“Smoke Signals” was released in 1998 and marketed by Miramax as “the first feature film written, directed and produced by Native Americans.”
I remember watching “Smoke Signals” in Oklahoma City many years ago and thinking, “Yes! Finally, somebody has made a film about us, for us.” I was 21 at the time. “Now they’ll learn, and from an actual Indian screenwriter and director,” I thought. But today, “Smoke Signals” feels clunky, even cringeworthy. The film’s creative team seems to have been inspired by the same impulses I had as a young, idealistic kid: People didn’t know anything about Indians, I was usually the first one they’d met, and I often felt the need to teach them a few things, whether they wanted to hear about them or not.
Since its release in 1998, “Smoke Signals” has become a seminal movie in Indigenous cinema and Indian Country. It was the first real Indigenous film, written, directed and largely acted by Indigenous people, and it did what no other Native film had done before: It successfully crossed over to mainstream. The film did well at the box office, grossing nearly $7 million, and was even added to the National Film Registry in 2018. But, today, in light of our evolving notions of Indigeneity and what it means to be a Native person in this century, the film feels dated. One need look no further than the title card in the opening credits and the use of that damn Papyrus font.