- Smoke Signals: Native Cinema Rising by Joanna Hearne
Drawn from the autobiographical fiction of Sherman Alexie, the film Smoke Signals (1998) tells stories of family and community, loss and renewal, memory and survival. As Joanna Hearne argues in Smoke Signals: Native Cinema Rising, the Native filmmakers imbue the movie with distinctly Indigenous perspectives. Hearne asserts that the film is an example of Indigenous activism. She uses historical context to explore how Westerns and other Hollywood representations of Indians silence Indigenous people through tropes such as the vanishing Indian and stoic Indian characters. In response Native filmmakers, including director Chris Eyre and writer Sherman Alexie in Smoke Signals, dismantle these stereotypical representations by emphasizing Indigenous “acts of seeing, speaking, and listening” (15). Focusing on the viewpoints of filmmakers and performers, Hearne considers the film Smoke Signals from conception to reception, tracing a reflexive visual and textual narrative of Native survivance. [End Page 120]
Part of a University of Nebraska Press series on Indigenous films, Hearne’s study consists of four chapters and an appendix containing the transcripts of her interviews with Eyre and Alexie. Hearne argues that Smoke Signals’ significance extends beyond its reclamation of media stereotypes. Through direct and purposeful intervention in the mediascape Alexie, Eyre, and performers including Evan Adams (playing Thomas Builds-the-Fire) craft an active statement of Native survival and sovereignty. “Indigenizing” popular culture, Smoke Signals “captures and repurposes American pop in service of an Indigenous agenda” (127). The first chapter situates the film within the history of Indian representation in Hollywood. Alexie and Eyre’s emphasis on storytelling provides an Indian response to the historical silencing of Native voices on the screen. In her second chapter Hearne explores how performances, from Alexie’s own performance in his writing to those of the actors in front of the camera and the characters within the film, enact “Indigenous revitalization” for Native and non-Native audiences by reconfiguring relationships between speaker and listener, performer and viewer (74).
The third chapter provides an examination of Smoke Signals as a text. Alexie and Eyre incorporated existing symbols—cinematographic strategies like sound bridges and disjunctive editing, historical discourses about freedom and independence, and places like Spokane Falls—to tell a uniquely Indigenous story of revitalization in the intersections of popular culture. In the final chapter Hearne assesses the film’s reception not simply according to industry standards such as profitability but also in terms of the filmmakers’ own goals: to promote a new wave of Native cinema. She argues that the film’s content models its relationship with its viewers; both counteract the silencing of Native voices that occurs in Westerns and initiate conversations about colonialism and sovereignty.
Hearne’s work contributes to a discourse of visual sovereignty developed by scholars such as Michelle Raheja, Beverly Singer, Randolph Lewis, and Jolene Richard. Hearne demonstrates how visual media—a syncretic appropriation, like fry bread made from commodity flour—has become a powerful tool in Native peoples’ struggles for autonomy. Drawing on source material that includes [End Page 121] the film’s script, reviews in popular newspapers, scholarly critiques, and interviews with filmmakers and actors, Hearne privileges an Indigenous perspective, although she perhaps dismisses Alexie’s critics, including Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, too quickly. Moreover, Hearne’s work not only provides information about the film but also, as the series’ editors hoped, opens “a portal to a deeper understanding of contemporary Indigenous people’s lives” (xii). As Hearne demonstrates, Smoke Signals—and Native cinema more broadly—is not simply a series of images on a screen, but part of an active process of seeing, speaking, listening, and responding.