Smoke Signals film analysis

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With specific reference to film techniques in at least one scene from the film and at least one article about the film assigned in this course, write a brief essay (250+ words) in which you describe the culture of poverty presented in Smoke Signals.
Articles in the following document or link, choose one of them:LINK: http://time.com/3916680/native-american-hollywood-film/

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Smoke or Signals? American Popular Culture and the Challenge to Hegemonic Images of
American Indians in Native American Film
Author(s): John Mihelich
Source: Wicazo Sa Review, Vol. 16, No. 2, Film and Video (Autumn, 2001), pp. 129-137
Published by: University of Minnesota Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1409611
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Smoke or Signals?
American Popular Culture and the Challenge
to Hegemonic Images of American Indians
in Native American Film
John Mihelich
A
mericanpopularculturehashistorically
beenanarenawhere
hegemonic structuresand ideascould be challenged and where the status quo could be questioned,often throughhumorand satire.Continuing this tradition in one of the most refreshingrecent contributions
to Americanpopularculture,Smoke
Signals,ShermanAlexie challenges
hegemonic and stereotypicalimages of AmericanIndiansthroughportrayinga complex, humanizing,and contemporaryimage of American
Indians.In doing so, he addresses,in an interviewwith Cineaste,
what he
avows is the “greatestchallenge”to contemporaryAmericanIndiansthe issue of sovereignty (West and West 1998). Sovereignty generally
refersto autonomy and control over one’s destiny.As such, it involves
representationand the power to create and determinehow groups,and
individualswithin those groups,are represented.Since popularculture
and widely consumed, it is a powerfulagent
is, by definition,”popular”
in shaping these representativeimages. However, the power of any
one image of popularcultureis weakened in partbecause of the sheer
magnitudeof competing popularelements. Imagesare furtherdiluted
becausethey areoften casuallyconsumedas entertainmentand because
the contents of popularculture are so broad, varied, and transitional.
This essay emanates from my genuine appreciationfor the efforts of
Alexie and my curiosityaboutthe effects of popularcultureand the po-
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tentialof Smoke
Signalsto counterhegemonic representationsof Indians.
To explore this potential, I askeda series of questionsof my studentsin
an introductionto sociology class and conducted an exploratoryexperimentwith a colleague’schildren. In the following, I discuss both
the power of popularculture to shape perceptions, through inciting
novel ideas in a film like Smoke
Signals,and the transienteffects of any
one film. As such, I point to the importanceof this use and appropriation of popularculture and also to the limitations of popularculture
that necessitateactions on the partof people who shape culturein general, directed toward elaborating and institutionalizingthe projects
initiatedby artistsacting within the mediumof popularculture.
I asked the students in two sociology classes to list the stereothat
they or others hold concerning AmericanIndians.The lists
types
included a dichotomous range of all-too-familiar American Indian
“unstereotypes.The studentslisted the negative stereotypes:”savage,”
and
educated,'”poor”‘
“drunken,”angry,”
“inferior,’
“aggressive,”
“stupid,”
“lazy’,among others. The more positive stereotypes included “proud,”
“noble, “spiritual, “deeply religious,
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“wise, “nature-loving,””tradition,
and others. None of the stereotypesgave any indicationof perceptions
of Indiansas “ordinary”
Americans,although a few students arguedin
the commentarythat, despite these stereotypes, many Indiansare “ordinary”Americans.Clearly, Indiansare understood by this predominantly white and non-Indianstudent population as something “other”
than themselves-except, of course, those Indianswhom they know
personally.
These stereotypesarereinforcedby the imagescreatedby popularfilmsspanningclassicwesternsandcontemporaryfilmsof the American West. The images range from the warriorand the shamanicrepresentation to the ignorant drunken depiction. The warrior image
includes the all-too-common savage warrior,usually shown in stereotypical Plainsform,and the heroic and noble warrior/hunter,depicted
as stoic, in touch with nature, and peace loving but willing to fight
when necessary.The shamanprofile representsa deeply religious and
mysteriouscharacter.These images are most often contextualized in
some historic past with the major theme in the lives of the Indians
being the confrontation with encroaching peoples of Europeandescent. The warrior/hunter,the religiousleader,and the confrontations
with whites were undoubtedlyimportantaspects of much of the experience of AmericanIndianshistorically,and even the savage warrior
image probablyresonatesto some degree with actualexperiencewithin tribes as they perceived their enemies-whether Indian or white.
