“Some days it’s a good day to die; some days it’s a good day to play basketball.”—Victor Joseph
Grim and grimmer. That pretty much sums up most stories about Native people that make it into the media. Just recently, an international report compared the Canadian government’s treatment of the Innu of Labrador to that of the persecution of Tibetans by communist China. Lobster wars broke out in New Brunswick. A respected Reform MP was convicted of the attempted rape of a 14-year-old Native girl. Maclean’s magazine devoted fifteen pages to Bill Reid, not because he was a great Haida artist, but because the author of the article wanted to show that Reid had cheated on some of his work and that he just wasn’t a very nice guy. And reviewing Smoke Signals, the subject of this month’s Seldom Scene, one critic lamented that it ignored “the banal cruelty of such a relentless [reservation] life of isolation without a future.”
Gee, thanks for that reminder. For a second there I was going to say how much I admired Smoke Signals for its sense of joy and hope. Silly me. What could I have been thinking?
I’ll blame my lapse in judgment on Sherman Alexie. He did the screenplay for Smoke Signals. Alexie, now about 33 years old, is one of the finest young writers in America. He’s also a local, a member of the Spokane tribe. His father is from the Coeur d’Alene reserve. Smoke Signals is based on stories from Alexie’s first fictional outing, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.
Now here’s where I got confused. Both the stories and the movie have bottled rage, abusive alcoholic fathers, broken families, and white racism. So many opportunities to be righteously indignant. Take the scene where Arlene talks to her grown son, Victor, about “your daddy’s magic act: he sawed us all into pieces, didn’t he?” Nothing funny there. Sherman Alexie should have helped me hold onto these moments. He should have helped me admire traditional Native stoicism in the face of overwhelming loss. Or at the very least crushed me with banal cruelty and hopelessness.
Instead, he made me laugh at a song about John Wayne’s teeth, at the car that only goes in reverse, the KREZ radio announcer in the beat-up trailer who says “Our reservation is beautiful this morning—it’s a good day to be indigenous!”, the KREZ traffic/weatherman reporting from a van that’s been broken down at the crossroads to the reservation since 1972 (“A big truck is passing by.” A pause. “Now it’s gone.” Another pause. “Ain’t no traffic, really.” And years later. “One of the clouds up there looks like a horse.”), a semi-mythical basketball game against the Jesuits, getting two years in Walla Walla prison on the reduced charge of being an Indian in the twentieth century, and that great line about how tough it is to project a warrior image when you coming from a salmon-fishing tribe (Dances with Salmon?). What was Sherman Alexie thinking? I feel so shallow.
I know where Alexie went wrong. It’s kind of late now, the damage has been done, but maybe next time he could check with me before messing with people’s expectations. Spokane’s not that far away. Ok, here’s the problem, Sherman: You should have had one main character instead of two. Had you stuck with Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) you could at least have been consistently hopeless. Victor is torn apart by memories of his father’s abandonment of him and his mother after a tragic, alcohol-related house fire. Victor’s angry at everyone. The only things he values are his mother’s frybread, his basketball, and a grim, casually cruel, “Indian warrior” façade that he can throw in the face of any white people he has to deal with. When he learns of his father’s sudden death in a trailer out in Phoenix, Arizona, he tries to fool himself into thinking that a quick trip out there will let him wrap up the one loose end that’s been stopping him from giving in completely to resentment and self-pity. As long as his father was alive, he could still fantasize about a reconciliation. Now that he’s dead, he knows how stupid that hope was.
It’s all so clear. So satisfyingly futile. And then along comes Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Beach) and messes it all up. Thomas, with his suit, big glasses, and braids. His never-ending stories. An Indian nerd. Warrior Victor’s worst nightmare. An Indian who’s watched Dances with Wolves two hundred times. Unfortunately for Victor, Thomas’s storytelling is not a façade like Victor’s stoicism. Thomas is the genuine article—Indian oral tradition made flesh. Behind those nerdy glasses there’s Coyote and Hare and Son of Deer and Raven and all those other tricksters that turn the world upside down just when we think we’ve got it figured out. The moment Victor lets Thomas join him on the trip to Phoenix he’s surrendered himself to a power as far beyond hopeless cynicism as Bill Reid’s Black Canoe is beyond Disney’s Pocahantas.
