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Smoke Signals was highly celebrated at the time of release because it made film history and because big names like Redford and Weinstein supported it. But, the film lived up to its accolades, and it is more than a footnote in cinema history.


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Part of the reason Eyre and Alexie were able to get their film produced for $1.7 million dollars-or, perhaps produced at all-was because Eyre developed it through the Native American and Indigenous Program at Sundance Film Institute. Robert Redford, who has always been involved in Indian causes, opened this special workshop in the early 1990s to foster the talents of indigenous filmmakers. Redford recognized that the oral storytelling tradition of many Native American groups might translate well into narrative filmmaking, and their films would serve to counter the Hollywood or Anglo image of Indian history and culture. At Sundance, Eyre was free to make mistakes and try ideas that did not work out before embarking on the actual production of the film. Smoke Signals was then entered into the Sundance competition, where it won the Audience Award for Dramatic Films and the Filmmakers Trophy and was nominated for the Grand Prize. Redford himself hosted a special screening for the film, which was picked up for distribution by Harvey Weinstein through Miramax long before it even entered into competition.

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"Smoke Signals'' comes billed as the first feature written, directed, co-produced and acted by American Indians. It hardly seems necessary to even announce that: The film is so relaxed about its characters, so much at home in their world, that we sense it's an inside job. Most films about Native Americans have had points to make and scores to settle, like all those earnest 1950s white films about blacks. Blaxploitation broke the ice and liberated unrehearsed black voices, and now here are two young Indians who speak freshly, humorously and for themselves.

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Smoke Signals explores the nature of Native American stereotypes in popular cinema by both seriously challenging them and humorously poking fun at them. At times, the reference to standard Indian clichés, types, and stereotypes takes the form of a simple line of dialogue or a joke; at other times it is interwoven into the fabric of the characters. In one scene, cynical Victor chides sentimental, naïve Thomas about how many times he has seen (1990), while characters throughout the film humorously spin off the famous line from (1970): "It's a good day to die." As Victor shoots hoops in the gym, he cracks, "Sometimes it's a good day to die; sometimes it's a good day to play basketball." Elsewhere, Arlene jokes, "Sometimes it's a good day to die, and sometimes it's a good day to have breakfast." The disc jockey on the reservations radio station declares, "It's a good day to be indigenous."
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Thomas is far less stern than his counterpart Victor is. Smoke Signals is about the journey Thomas and Victor have while collecting the ashes of Arnold Joseph. Thomas sees this journey as his vision quest. The vision quest came to him in the form of Spokane Falls, and while there, Arnold appeared to him, as if in a dream. This faith is called animism, the belief in spiritual entities, souls, and spirits. ( Connard Phillip Kottak, Mirror for Humanity: a Concise Introduction to Cultural Anthropology ( New York: McGraw-Hill, 2010), 191. ) These trance states are part of Native American culture.

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"Smoke Signals'' is, in a way, a continuation of a 1989 movie named "Powwow Highway,'' in which Farmer starred as a huge, gentle, insightful man, and A Martinez as more "modern.'' It, too, was a road movie, and it lived through its conversations. To see the two movies side-by-side is to observe how Native Americans, like all Americans, are not exempt from the melting pot--for better and worse.