The image of drunkenness,too, has its parallelsin historical and contemporaryIndianexperience as Indians,as well as a plethora of other
Americans,struggle with alcohol problems. However, all of these images are reductive. The portrayals,or perhaps the lack of alternative
portrayals,reduce the meta-imageof AmericanIndiansin popularculture to a finite and constrainedset of experiencesand potentials.
Alexie challenges, partially through humor and satire, these
stereotypes and images as he presents the lives of the main characters in Smoke
Signalssituatedwithin a contemporarycontext. The traditional warrioror shaman is not found in the film, but the image of
drunkennessplays a prominentrole becausealcohol abuseis partof the
subject matterand integral to the story line. Alexie’sprotagonistsare
two young, fatherlessCoeur d’Alenemen from the reservation,Victor
Joseph and Thomas Builds-the-Fire.Victor is a tough, confident but
sullenjock, and Thomas is a “storytellinggeek”(Alexie, quoted in West
and West 1998, 29). While they are not close friendsin the beginning
of the story, the two are inseparablylinked by circumstancebeyond
their tribalaffiliationor the fact that they areAmericanyouth. Victor’s
father,Arnold, saved the infant Thomas from a Fourthof July house
fire that killed Thomas’sparents. Severalyears after the fire, Arnold’s
wife, Arlene, awoke from an alcohol-induced slumberto find young
Victor smashinghis father’sbeer supply againstthe tailgateof his pickup truck. On that day, she determinedto stop the alcohol consumption and demanded that Arnold do the same. However, the alcoholtormented Arnold disappearedfrom the reservationboth in response
to the ultimatumof prohibitionfromhis wife and as an escape fromthe
hauntingof his role in startingthe fatefulFourthof July fire.Thomas’s
attemptsto cultivatea friendshipare consistently rebuffedby the cool
Victor until circumstanceonce again intervenes. Several years after
Arnolds disappearance,Victor and Arlene receive news of the death
of Arnold and a requestthat one of them travel to New Mexico to recover his remains.Without enough money to make the trip, Victor is
forced to accept financialhelp from Thomas under the condition that
he takeThomas with him. Thus, with a short ride in a car drivingin reverse and two bus tickets, they initiate the road trip that provides the
context for the pursuit of friendship, identity, and meaning around
which the story of Smoke
Signalsrevolves.
The film has many dimensions,and the charactersof Victor and
Thomas and the images of AmericanIndiansthey promote in the film
cannot be reduced to one interpretation.One of the contributionsof
Alexie’sartistryin Smoke
Signalsis his ability to portraycomplex characters who happen to be AmericanIndians.In their personae and their
struggles,Alexie simultaneouslydevelops characterswith both specific
Indianqualitiesand more common Americanaspects. In doing so, he
promotes a more complete human image of contemporaryAmerican
Indiansto a popularAmericanaudience. This significantcontribution
is achieved through a rather simple formula:the major protagonists
portraycontemporaryAmericanIndiansin a specific world that is at
once Americanand Indian.

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Firstand most obviously,the filmis exclusivelyfocused on Indian
charactersembeddedin an Indianculturalcontext. The protagonistsin
SmokeSignalsare associated with the specific culturalelements of the
contemporaryCoeur d’Alene.Forexample,the film featuresthe Coeur
d’Alene reservationwith its landscape, people, dress, hairstyles, and
formof the Englishlanguage,and incorporateselements of traditional
music, food (fry bread), and family. The audience comes to know a
little about the contemporaryAmerican Indian world the characters
live in, as interpretedby Alexie, becausethat world is depicted.
The humanizingeffortsof the filmand its appealto a mainstream
Americanaudience do not end with the illustrationof contemporary
AmericanIndianlife. Along with being an informative,tragic, and humorousstory,Smoke
Signalsappealsto a mainstreamaudiencebecause it
addressesfamiliarhuman conditions. In conjunction with the Coeur
d’Alene Indianculturalspecifics lie a general Americancharacterand
common personal dilemmasthat parallelthe experience of the larger
Americanaudience.Victorand Thomas in manyways reflectsome very
recognizable stereotypes in Americanculture, the jock and the geek,
with which most Americanscan relate. The protagonists encounter
dilemmasof life including the discovery of one’s identity, the battle
with alcohol or other addictions, the struggles of poverty, the experience of abandonmentor neglect from one’s father/parents,the development of lasting friendships,and even the exploration of a road
trip. These experiences,whateverthe culturaltrappings,resonatewith
the experience of people within and outside the Indian community.
