Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

Native Voices: Or, Vehicle as Symbol in Smoke Signals

Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

Native Voices: Or, Vehicle as Symbol in Smoke Signals

Article excerpt

Film has given a voice to many underrepresented groups in this country. Blaxploitation films such as Shaft created super heroes for young black males. Filmmakers from Spike Lee to Tyler Perry continue to tell African-American stories. The Latino film movement led by Luis Valdez introduced Chicano culture to mainstream audiences with films like Zoot Suit and La Bamba. Moctesuma Esparza, Sylvia Morales, Jesus Salvador Treviño, and Susan Racho aided in establishing a definitive genre. The LGBT community witnessed their struggle with films like Philadelphia and Brokeback Mountain. Filmmakers including Dustin Lance Black, Marlon Riggs, Lisa Cholodenko, Gus Van Sant, and John Waters ensure a solid foundation and movement in this area as well.

Sadly, Native Americans have not experienced a declarative film movement. In addition, Native Americans are seldom heard from or seen in a leading role in film. Perfomances such as Johnny Depp's Tonto reveal they are still marginalized and belittled in mainstream media. Unfortunately, this disrespect extends to other areas. It is unfathomable that in 2016 a national sports team in our nation’s capital is named the Washington Redskins. We cannot imagine a sports team named the New Jersey Jews or the California Brownskins.

This country's indifference towards Native Americans is at the heart of Sherman Alexie’s groundbreaking screenplay Smoke Signals. Both Alexie and the director of the film Chris Eyre are Native Americans and produced this film together with a Native American cast and crew. Smoke Signals is, as the name suggests, an alarm, a message to the masses. Using symbolism through vehicles, Sherman Alexie examines Native American identity, discrimination, substance abuse, and most importantly the issue of cultural acceptance. Yet, despite the film’s evident success, few Native American films are produced today. According to Alexie himself, "Smoke Signals remains the only film ever written and directed by Native Americans that received national and international distribution. It's the only film that ever went even remotely mainstream" (Hearne, "Remembering").

The first images of a film not only set the tone but also give insight to the film’s theme. In the film Shaft, John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) walks out of the subway and onto the streets of Harlem in a long, black trench coat. Like a super hero in a cape, he struts through traffic as cars and people yield to him. Shaft represents the black experience and confronts the American establishment with brash confidence. The film emboldened the black community and paved the way for African-American filmmakers such as the aforementioned Spike Lee. In the opening credits of the film La Bamba, Bob Morales (Esai Morales) rides his motorcycle along the highway with the wind running through his hair. He cuts through traffic, scares a snake off the road, and drives past a building waving the American flag. Luis Valdez shows us the Latino experience as upward bound. Although discrimination is present in their lives, Latinos feel they can achieve the American Dream.

Smoke Signals, on the other hand, shows no opposition to the dominant culture or any form of acculturation in its opening credits sequence. The beginning of the film introduces us to Lester Fallsapart (Leonard George) who sits atop a broken down van reporting traffic on the Fourth of July. The van rots at a crossroad, immobile, and even comical. In an analysis of Sherman Alexie’s work in both Smoke Signals and the short stories the film is based upon, Gordon Slethaug writes, “The Fourth of July seems to intensify the problem because the Indians on the Reservation are clearly celebrating their own domination and cultural demise when they celebrate the American Revolution or War of Independence” (138). Smoke Signals’ comment on the experience of Native Americans is sobering. Like the broken down van, they sit idle at the crossroads watching others celebrate this country’s independence, yet they are not a part of the festivites. …

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