Hundreds of American films feature native American characters, but how many famous movies can you name that present the story from the Indians' point of view?
Three blockbusters spring to mind:
A Man Called Horse (1970) starring Richard Harris
Little Big Man (1970) starring Dustin Hoffman
Dances with Wolves (1990) starring Kevin Costner,
And what do all three have in common besides being about Indian culture?
All three of them star non-Indians.
A fourth film for this category that didn't make as big a splash as these three is Smoke Signals (1998).
Smoke Signals is based on a collection of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie who also wrote the screenplay. The film is an all-Indian production created on a budget of under $2 million. It grossed a little over $6 million. Chris Eyre directed and co-produced it.
Best of all, all the Indian characters are played by Indians. You younger readers may think that's a no-brainer, but I grew up with movies in which Sitting Bull was played by J. Carroll Naish (Annie Get Your Gun 1950), Cochise by Jeff Chandler (Broken Arrow 1950) and Geronimo by Chuck Connors (Geronimo 1962 ). One of the Indians in The Searchers (1956) was played by German-born Henry Brandon. Believe me, it's a real treat to see Indians played by Indian actors.
Smoke Signals begins on the Coeur d'Alene reservation in Plummer, Idaho. The story focuses on the relationship between Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) and Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams) and their differing ideas about what it means to be Indian.
Victor Joseph can't stand Thomas. For one thing, Thomas is an insufferable nerd who talks incessantly. For another, Thomas worships Victor Joseph's n'er do well father Arnold.
Thomas regards Arnold as a hero because he saved the infant Thomas from dying as the result of a house fire. Victor Joseph has bitter feelings towards his father because he was an abusive alcoholic who finally abandoned his wife and son to take up with another woman.
As the story begins, word comes that Arnold has died in Phoenix, Arizona. Thomas Builds-the-Fire offers to drive Victor Joseph to Phoenix to arrange for the disposal of his father's ashes. Fans of Northern Exposure, will enjoy the too brief appearance of Elaine Miles as one of the reservation girls who barter a ride for a story. Another familiar face from TV is that of Tom Skerritt as a police chief.
Other actors and their parts:
Irene Bedard..................Suzy Song
Gary Farmer..................Arnold Joseph
Tantoo Cardinal............Arlene Joseph
Cody Lightning.............Young Victor Joseph
Simon Baker..................Young Thomas Builds-the-Fire
Monique Mojica.............Grandma Builds-the-Fire
John Trudell...................Randy Peone
Chief Leonard George....Lester Fallsapart
Michael Greyeyes...........Junior Polatkin
Michelle St. John...........Velma
If you haven't seen Smoke Signals, treat yourself and your family.