Through the vehicle of this filmand its Indiancharacters,the audience
can engage their parallel personal dilemmas. Herein lies the second
partof Alexie’sformulafor image creation:he bringsto life a “familiar”
characterwith which the popularaudiencecan identify.If the audience
can identify with the charactersand their dilemmas,the filmpotentialSignalsdoes, and thus can communicate
ly has a broad appeal, as Smoke
with a large popularaudience.This Alexie was determinedto do. The
simultaneousportrayalof experienceuniqueto AmericanIndians,with
its specific culturalcontext, and experiences recognizable to a more
widespreadpopularaudience is one of the majorstrengths of the humanizing efforts of the film.
Whatever the attraction,one of the potential effects of the film
on a mainstreamaudience involves its confrontationwith the images
the audiencepreviouslyheld of AmericanIndians.A novel image is set
forth as the charactersbecome very humanand very Americanwithout
shedding their distinction as membersof a particularculturalgroupremainingvery Indian.The audiencecomes to know the charactersin
culturaltrappingsthat might, at first glance, make them alien to the
mainstreamaudience. The audience’srelationshipto the charactersis
transformedto one of familiarityas they become real and complex
through the unfolding representation.If this occurs, then the process
of bringing to life the full humanityof each characterpotentially has
the power to rendera fullerand more complex image of Indiansin the
eyes, or minds, of the audience that may be underthe influenceof the
aforementionedmore reductive images. Thus, Smoke
Signalsand popular culturein general remainan effective avenue for confrontationand
transformationin Americanculture.
The novelty of these AmericanIndianimages created in the film
strucka chord with the children-ranging fromage eight to fourteenwhom I talkedwith concerning Smoke
Signals.I askedthe childrenwhat
they thought about AmericanIndiansand had them drawa pictureof
an “Indian”before we watched SmokeSignalstogether. Before the film,
one of the children explained, “Thisis weird, but, when you firstsaid
Indians,I kinda thought of savages, in a way, because, back in the old
times, they didn’tlive like we did, they lived in huts and had firesand
all that other stuff, like moccasins.”Another child added, “Theywere
warlike,because they came out of there and most of them in the past
didn’thave guns, so they killed people with their barehands. Um, they
lived off the land, you know, they kind of harvested food and didn’t
have processed flour and things like that.”These quotes reveal the
static, historical,and primitiveimages common in Indianstereotypes.
The children’spicturesreflected the same static quality.While one of
the children,the oldest, drewa pictureof a man in contemporarymainstream clothing, the others clothed their drawings in buckskins or
colorful long dresses and beads. When asked specifically about contemporaryIndians, one child said, “They probably look like regular
people but they probably have more, like, beliefs, kind of, because
they grew up that way and their ancestorsor whatever,they had more
of a background.”
After this discussion we watched SmokeSignalstogether and I
askedthem a seriesof questionsabout the filmand how its imageswere
similarto or different from their previous understandingsof Indians.
While they were too inexperienced and uninformed to grasp much
of the complexity of the film, they were surprisedby its portrayalof
Indians.Their historical, static, and stereotyped images of American
Indianswere confounded by the images portrayedby Alexie. The children’scommentsreflectthe humanizingdepictions presentedby Alexie
in the film. One of the children remarked,”Isort of think of Native
Americansas like tepees and stuff like that, but I don’tthink of them as
but I think of them
modern-daypeople. I think of them as, like INDIANS,
now as regularpeople.”Another child added, “They showed Indians
like how they know feelings; in other movies they just talk about the
history of it, and how, they didn’tshow how they had feelings.”Along
with the humanizingaspects,the childrenwere dismayedat the amount
of drunkennessdepicted in the filmand thought it portrayedIndiansin
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a bad light. One child remarked,”Theydidn’treally show that much
sober Indiansexcept those two guys, because the mom was drunk,the
dad, and all those people were all drunk.”