How good a trickster is Thomas? Check out the moment when he walks out of the garage without his glasses and suit, without his smile, and with his long hair hanging down. He’s taken Victor’s advice to look more like a warrior. For three seconds he casts such a powerful aura he could be the ghost of Geronimo. Then he grins and shatters the illusion. He doesn’t need it.
I want to be fair in my criticism. Obviously, we can’t just blame Sherman Alexie for allowing Smoke Signals to lapse into joy and redemption. The blame must also be shared by Chris Eyre, the novice 28-year-old Cheyenne/Arapaho director from Klamath Falls, Idaho; the almost entirely native cast and production crew; the cinematography of Brian Carpenter that captures the open expanse of the Coeur d’Alene reserve and the country between Idaho and Phoenix; and the great musical score by BC Smith, with songs by Ulali and Dar Williams. Shame on you all.
Finally, what’s all that poetry doing in there? How can we focus in on political issues when we keep getting spooked by Thomas doing voice-overs like:
“A fire rose up like General George Armstrong Custer and swallowed up my mother and father…There are some children who aren’t children at all—they’re just pillars of flame that burn everything that they touch. And there are some children that are just pillars of ash—that fall apart if you touch them. We were children born of flame and ash.” As if that kind of stuff wasn’t distracting enough, you go and end the movie with lines from Native poet Dick Lourie’s “Forgiving our Fathers”.
One lady who watched Smoke Signals said she went out and called her dad for the first time in twelve years. You’d think poetry had some effect on people’s lives….
How do we forgive our Fathers?
Maybe in a dream
Do we forgive our Fathers for leavings us too often or forever
when we were little?
Maybe for scaring us with unexpected rage
or making us nervous
because there never seemed to be any rage there at all…..
And shall we forgive them for their excesses of warmth or coldness?
Shall we forgive them for pushing or leaning
for shutting doors
for speaking through walls
or never speaking
or never being silent?….
If we forgive our Fathers what is left?
Well, better luck next time, Sherman, Chris, Evan, Adam, et al. You really missed the despondency boat on this one. Too bad about all those people who are going to walk away from Smoke Signals thinking it really is a good day to be indigenous.
Looking Back & Second Thoughts
Once again, I’ve run into the limitations of digital access to films. I don’t have a copy of Smoke Signals in my personal library, and it’s not available through iTunes or YouTube. It’s not even available through Amazon in Canada, for either purchase or rental. An odd situation for a film that was the first feature directed, written, co-produced, and acted by Native Americans. Even odder considering that Smoke Signals is based on stories by one of the highest-profile Native writers in the U.S.
So, for the time being I don’t get to take a second look. What I will reaffirm here is my admiration for Sherman Alexie’s work. I do this in full knowledge of the sexual harassment allegations that were brought against him in 2018. The fallout from those allegations tarnished a reputation that until that point was a close to literary stardom as a writer gets. The fact that I included Manohla Dargis’s column on sexual harassment in the Cinema in Cyberspace section of this page was unplanned. We’re back to trying to separate the artist from the art. Whatever Alexie’s personal failings, the humor and pathos of his first-hand reflections on contemporary Native American life are unforgettable. The Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation that’s the focus of much of his writing is a short three-hour drive from where I live. I’ve followed Alexie’s work since the publication of his first short story collection in 1993, and included his young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian in my high school curriculum. I’m not about to pull his work from my library shelves. Similar controversy, along with accusations of cultural appropriation, have swirled around the Canadian writer W.P. Kinsella, whose stories, set on a reserve near Hobbema in southern Alberta and written in the late 70s and early 80s, displayed the same pathos and irreverent humor as Alexie’s. Kinsella’s stories were also turned into a film, Dance Me Outside (1994), directed by Bruce McDonald. With no shortage of stories of appalling horror in the treatment of Native peoples in North America, from first contact to residential schools and the Highway of Tears, I’ve always admired (mainly) indigenous authors whose gift to readers is laughter as well as pain. In Canada, we’ve had the work of playwright Tomson Highway and master storyteller Thomas King. One of my favorite moments in cinema is at the end of Little Big Man when Chief Dan George, stoically lying on his death bed, feels the rain on his face and, somewhat chagrined, decides that dying can wait for another day.