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Smoke Signals in Context
Brian tokar and gary Oliver
Capitalism In Crisis?
Slippin' & Slidin'
Right Wing Nixes Gay Christ
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Smoke Signals in Context
An Histoncal Overview
Now is the time when thoughtful and determined Native Americans are flying over the cuckoo's nest that is Hollywood. Indian filmmakers and actors intend to suffocate the old images and convert the screen Indian into a real Indian. Tonto, you may yet have your revenge.
Rennard Strickland, Tonto's Revenge 1998
In 1911, James Yang Deer, a Winnebago Indian, directed a film titled Yacqui Girl, one of several commercially successful productions he completed before going off to make documentaries in France during World War I. Upon resuming in 1919, Young Deer found his once-promising career had inexplicably come to an abrupt halt. Conspicuously disemployed in his chosen trade for nearly fifteen years, he was finally picked up as a second-unit director an Hollywood's ' Poverty Row" during the mid-30s, grinding out B-westerns and serials.
Meanwhile, Edwin Carewe, a Chickasaw, had completed The Trail of the Shadow in 1917. The film was distinguished enough to land him the director's berth in a whole string of movies over the next decade, culminating in the sensitive and critically-acclaimed 1928 screen version of Helen Hunt Jackson's Ramona. With that, Carewe's career ended just as suddenly as Young Deer's, and with even greater finality. He was never hired to work in cinema again.
For the next seventy years, with the exception of a brief flurry of self-produced releases by Cherokee comedian/radio commentator/actor Will Rogers, no American Indian was allowed to direct a major motion picture. For that matter, despite Rogers' monumental success and the Penobscot Molly Spotted Elk's having carried her weight as the lead in Silent Enemy (1930), no Indian actor was slotted in a significant film role until 1970, when Arthur Penn cast the Squamish leader, Chief Dan George, as Old Lodge Skins in Little Big Man.
Nor were things better for native people trying to work in filmdom's "background" capacities. Cherokee Lynn Riggs, for example, was cited by no less than Bette Davis as being among Hollywood's "most important contributors" to screenplay development. In 1930, Riggs completed a stage play entitled Green Grow the Lilacs which most people have never heard of, mainly because it became famous as Oklahoma! after Rodgers and Hammerstein gloamed on to it.
So bleached-out had America's cinematic sensibilities become that when Cherokee actor Victor Daniels ("Chief Thunder Cloud") was hired for the non-speaking title role in the 1939 version of Geronimo, he was required to don heavy make-up so that he'd more closely resemble the white actors audiences had grown accustomed to see portraying Indians during Saturday matinees.
All told, more than 350 "name brand" Euro Americans had made their mark appearing in redface by 1970. They included women like Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish, Debra Paget and Donna Reed, Jennifer Jones and Julie Newmar, Delores Del Rio and Linda Darnel. The roster of men included Jeff Chandler and Rock Hudson, Sal Mineo and Anthony Quinn, Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis, Chuck Connors and Ricardo Montalban. Fortunately, although he was cast as the Mongol leader Genghis Khan in The Conqueror (1956), John Wayne was never selected to fill the bill as a Hollywood Indian.
During the near half-century when real native people were all but frozen out of the movies, the studios cranked out something in the order of 2,000 films dealing with what are called "Indian themes." Another 2,500 or so were made as t.v. segments between 1950 and 1970. Given this saturationthere is no other wordof imagery, it is fair to say that three consecutive generations of Americans were conditioned to see native people in certain ways, for clearly definable purposes.
While most of what was produced consisted of squalid potboilers in which Indians served, as Oneida comic Charlie Hill puts it, as "pop-up targets to give the cowboys and the cavalry something to shoot at," some of the films at issue must be considered as serious cinema. In this sense, they must also be assessed as conveying as deeply virulent a message of racial triumphalism as anything ever produced by Goebbles' Ministry of Propaganda during Germany's nazi era.
One can debate whether John Ford's The Searchers (1956) was really the most racistly antiIndian movie ever made, or whether that dubious distinction more rightly belongs to Robert Mulligan's The Stalking Moon (1969) or John Huston's Unforgiven (1960), but the fact is that there are a vast number of contenders. And, as Indians were systematically converted Al screen to America's equivalent of untermensch, the herrenvolk most directly responsible for perpetrating genocide against us were just as systematically heroicized, a matter which remained true from Errol Flynn's portrayal of George Armstrong Custer in They Died With Their Boots On (1941) to Robert Shaw's in Custer of the West (1969).
