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Wicazo Sa Review 16.2 (2001) 129-137

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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

American popular culture has historically been an arena where hegemonic structures and ideas could be challenged and where the status quo could be questioned, often through humor and satire. Continuing this tradition in one of the most refreshing recent contributions to American popular culture, Smoke Signals, Sherman Alexie challenges hegemonic and stereotypical images of American Indians through portraying a complex, humanizing, and contemporary image of American Indians. In doing so, he addresses, in an interview with Cineaste, what he avows is the "greatest challenge" to contemporary American Indians--the issue of sovereignty (West and West 1998). Sovereignty generally refers to autonomy and control over one's destiny. As such, it involves representation and the power to create and determine how groups, and individuals within those groups, are represented. Since popular culture is, by definition, "popular" and widely consumed, it is a powerful agent in shaping these representative images. However, the power of any one image of popular culture is weakened in part because of the sheer magnitude of competing popular elements. Images are further diluted because they are often casually consumed as entertainment and because the contents of popular culture are so broad, varied, and transitional. This essay emanates from my genuine appreciation for the efforts of Alexie and my curiosity about the effects of popular culture and the potential [End Page 129] of Smoke Signals to counter hegemonic representations of Indians. To explore this potential, I asked a series of questions of my students in an introduction to sociology class and conducted an exploratory experiment with a colleague's children. In the following, I discuss both the power of popular culture to shape perceptions, through inciting novel ideas in a film like Smoke Signals, and the transient effects of any one film. As such, I point to the importance of this use and appropriation of popular culture and also to the limitations of popular culture that necessitate actions on the part of people who shape culture in general, directed toward elaborating and institutionalizing the projects initiated by artists acting within the medium of popular culture.

I asked the students in two sociology classes to list the stereotypes that they or others hold concerning American Indians. The lists included a dichotomous range of all-too-familiar American Indian stereotypes. The students listed the negative stereotypes: "savage," "uneducated," "poor," "drunken," "angry," "aggressive," "stupid," "inferior," and "lazy," among others. The more positive stereotypes included "proud," "noble," "spiritual," "deeply religious," "wise," "nature-loving," "tradition," and others. None of the stereotypes gave any indication of perceptions of Indians as "ordinary" Americans, although a few students argued in the commentary that, despite these stereotypes, many Indians are "ordinary" Americans. Clearly, Indians are understood by this predominantly white and non-Indian student population as something "other" than themselves--except, of course, those Indians whom they know personally.

These stereotypes are reinforced by the images created by popular films spanning classic westerns and contemporary films of the American West. The images range from the warrior and the shamanic representation to the ignorant drunken depiction. The warrior image includes the all-too-common savage warrior, usually shown in stereotypical Plains form, and the heroic and noble warrior/hunter, depicted as stoic, in touch with nature, and peace loving but willing to fight when necessary. The shaman profile represents a deeply religious and mysterious character. 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 European descent. The warrior/hunter, the religious leader, and the confrontations with whites were undoubtedly important aspects of much of the experience of American Indians historically, and even the savage warrior image probably resonates to some degree with actual experience within tribes as they perceived their enemies--whether Indian or white. The...


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