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Native Cinema emerges with a new force

For mainstream America, the feature film "Smoke Signals" (released in the summer of '98) appeared to come out of nowhere, but the presence of Native Americans in the entertainment world is not new. Going back to the first Wild West shows and the silent cowboys and Indians Westerns of the 1920s, they have been in show biz.

Although Natives supplied the main drama and background for the Western film genre, until now they had few opportunities to participate in Hollywood's lucrative film industry. In the past, Indians - usually played by non-Native stuntmen, were portrayed as one-dimensional, one-line sidekicks reduced to falling off horses and hurling bloodcurdling screams.

That is about to change. Armed with their own voice and vision, Native filmmakers like Chris Eyre and writers Sherman Alexie and Greg Sarris are carving a niche inside Hollywood. They exemplify a new Native filmmaker.

With stories both compelling and accessible, Alexie ("Smoke Signals") and Sarris ("Grand Avenue," an HBO television miniseries) pull audiences into a world defined more by emotional and spiritual borders than by obvious cultural ones, a part of the American landscape not often captured.

Why was "Smoke Signals" so successful? It was a story coming out of a community mainstream audiences have had little exposure to or empathy for. It certainly didn't play into the romantic myth of how the West was won. For the first time on the big screen, Native Americans articulated and defined their reality, a portrayal contemporary, whimsical and poignantly honest.

In the past, non-Native filmmakers (sometimes with the best intentions) tried to address injustices of the past by using "whites" as the whipping posts. Alexie and other writers offer a more provocative a view of the Native community embodying sensibilities and nuances that can come only from an insider perspective lacking in other so-called Indian films. "Thunderheart," "War Party" and "Dances with Wolves" come quickly to mind.

The road to Native cinema today has been long. Along the way courageous individuals like Pauline Johnson in the 1890s and Mollie Spotted Elk in the 1930s ventured out alone, onto stages across North America and Europe, and challenged, as possible, misconceptions and stereotypes that defined Native people.

In the '60s and '70s, actors Eddie Little Sky, Jay Silverheels, Will Sampson, Chief Dan George, Mahata Jo Miller, Dusty Iron Wing, Betty Ann Carr and many others played pivotal roles in the evolution of Native cinema. And, in the 1990s we've seen another generation of multi-talented actors emerge. But as Sarris, a professor of American Literature at the University of California at Los Angeles and chairman of the Miwok Tribe of northern California comments, empowerment has been a slow process.

"In the broadest sense, what (writers) were doing is expanding the public's notion of what it means to be Indian. With "Grand Avenue" for television and "Smoke Signals" for cinema, we got a more complicated picture of what it means to be American Indian. We got new images we had not seen before," he says.

"'Grand Avenue' stretched the public's perception of the American Indian closer to reality. No one had seen such extensive portrayals of Native women. Most historic movies are about fierce and noble male warriors. In fact, women are the anchors of many Native communities. Second, in 'Grand Avenue,' viewers were exposed to the urban Indian - another reality. Almost 65 percent of Native people live in urban areas. Audiences also saw California Indians, breaking a stereotype of the Plains Indian on horseback with long braids. But most important, viewers saw Indians interacting with other people - Hispanics and African Americans - rather than living in isolation.

Sarris says such realistic portrayals are necessary if Native cinema is to have a future. Native filmmakers must battle internalized and deep stereotypes and images, which range from sports team mascots to Crazy Horse Malt Liquor to Pocahontas nondairy creamer.

Marjorie Tanin, a Los Angeles-based Native casting agent, has seen the industry norm of non-Indians "darkened up" to look Indian evolve to a real effort by directors to hire Native Americans to play themselves. But, she says, changes don't come easily.

"Hollywood goes through phases. There was the 'Dances with Wolves' stage, and then Westerns made a comeback, and now it seems that action films are the current trend," Tanin says. "I think that slowly, writers, producers and directors are changing their perception of Indian people, and more so with independent films. We need to have our people cast as professionals - lawyers and doctors - like everyone else. There are so few roles specifically written for an Indian person, and then it's usually for a period piece. I think overcoming a lot of our struggles is done by educating Hollywood that we don't all look the same, that America is made up of a lot of different Indian tribes."