While SmokeSignalswas probably not widely watched by children, these examples demonstratethe immediateand powerful transformativeeffects of the images in the film. It can providea direct challenge to the static historical images through developing a complex
human portrayalof contemporaryIndians.However, the salient perception among the youth that the film acts negatively by depicting
drunkennessindicates the tenuous natureof popularculture to transformhegemonic images.This perceptionwas not limited to the young
children I talkedwith. The impressionsrememberedfromSmoke
Signals
sustain
this
tenuous
in
classes
students
impact.
my sociology
by college
When asked to list the films they most remember seeing depicting
AmericanIndians,less than 20 percent mentioned SmokeSignals.The
fact that nearly every student rememberedseeing DanceswithWolves
and TheLastof theMohicansindicates that those filmswere more popularly seen. Of those that mentioned SmokeSignals,only a few commented on the positive portrayalof Indians.The bulk of the students
who rememberedthe film rememberedthat it depicted contemporary
Indians,but they also characterizedthe film as portrayingIndiansin
a negative light-with a focus on drunkenness.In class discussion,
the studentswere asked if popularfilms,includingSmoke
Signals,reflect
common stereotypes. The majorityof students said that the films did
in fact reinforce them. Only a few indicated that SmokeSignalschallenged these stereotypes or the images of Indianspresented in other
popularfilms.
Given the children’sand students’negative associationswith the
film despite the well-developed alternativeimages created by Alexie,
what are we to make of the impact of SmokeSignals?Why did this audience identify drunkennessas the dominant portrayalof Indians in
Smoke
Signalswhen the film included such a powerfulanti-alcohol message?Neither of the two main charactersever touched a drop of alcohol, Victor’smother had not taken a drinksince the day her husband
left, and even Arnold quit drinkinglater in his life. One way to make
sense of this contradictionis to recallthe enduringpowerof hegemonic
representations.This powerindicatesone primaryreasonthat the works
of artistslike Alexie, who use the mediumsof popularculture,cannot
stand alone in their efforts to educate the public and transformdominant images.Popularculture,while an effective, immediate,and widely
consumed agent, has, at times, only a fleeting effect, lasting only the
time that passes between its consumptionand the consumptionof the
next unrelatedelement. Popularcultureis consumed as entertainment,
not as a learning tool. That does not mean it has no potential lasting
power in the images it portrays.Butthe popularcultureitems exist in a
largerpolitical context. Unless that context and its representationsare
addressedby people acting outside of popularculture, the novel images offered by artistssuch as Alexie could be fleeting.
The ideas and images designed by Alexie are certainly not reinforcedby hegemonic culture.Reductiveand stereotypicalimagesare
much more prevalentand institutionalized,and the hegemonic cultural context is not conducive to the creation,dissemination,or reinforcement of counterimages like those developed in SmokeSignals.Aside
fromthe numerousdepictions of AmericanIndiansin popularfilmsbesides Smoke
Signals,one need only look at the controversysurrounding
the mascot at the Universityof Illinoisat Urbana-Champaignas an example of these reductive images. Many see the mascot as a harmless
Illinois tradition.That argumentis problematicin and of itself, but, if
the mascot is seen in a largercontext of maintainingstereotypicalimages of Indians,its continued use is clearly exposed as an oppressive
agent. The same holds for the use of AmericanIndiannamesand symbols at forty-fiveother colleges and universities(Lapchick1996;Miller
1999) and extends to activitieslike the “tomahawkchop”performedby
spectatorsat AtlantaBravesbaseballgames.
Hegemonic images are also perpetuatedin our teaching about
American Indiansin the education system. While some high-quality
courses incorporate an exploration and understandingof contemporaryAmericanIndianlife, all too often the curriculumfocuses on the
same historical past as the film industry.While the representationof
that past in the education system is perhapsof higher qualitythan the
representations often seen in films, the continual representation of
AmericanIndiansas a past, albeit diverse, populationreinforces,if my
students are any indication, stereotypical and static images. Many of
the valuable culturalpractices American Indianscontinue, as well as
many of the problemsthey face today, have roots in history, and educators should seek to furtherthe understandingof those historicalcircumstancesand cultures.However, for Alexie’simages to enter and be
sustainedin mainstreamhegemonic culture,the knowledge of the past
must be balancedwith a dynamic understandingof the complexity of
contemporaryAmericanIndianlives. The static images of past American Indiansas something other than, ratherthan part of, the concept
of Americancontinue to contribute to the obstruction of images like
those Alexie portrays.
