Although there are several hundred films about American Indians there are few that are actually made by American Indians. Perhaps around 100 films in total (including short films, features and documentaries), with few being given a general release and almost all of them made in the last 20 years or so. The first that was given a commercial release was Smoke Signals (Chris Eyre 1998), based on Sherman Alexie's short story "This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona", making it something of a milestone.
It is a road movie of sorts, and in many ways a quintessential American indie film of its time, in style, tone and theme. Two cousins who grow up together since one of them, Thomas, lost his parents in a fire when he was newly born, travel by bus from Plummer, Idaho, to Phoenix, Arizona (which takes about 24 hours), to collect the ashes of their dead dad/uncle. He had left his family many years ago and his son, Victor, feels nothing but bitterness towards him. Bitterness seems to be Victor's default feeling towards most things in life, perhaps towards life itself, whereas Thomas is a more cheerful guy, who might be considered childish and naive, but the film suggests that it is rather he who is the wise one and the cranky Victor the immature one who must grow up and face the true facts of his childhood. That is one theme of the film, to forget the sins of our fathers, such as they are. The film effortlessly moves back and forth in time, between the time of the death of Thomas's parents, the time when Victor's dad left, and the present, capturing their lives in snapshots of grief. But in the present the mood is more varied, switching between satire and pathos, laughter and anger.
Victor and Thomas come from the Coeur d'Alene reservation, and that fact that the film is not just about any two guys going on a life-changing road trip but actually about American Indians, and their part in American history and culture, is what gives the film its edge. The way they live, the way they travel, where they get to sit on the bus, how they look at the world, how the world looks at them, all of this is profoundly related to the fact that they are Indians. The filmmakers have said that they wanted to make a film that said something like "We are still here, you did not manage to wipe us all out, much as you tried." and from this the film receives its force, despite being slightly unsatisfying otherwise, such as the complete change of Victor's personality towards the end.
Beyond showing the life for contemporary Indians, the strength of the film is often related to its humour. When Thomas and Victor are set to leave the reservation to go to Phoenix, they and two girls joke about getting passports and perhaps get vaccinated, now that they are travelling abroad. At another point they make up a song about John Wayne's teeth, and a running joke in the film is a play on the quote from the Lakota leader Tȟašúŋke Witkó, or Crazy Horse, "Today is a good day to die." which here is given in many variations, such as "Sometimes it's a good day to die, and sometimes it's a good day to have breakfast." Another example is the conversation in the clip below. But the humour is always grounded in a sense of anger or sadness.
The two most common approaches from Hollywood towards American Indians has been either to depict them as brutal enemies to be feared or as victims to be pitied. Depictions of Indians on film is also addressed in Smoke Signals, not just regarding Dances With Wolves (Kevin Costner 1990) and John Wayne but in general. At one point a TV is showing a Western, and Thomas says "The only thing more pathetic than Indians on TV is Indians watching Indians on TV." In Smoke Signals, when they get to tell their own story, things are very different, and about time too.
There is some debate as to which was the first film directed by an American Indian, but this is one contender, White Fawn's Devotion (James Young Deer 1910).
Here is an interview from 1998 with those who made Smoke Signals.
This recent article in the New York Times, about a series of suicides among teenagers in Pine Ridge Reservation, gives an example of the struggles that continues.
This blog post is related to my two previous posts about some films of George Sherman, the first one here and the second here, films about racism and hatred towards American Indians in a historical context.