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No Reservations

With 'Smoke Signals,' Native American filmmakers Sherman Alexie and Chris Eyre boldly turn stereotypes upside down as they create singular Indian characters.

June 28, 1998|John Clark | John Clark is a frequent contributor to Calendar

PARK CITY, Utah — "We got sage from a white woman at one of the screenings," director Chris Eyre says.

"Which is the equivalent of someone coming up and handing us Communion wafers," says his partner, novelist-poet-screenwriter Sherman Alexie.

"I'm baffled," Eyre says. Then, reconsidering, he says, "Not that much."

Native American filmmakers Eyre and Alexie do not suffer fools gladly, even here at the Sundance Film Festival. Had that well-meaning woman really looked at their new movie, "Smoke Signals," she would have kept the sage to herself.

Based on a collection of Alexie's short stories called "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven," "Smoke Signals" is about two young Native Americans, Victor (Adam Beach) and Thomas (Evan Adams), who travel from Idaho to Arizona to pick up Victor's father's ashes. Along the way, the movie manages to send up Indian stereotypes (a car that drives only in reverse, the stoic Indian warrior face) while grappling with what Alexie describes as "our dysfunctions" (parental abandonment, alcoholism).

Today, Eyre and Alexie, along with actress Irene Bedard, who plays Suzy, a friend of Victor's father, are in a sterile condo that is light years away from their shoestring movie and their own early experiences. Yet they don't seem cowed by it. In fact, Alexie is a little pained by the youth and naivete he sees among the other filmmakers here.

"Their innocence is astonishing," he says. "I suppose growing up Indian and being politicized with our birth has in some ways made us much more prepared for this. I don't think we take anything for granted. The movie itself talks about how Indians don't like signing papers."

Native American past and present are never very far away in their conversation, though Alexie, 31, a Spokane-Coeur d'Alene Indian, is the only one who was actually raised on a "rez," in this case the Spokane Indian Reservation. Of the three, he's easily the most visible, having published 10 books and been lauded by the literary review Granta as one of the 20 best American novelists under 40, as well as winning this month's Taos Poetry Circus. He's also the most outspoken. Just ask him if he ever intends to write about something other than Indian life.

"That's a racist assumption," he says flatly. "You wouldn't ask a white guy that question."


A big man with a big voice and big hair, Alexie can be confrontational with his own people too. When asked how he hooked up with Eyre, who called him out of the blue from New York, he says, "He had to prove himself. I'm one of the biggest Indian writers in the country, he wants to do a film based on my book, and he showed up 20 minutes late. I thought, 'He's Indian.' "

Everyone laughs, including Eyre. A Cheyenne-Arapaho, he's sort of the bass to Alexie's tenor, brooding and intense, but, as he proved later when giving an acceptance speech after "Smoke Signals" won the festival's Audience Award (it also won the Filmmakers Trophy), he's capable of holding the floor. Unlike Alexie but like most Indians, Eyre, 29, doesn't have firsthand experience of reservation life, having been raised in Klamath, Ore., and having attended New York University's film school. He lives in New York. The reservation is something he feels he's missed, however.

"This cliche puzzles me," Eyre says. "There are so many story lines from non-Indians where Indians want to leave the reservation for a better life. We've been forced into assimilation for so long, it's about self-love. If I don't preserve that or find that place, I'll hate myself or destroy myself."

"These are people who I envy, people who stayed," says Alexie, who adds that his artistic ambitions forced him from reservation life but that someday he will return with his wife, Diane, and young son. (He now lives in Seattle.) It's just a question of where and when. There's no question of why. Alexie is not here to make us feel better.

"We don't want to be like you," he says. "The thing that people don't understand is that we're sitting here at the table with you, we're wearing the clothes you wear, we're speaking English, but we're not like you. We're fundamentally different, and we don't want to change that."

Is Alexie speaking for all Indians? Even the ones who, like Adam Beach, live in an "urban rez" such as Winnipeg, Ontario? Certainly, white Americans have not made coexistence easy. Without belaboring the point, they exchange horror stories about Indian life in this country, especially middle America. Bedard, a lovely woman with long black hair, says she has been called a "red nigger." Alexie has been spat on, punched, kicked.

"I got mad at my producers for jaywalking in Ogden," he says. "I said, 'You don't understand. This is Ogden, Utah, and I'm a 6-foot-2 Indian man. Don't jaywalk.' "

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