Another dimension to this balance and the reformationof hegemonic images of AmericanIndiansconcerns who tells the story.While
scholarswith knowledge and actualexperience among Indiancommunities are a valuablecomponent, membersof Indiancommunitiesand
tribescan and should partnerin the education process.This collaboration is being developed and fostered in numerousplaces. Forexample,
at the University of Idaho, an AmericanIndianStudies minor has been
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formedwith the cooperationof and in partnershipwith local tribesand
tribal members.Programslike this have the potential to help reshape
hegemonic images of Indiansin the realm of education and provide
culturalsupportfor the projectthat Alexie and many others have initiated throughthe mediumof film.
Ownership in the Americancapitalisteconomic system is also a
major factor in promoting hegemonic culture in general and the images of American Indians in particular.American Indians, like other
minority populations,have limited membershipin the elite circles of
capital ownership.Aside from contributingto sustainedhigh poverty
rates,one consequence of this lack of ownershipof capitalis that those
who have no ownership, and this includes American Indians, have
no control over the primarypurveyorsof hegemonic imagery-the
corporationsthat create/sell the massmedia.They thus have little control over the forms of the images constructed and sold that portray
them in media ranging from national news coverage to popularfilms
and printmedia.
The lack of power in the economic realmalso reducesthe political power of any group in the United States since money and politics
are intimatelyentwined. All non-upper-classAmericanssufferto some
degree from the exclusion from political processes due to the heavy
political influenceof the “powerelite”and corporateAmerica,but the
exclusion has, and has had over the years, unique implications for
AmericanIndians,including the issue of tribal casinos. Tribalcasinos
are a relativelyrecent avenue of entry into the capitalisteconomy for
Indiantribes.The complex negotiationswith federaland state governments over the right to operate casinos on the reservationsand the
degree of regulationthey aresubjectto is an ongoing challenge of sovereignty.At issue with the casinos is the entry into the system of capitalist ownershipwith the associatedaccess to political power and corporate control through investments of revenue-not to mention the
ability to addressconditions of poverty and unemploymenton reservations. Increasedaccess of Indian individualsand tribes to political
power and corporatecontrol could potentially significantlycontribute
to reshapinghegemonic images of AmericanIndians.
The images of AmericanIndians presented via popular culture
Signalshave the potential to have a powerfulimpact on
through Smoke
the American public perception of American Indians through challenging and reshapinghegemonic representations.However, as I have
discussed, popularculture is fleeting, Smoke
Signalsis a minute portion
of that popularculture,and the hegemonic cultureat large is not conducive to reinforcing Alexie’s portrayalsof contemporary American
Indians.Many people, both Indianand non-Indian,enjoyed the movie
fora varietyof reasons.Butit is not enough to simplyenjoy this moviefor whatever reason. Whether the movie evokes emotive responses
concerning personalstruggles,a catharticwhite liberalguilt, or a sentimentalistor genuine compassion and/or admirationfor contemporary
American Indians among a white audience, there is a larger issue at
stake. The stake is representation,and it is an issue of sovereignty.
Those of us who enjoyed the movie, talk about the movie, and recognize part of ourselves in the movie have a responsibilityto move outside our indulgence in popularcultureas entertainmentand recognize
the importanceof popularculture to challenge hegemony-the “subversive”component to popular culture. If the emotional evocations
lead to concrete actions and sustained attempts to promote understanding,whether it be at home with children or in a largersocial and
political sphere,then that is a firststep. However, those of us operating
in the daily construction and maintenance of Americanculture also
need to be consciously inspiredand motivatedby the artisticmessage
and pursuethe subversiveprojectafterthe emotion wearsoff. Ifwe fail,
if we only indulge ourselves in popular culture emanating from the
Coeur d’Alenereservationand then move to the next popularculture
stimuli, SmokeSignals,along with the images it creates, will suffer the
fate of so many other transient aspects of Americanpopularculture.
And Alexie’s”signals”will dissipate.
W
O
R
K
S
Lapchick, Richard E. “The Use of
Native American Names and Mascots
in Sports.” In SportandSociety:Equal
Opportunityor BusinessAs Usual?ed.
RichardE. Lapchick, 75-76. Thousand
Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1996.
C
I
T
E
D
for Control of an Image.”Quarterly
Journalof Speech85 (1999): 188-22.
West, Dennis, and Joan M. West.
‘Sending Cinematic SmokeSignals:
An Interview with Sherman Alexie.”
Cineaste23, no. 4 (1998): 28-32.
Miller, Jackson B. “‘Indians,”Braves,’
and ‘Redskins’:A Performative Struggle
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