Being perfected was what Cherokee aesthetician Jimmie Durham terms "America's Master Narrative"Gramsci might have called it "hegemony"that is, indoctrination of the populace with a mythic (mis)understanding that nothing really wrong had transpired in the course of U.S. history. On the contrary, it had all been a noble undertaking, carried out by a combination of gallant leaders and brave settlers forging a better future. If anyone had gotten hurt along the way, namely Indians, it was because they'd "brought it on themselves" by being essentially subhuman in the first place and then compounding the defect with persistent and aggressive attempts to prevent whites from making things "work out for the best."
Not all Indians were seen as bad, of course. Some were even depicted as being noble, too. These were the ones who perceived a "tragic inevitability" in being overrun by a selfanointedly superior race/culture, and who therefore evidenced the good taste to simply "vanish" with dignity rather than complaining about it. Even better were those who not only accepted the innateness of white supremacy, but who used their insights to provide actual service to Euroamerica, helping the invaders get on with it. Such notions are not unfamiliar to colonial literature, as even the most cursory reading of Joseph Conrad will reveal. The Lone Ranger's Tonto is, after all, simply Rudyard Kipling's Gunga Din recast in feathers, as is Chingachgook in Last of the Mohicans.
Once"revisionist" films like Little Big Man and Soldier Blue began to appear in 1970, mainly as a sop to mounting protest of the Vietnam War, previously glorified martial figures like Custer began to lose their allure. The Master Narrative was consequently reworked to admit that unconscionable atrocities had been committed against Indians over the years, just as they were being committed against Indochinese at the time. Such "historical excesses" were then attributed, however, quickly and quite uniformly, to "anomalous" Custer-like characters.
Always, these highly personalized embodiments of evil were counterbalanced by the centrality of sympathetic white charactersCandice Bergen's Christa Marybelle Lee and Peter Strauss's Honis Gant in Soldier Blue, as examples, or Dustin Hoffman's Jack Crabbe in Little Big Manwith whom Euroamerican viewers might identify Always, the Indians in such films serve as mere plot devices intended mainly to validate the main white characters' alleged sensitivities, and to convey forgiveness to "good" (i.e., most) whites for the misdeeds of their "bad" (i.e., atypical or "deviant") peers.
Although one can readily imagine the response had Hollywood opted to depict the European Holocaust of the 1940s in a similar fashion, albeit Steven Spielberg comes uncomfortably close with Schindler's List, the convention has been adhered vis-a-vis the American Holocaust with almost seamless precision for the past twenty-five years. Most recently, it has been manifestly evident in Kevin Costner's 1990 epic, Dances With Wolves, as well as Michael Apthed's Thunderheart a couple of years later and such mid-9Os teletrash as Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.
The propaganda function served by the revisionist formula is to allow constituents of Americe's dominant settler society to avoid confronting the institutional and cultural realities which led unerringly to the historical genocide of American Indians. Moreover, in first being led to demonize men like Custer, and then helped to separate themselves from them via the signification of characters like Jack Crabbe, Christa Lee and Costner's Lt. Dunbar, white audiences are made to feel simultaneously "enlightened" (for have being "big" or "open" enough to concede that something ugly had occurred) and "good about themselves" (for being so different from those they imagine the perpetrators to have been).
Thus reassured, mainstream moviegoers/TV. viewers are psychologically positioned to join Sully, the "nice white guy" in Dr. Quinn, entoning in unison that, since they who are so different from Custer now comprise it and despite what "he" did to the Indians, "this is still the best country in the world." Translated, mainstream audiences feel-ever-so-much more entitled to participate in the American system, and to gorge themselves an the material benefits accruing from it, after viewing a movie like Dances With Wolves than they did before.
At the same time, contemporary Native Americans, from whom much of the wealth supporting the Euroamerican standard of living continues to be extracted, are maintained in a state of near-total disempowerment and correspondingly deep destitution. As Cherokee analyst Rennard Strickland has observed, one result is that the "Indian health level is the lowest and the disease rate the highest of all major population groups in the United States."
The incidence of tuberculosis is over 400 percent higher than the national average. Similar statistics
show that the incidence of strep infections is 1,000 percent, meningitis is 2,000 percent higher, and
dysentery is 10,000 percent higher. Death rates from disease are shocking when Indian and non
Indian populations are compared. Influenza and pneumonia are 300 percent greater killers among
Indians. diseases such as hepatitis are at epidemic proportions, with an 800 percent higher chance
of death. Diabetes is almost a plague. And. the suicide rate for Indian youths ranges from 1,000 to
10,000 higher than for non-Indian youths...
