast Runner, Powwow Highway, and Smoke Signals. Each of these films complicates and subverts common stereotypes and misrepresentations in fascinating and often moving ways. The 1998 film Smoke Signals, based on the book by celebrated author Sherman Alexie, is a powerful meditation on the past and present struggles of contemporary, living Native Americans.
The film feels like a direct descendent of Powwow Highway. Gary Farmer, who played the young Cheyenne protagonist of that movie, is now a troubled father in Smoke Signals. Like Powwow Highway, Smoke Signals is a road movie, involving a kind of spiritual journey of two young Native Americans: Victor Joseph, embittered and angry; and Thomas Builds-the-Fire, an optimistic storyteller. This pairing of characters allows for a fascinating dialogue on what it means to be a Native American in the 20th century.
In Smoke Signals, Victor Joseph is quiet, stoic, and sometimes bitter at his lot in life. His father left when he was young, and he lives on the dilapidated and impoverished Couer d'Alene Reservation. Victor Joseph's issues with his father are the result of a long legacy of family dysfunction/absent fathers, which has its roots in the ugly treatment of Native Americans well into the 20th century. For insights on this, check out the documentary: Our Spirits Don't Speak English: Indian Boarding Schools. Victor Joseph's journey in the film (both literal and spiritual) is to travel to Arizona to bury his father.
Victor Joseph's fellow traveler on this journey is Thomas Builds-the Fire, who provides much of the comic relief in the film. Thomas Builds-the-Fire is always smiling, and he loves to tell stories. He has a link to Victor Joseph's father because, when Thomas was a baby, his parents died in a fire, and it was Victor's father who saved him.
When faced with mistreatment and discrimination, Thomas's response is not resentment, but humor and stories. When two redneck cowboys steal Victor and Thomas's seats on a bus, Thomas replies, "The cowboys always win, Victor." Then he proceeds to make up a silly song about John Wayne's false teeth.
When the two young travelers arrive in Arizona and recover Victor's father's ashes, it is Thomas who provides the poetic wisdom that allows Victor Joseph to let go of the pain of his past. In a powerfully moving scene, Victor is shown scattering his fathers ashes in the river where his ancestors used to fish for salmon, and Thomas gives a voiceover that transcends their personal struggle and elevates it to ecstatic vision:
How do we forgive our fathers? Maybe in a dream. Do we forgive our fathers for leaving us too often, or forever, when we were little? Maybe for scaring us with unexpected rage, or making us nervous because there never seemed to be any rage there at all? Do we forgive our fathers for marrying, or not marrying, our mothers? Or divorcing, or not divorcing, our mothers? And shall we forgive them for their excesses of warmth or coldness? Shall we forgive them for pushing, or leaning? For shutting doors or speaking through walls? For never speaking, or never being silent? Do we forgive our fathers in our age, or in theirs? Or in their deaths, saying it to them or not saying it. If we forgive our fathers, what is left?
This scene mirrors an earlier flashback in the film, when Thomas Builds-the-Fire was a young boy, sitting by the river, waiting for a vision. Ultimately, the vision comes, not as a spirit, but as the real physical person of Victor's father, who takes him to breakfast at Denny's. The film does a beautiful job of taking the traditions and mythology of the boys' tribe and updating them to modern times.
The more I learn about the real history of Native Americans, which is so full of suffering and injustice, the more I feel the truth of the statement, "We pay for the sins of our fathers." Every generation inherits the dysfunction and problems of their parents. And the struggle of each generation is to confront and (hopefully) transcend these dysfunctions. Ultimately, Smoke Signals is about coming to terms with a painful past so that a new generation may move into a better future with clarity and bravery. Writer Sherman Alexie uses his skills as a writer to suggest a possible path forward.