Nevertheless, Tanin says American film actors who live and dress in their traditional cultural ways face a Catch-22: If they try to be themselves, directors cast them in stereotypical roles. If they try to blend into mainstream non-Indian society to break the stereotypes, directors may not want to use them. Unfortunately, a lot of Indian people, the men especially, have had to deal with this "hair" issue," Tanin says. "And then if they do cut it, you're having people saying that you're not really Indian."

As Native cinema goes through growing pains, Sonny Skyhawk, a producer and the CEO of Amerind Entertainment Group (a Native film production company in Los Angeles) points out that Native filmmakers have to play catch-up at an accelerated pace. Acting is just one, small part of a much larger and complex business, he says. Now, more than ever, Native filmmakers need to learn all the ins and outs of moviemaking. And there will have to be more than one success story before studio confidence translates to bigger moviemaking budgets.

Until now, it's been lone, independent filmmakers who struggled to get films made and find venues to screen the work. Largely supported by the Native community and forums like the 25-year-old American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco and, more recently, the Sundance Film Festival's Native American Program, Native filmmakers had little exposure to outside expertise and Hollywood studios.

In a town where keeping creative control over a project is a battle often lost - even by those of the stature of Steven Spielberg and Quincy Jones - "Smoke Signals" seems to have sidestepped Hollywood barriers that can detour projects and story lines, having Native Americans in control behind and in front of the camera.

Since directing "Smoke Signals," Chris Eyre has been signed to William Morris' new independent film department. Upcoming projects include working with Wynona Ryder (in production) and producing Randy Red Road's anticipated movie "The Doe Boy."

Looking to the future, Eyre is optimistic. He understands the balancing act that comes with juggling what he needs as a filmmaker and the reality of the Hollywood box office.

"What I need as a filmmaker is what we all need, voices - Native writers," Eyre says. "I think the wonderful thing about our filmmakers and actors is that we all come from different tribes and experiences. We all come from tradition and dislocation, and it's a mosaic that most Hollywood producers can't put their finger on. It's hard enough for us as Indians to put our finger on what Native America is. We just accept it. I would hate for America to ever feel they knew Indians."

Eyre doesn't blame movie studios for the stereotypes or for the lack of movies that realistically portray Native Americans. Studios simply respond to demands of the movie-going public, he says.

"The studios are in the supply-and-demand business. If Middle America - people in Iowa and Nebraska - wanted to pay eight bucks to see a movie about Indians, the studios would be making those kinds of movies. Just because you have a great idea, it doesn't mean the marketplace can absorb it. I don't find the problem with the studios; I find the problem is America's intolerance for any other perspective but theirs."

Nevertheless, there is a growing demand for realistic, human portrayals of Native Americans, he says. The challenge Native filmmakers face is meeting the viewing public's demands for quality within small budgets set for independent films by the industry.

"'Smoke Signals" breathed a new breath of air on a fire already lit," Eyre says. I'm going to make movies about and with Indians because this film opened up a certain window, and there's going to be a Second Coming. And," he adds, "I'm not talking about kicking the door open. I think, collectively, we'll take it off its hinges!"

For Native filmmakers, "Smoke Signals" is the first step in getting Hollywood to look beyond the stereotype of the American Indian. Eyre and other emerging filmmakers demonstrate that the collaborative spirit and collective vision that put "Smoke Signals" on Hollywood's map is a winning formula.

Perhaps the most valuable contribution "Smoke Signals" made is to give the Native film community a new infusion of self-confidence. "These are exciting times right now," says Canadian-based actor Tina Keeper, who played the lead role in the Canadian hit drama series 'North of 60. "There's going to be a new genre of film developed where we are the ones interpreting our own reality and other people will have to get used to it."