Faced with such ongoing conditions, American Indians would neverindeed, could never have made films reinforcing the dominant society's coveted sense of smugly self-satisfied "I'm okay, you're okay" complacency about itself. Things for Indians are obviously not okay, and, in setting out to explain why that is, we're not about to accept critic John Lenihan's "modest proposal," advanced in 1980, that the proper role of cinema should be to lead audiences to a "mature" interpretation of history in which "ain't none of us right."
Collectively, we're more inclined to follow Navajo activist John Redhouse's suggestion, offered a few years before Lenihan's, that such ideas will make sense when, and not before, Euroamerica finds it as "harmless" for its children to play "Nazis and Jews" as it always has "Cowboys and Indians." Hence, by definition, American Indian understandings are counterhegemonic, and that's why Hollywood has frozen us out so completely from such crucial functions as directing and scriptwriting over the past 75 years or so.
Make no mistake, this has remained just as true after the supposed "sea change in public sensibility" of 1970 as it was in 1930. In 1972, for example, Kiowa author N. Scott Momaday sought financial/technical support to convert his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, A House Made of Dawn, into the far more potent medium of film. Rebuffed for more than a decade, Momaday finally organized the project himself and ultimately came up with a reasonably competent movie in 1987. It died on the vine, however, when every major outlet expressed a marked disinterest in distributing independent productions.
It might be plausible that this was simply a business decision, no cultural/contentual bias involved, were it not for the fact that in 1976, a mere four years after Momaday's initial attempts, these very same distributors opted to put a relatively unknown Italian actor named Sylvester Stallone an the map by hawking his independently-produced Rocky. They had, moreover, long been handling the work of John Cassavetes and other independent white filmmakers when they deep-sixed Momaday. By the mid-80s, independent production was rather commonask Sam Shepardbut Hollywood was no more willing to accept autonomous Indian efforts than it had been a decade before.
Even with respect to acting, the one area in which revisionist cinema's ever-increasing need to "authenticate" itself has allowed native people to bleed into the industry, we continue to suffer a virtual eclipse in some very important respects. While Jeff Chandler received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor because of his stilted portrayal of Cochise in Broken Arrow (1950), the Creek actor Will Sampson was not even nominated for his far more accomplished performance as Chief Broom in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975). "Why should an Indian receive an award for playing an Indian?" demanded one director at the time. By the same token, why should Robert DeMro, an actor of Italian descent, have received a award for his portrayal of another Italoamerican, Jake La Motta, in Raging Bull (1980)?
Although there is an entry for "Bugs Bunny" in the latest edition of Ephraim Katz's definitive Film Encyclopedia, there is none for Will Sampson, despite his prominent roles in more than a score of major movies including such box office hits as The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), The White Buffalo (1977), Orca (1977) and Fish Hawk (1980). Nor is there mention of Graham Greene, the fine Oneida actor who actually did win the Academy's supporting actor award for his work in Dances With Wolves, and whose accomplishments include remarkable performances in Clearcut (1991), Thunderheart (1992) and other films. Missing, too, is Gary Farmer, another Oneida, who has turned in equally exemplary efforts in Powwow Highway (1989) and Dead Man (1996), among others.
If these virtuosos can still be slighted in this manner, what does it say for the prospects of somewhat less visible but genuinely talented native actors like Irene Bedard, Eric Schweig, Sheila Tousey, Adam Beach, Tantoo Cardinal, Evan Adams, Tina Keeper, Michael Greyeyes, Elaine Miles, Tom Jackson, Sonny Landham, Molly Cheek, Larry Littlebird, Cody Lightening, Michelle St. John and Michael Horse? I mean, really, Native North America can't rely en the cinematic establishment's posthumous acknowledgments of Chief Dan George and The Lone Ranger's Jay Silverheels forever.
This is why the recent debut of Smoke Signals (1998), the first release of a major motion picture directed by an Indian since Will Rogers, is such a vitally important event. Not only that, but the screenplay was also written by an Indian, adapted from a book of his short stories, and virtually the entire cast is composed of Indians. To top things off, the director, Chris Eyre, an Arapaho, teamed up with the scriptwriter, Spokane author Sherman Alexie, to coproduce the venture. Smoke Signals is thus, from top to bottom, an American Indian production, and that makes it historically unprecedented.
