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Jason Asenap, High Country News

I remember watching Smoke Signals in Oklahoma City many years ago and thinking, “Yes! Finally, somebody has made a film about us, for us.” I was 21 at the time. “Now they’ll learn, and from an actual Indian screenwriter and director,” I thought. But today, Smoke Signals feels clunky, even cringe-worthy. The film’s creative team seems to have been inspired by the same impulses I had as a young idealistic kid: People didn’t know anything about Indians, I was usually the first one they’d met, and I often felt the need to teach them a few things, whether they wanted to hear about them or not.

Since its release in 1998, Smoke Signals has become a seminal movie in Indigenous cinema and Indian Country. It was the first real Indigenous film, written, directed and largely acted by Indigenous people, and it did what no other Native film had done before: It successfully crossed over to mainstream. The film did well at the box office, grossing nearly $7 million, and was even added to the National Film Registry in 2018. But today, in light of our evolving notions of Indigeneity and what it means to be a Native person in this century, the film feels dated. One need look no further than the title card in the opening credits and the use of that damn Papyrus font.

Essentially a buddy picture — a road-trip movie about self-discovery — the film explores how Indians relate to American popular culture as well as to ourselves, along with the power of story and the lies we tell others within those frameworks. There is a missing father; there is alcoholism; there are notable rez accents. There is redemption.

Yet the film relies almost entirely on Western, pop-culture-influenced notions of Indigenous people, referencing classic Hollywood tropes about Indians being warriors or acting stoic, culminating in a musical number with a catchy song about John Wayne’s teeth — a moment I’m still unclear about. At one point in the movie, Gary Farmer asks his son, “Who's your favorite Indian?” It’s a ludicrous statement, written for a white audience, as if Indians sit around and think of themselves in this pop-culture way. Americans have always loved this kind of narrative, and the film often tries to “Indigenize” clichés for laughs, but in the end, Smoke Signals mines Indian stereotypes much the way Quentin Tarantino mines ’70s exploitation cinema, only far less elegantly.

Smoke Signals is a film that constantly stops its own narrative to teach viewers how an Indian is supposed to act. It commits one of the cardinal sins of screenwriting in order to do so: It tells rather than shows. Still, as Janet Maslin of the New York Times put it, the movie’s protagonists, Victor and Thomas, played by Adam Beach and Evan Adams respectively, were “enormously likable characters.” That meant that white people could discuss the film at dinner parties and feel good about themselves, while Indigenous people were just happy to see ourselves represented on the screen. 

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But even in the arena of representation, there is a rub: Smoke Signals employs ideas of Pan-Indianism so heavily that the writing feels downright lazy. It’s not surprising, considering that author and screenwriter Sherman Alexie’s prolific body of fiction and poetry regularly plays in this sandbox. By leaning away from any sense of a tribally specific identity, it manages to talk about Indians without really talking about Indians. Today, Indigenous cinema is best when it embraces specificity, or brings Indian Country into a popular genre rather than the other way around. Jeff Barnaby’s (Mi’gMaq) upcoming film Blood Quantum recently screened at Cannes and may prove to be an exciting exercise in the zombie genre, while Navajo director Sydney Freeland has done a deep dive into various genres that have nothing to do with Indigenous themes.

Many of us who grew up watching and loving Smoke Signals grumble when we think of how influential we found a film that is based on short stories by Alexie, especially given that the prolific Spokane author’s career has effectively been cancelled following allegations of sexual harassment. Yet the film remains alive in our collective memories. “Hey, Victor” is burned into our brains after viewing the film, and “Frybread Power” shirts can still be purchased. 

When Smoke Signals hit theaters, Indigenous people were thirsty for representation. Hell, we’re still thirsty. The lack of understanding of what it means to be Indigenous still looms large in American movie theaters. But we don’t overcome it by playing into those stereotypes; at least we shouldn’t anymore. When Smoke Signals was made, it was overdue. Necessary, even; many of us cried silently in the theater when we saw ourselves finally represented on the screen. But it would be disappointing to see a film like it made today.

Jason Asenap is a Comanche and Muscogee Creek writer and director (and an occasional actor) based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. 

Note: originally published at High Country News.

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