Hollywood knocked on novelist Sherman Alexie's doors for several years before the Native American's first screenwriting project, "Smoke Signals," went into production. "I got a lot of interest from non-Indian filmmakers but wasn't interested in their interpretations of the material, which involved casting white people as Indians or changing Indian characters to white characters," says Alexie, who grew up on a reservation in Spokane, Wash. "Essentially, I didn't want to give up control."
That was before he met Chris Eyre, a Cheyenne-Arapaho from Oregon and graduate of New York University's film school. Eyre had taken an interest in Alexie's short story collection, "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven." "I called him up and didn't know him, but we started talking about it," says Eyre. "We're the same generation, and we had the same ideas, in terms of what a movie should be."
Eyre, 28, drafted a screenplay for what would eventually become "Smoke Signals." But Alexie, 31, felt it should be closer to his own vision and rewrote it. The result is a funny but touching buddy story, part road movie and part mystic reverie. As the first feature written, directed, co-produced and acted by American Indians, it is also an historic breakthrough -- and one of the few onscreen efforts to present Native Americans in cliché-free terms.
"‘Dances With Wolves' was made for white people who want to romanticize Indians, and that has its place," says Eyre. "But we're starved for images of ourselves. We watch bad movies of ourselves just to see Indians on the screen. There are no movies made for Indians, just in sensibility and humor."
Compensation begins with "Smoke Signals." For starters, nerdy tale-spinner Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams) and the handsome, angry Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) fill their conversations with a self-deprecating sense of humor that's both infectious and poignant. An acquaintance, for instance, tells the two that they're like the Lone Ranger and Tonto coming to the rescue. "No, we're more like Tonto and Tonto," Thomas quips.
"Irish humor is the same way sometimes -- people laughing at themselves," Eyre says. "That's about tenacity. Indian people are survivors. It's very honest. It keeps everybody humble."
Similar humor was delivered by Chief Dan George and other actors portraying the Cheyennes in Arthur Penn's 1971 "Little Big Man," and the character played by Will Sampson in Milos Forman's 1975 "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Alexie was encouraged by both of those representations of Native Americans.
"‘Do Indians really talk like that?' I've heard people ask me that," Alexie says. "Since we're constantly made fun of about our differences by others, we made fun of them ourselves."
Storytelling is an element of Native American culture often given short shrift. Thomas embarks on a series of rambling sagas filled with anecdotes on such topics as the miraculous fry bread made by Victor's mother (Tantoo Cardinal) and a Denny's breakfast with Victor's father (Gary Farmer).
The birth of a film like "Smoke Signals" was only a matter of time, according to Alexie, whose next project is a movie adapted from his novel "Indian Killer." Eyre's next feature will be a biography of controversial American Indian Movement activist Leonard Peltier, who is serving two consecutive life sentences for his role in a bloody 1975 shoot-out in South Dakota that left two FBI agents and one Indian dead.
"It's taken this long for a generation of Indians to be so pop-culture oriented, and so pop-culture conversant," Alexie says. "I could sit down with any film geek from around the world and talk about movies. I can do whole movies, scene by scene. I could do ‘Midnight Cowboy' for you right now."
"Smoke Signals" is only the start, Eyre adds. "People would love to generalize, but there are 300 tribes in this country," he says. "Indians are the same, but they're all different, too. This is one movie, one story. There's millions of stories out there that need to be told."