Critical reaction to the film has been interesting, to say the least, consisting in large part as it does of chatter concerning its limitations and technical deficiencies rather than the profound social significance of its very existence. Such responses can be met head ON Smoke Signal is not great cinema. Trite in places, cliched in others, it is much too obvious in its efforts to come off as something explicitly, even stereotypically, "Indian" at nearly every step along the way. "Enit?"
But, with that said, so what? Smoke Signals is nonetheless a good movie in that it hangs together just fine, far better than most in that endless gush of relatively uncriticized clodhoppers aired on TNT's highly-popular 'doe Bob Briggs Drive-In Theater" every Saturday night. Chris Eyre may not (yet) have attained the level of sophistication evidenced by a Francis Ford Coppola or a Martin Scorsese in communicating ethnic content, but he's not an overindulgent twit like Michael Camino either. More importantly, he shows no signs of being a subtextual racist like Arthur Penn, or one of the more overt variety, like John Ford and John Huston.
Those tempted to critique Alexie's script as being a bit frothy at times might wish to remember that they had rather less to say when Miwok/Pomo author Greg Sarris came up with a much superior screenplay for HBO's Grand Avenue (1996) only two years hence. Left to his own devicesthat is, freed from his hyperinflated, publisher-generated reputation as a "man of letters"Alexie might actually get over himself sufficiently to produce material of comparable quality. In any event, what he put together for Smoke Signals was markedly better than, to pull just one example out the memory bank, a highly-touted specialist like Arthur Chabanian produced as the script for Back to the Future. "Eh?"
Similarly, anyone arguing that the acting in Smoke Signals is occasionally a tad thin would do well to recall their own relative silence when it came to the superlative performances registered by Irene Bedard and Sheila Tousey while acting out Sarris's "gritty and unsparing depiction of urban Indian life." Instead of chipping away at the imperfections of Smoke Signals, they might do better inquiring as to why Grand Avenue is at this point neither much shown on HBO or available on videotape.
Above all, let it be said that a "critical" establishment such as that in the U.S., which has demonstrated a perpetual and truly astonishing capacity to let pass with nothing resembling a probing analysis the likes of Stallone and Steven Seagalor to embrace as "legitimate entertainment" such extravagant wastes of celluloid as Air Force One, Titanic, Armageddon and Godzilla, all within the past yearhas no business criticizing anybody's cinematic achievements, no matter how meager.
Yet there is nothing in the least meager about what Chris Eyre has accomplished. In his very first attempt at the "big time" he has established his talents quite solidly. Given that this should serve as a license for him to stretch out a little, gathering experience, maturity, and further professional credibility, it seems likely that Eyre's commercial efforts will rapidly evolve into works evidencing an aesthetic stature equal to or surpassing that embodied in the art films he created as a grad student at NYU. Indeed, the extent to which he has already succeeded should stand to pry open doors for other native directors aspiring to break into the trade.
Whatever its shortcomings, then, one cannot reasonably avoid concluding that Smoke Signals is a singularly important movie, not just a milestone but a pivot point for Native North America in terms of our long and sorry (mis)representation on the silver screen. The assessment is doubly valid in view of another recent and momentous development, this one in Indian Country itself. Based on a near half-billion dollars in annual gambling revenues over the past dozen years, the Mashantucket Pequots have begun to invest inand have the capacity to fully underwrite and, if necessary, distributethe endeavors of native filmmakers. Several other peoples have arrived in more-or-less the same financial situation, and have demonstrated an inclination to follow suit.
Correspondingly, Hollywood no longer holds the trump card with which it has traditionally controlled the indigenous image. An autonomous native cinema can thus be forged, whether the titans of tinseltown like it or not. As a consequence, Eyre and his peers find themselves, uniquely, in a position to begin unraveling the codes of domination upon which the portrayals of Indians in film have heretofore been constructed, reinterpreting the meaning of America in a far more accurate manner than their white counterparts, and generally crushing Hollywood's fantasies of the master race under the heel of a different future.
Whether they will measure up to the task of their opportunity remains to be seen, but a t last the promise is at hand. One wishes that James Young Deer, Molly Spotted Elk, Lynn Riggs, Will Sampson and all the others could be here to see it, or, better yet, to participate. On second thought, they did participate. So, I guess maybe they're watching. And I'm sure they're proud. . .