“Pow Wow Highway” and “Smoke Signals”

native american heritage

Here’s another little post in honor of Native American Heritage Month.

How many movies are there in which Native Americans are misrepresented, inaccurately represented, cruelly represented, represented by whites in face paint, etc etc etc? A thousand? Two thousand? All of ’em? Well not quite all of them. Nowadays I’m generally pretty harsh in my assessment of Hollywood’s treatment of Native Americans, because I’ve seen at least a couple of examples of how it ought to be done, i.e. what it looks like when Native Americans are treated like actual human three dimensional characters. Things have gotten incrementally better over time but we’re really talking about moving a mountain of injustice an inch to the left. Here are two movies that really opened my eyes.


Pow Wow Highway (1988)

A couple of Cheyenne buddies go on a road trip to spring one of their sisters from jail. One is a revolutionary who participated in some violent protests in the 70s. The other is making a spiritual journey, summoning the spirits of ancestors. The film cleverly makes many references to more traditional westerns. The hero refers to the broken down car he liberates from a junkyard as his “pony”. The two guys free the sister from jail by attaching a chain to the bars of the jail and pulling with the car – this is a gimmick you see in many westerns. But the perspective of these characters is a real eye-opener. One regrets that there aren’t many more movies like this to balance out the record.


Smoke Signals (1998)

Follows Powhow Highway’s winning buddy movie format. Two dirt poor Indian pals—one a crazy dreamer, the other cynical and jaded—are forced to make a long distance road trip on family business. This picture is more serious than Powwow Highway. Rather than springing a sister from jail, it has to do with retrieving the personal effects of one of the character’s fathers who has passed away. The characters are from a small obscure tribe in Idaho—the dad’s remains are in Arizona. The dad in flashback is played by Gary Farmer, one of the actors from Powwow Highway. The character had saved both boys as babies from a fire which killed the other boys’s parents. He had also –it emerges–caused the fire, by drunkenly hurling fireworks into a house of sleeping people. The character is extremely likable, but given to sullen mood swings and beatings caused by drink. He ran out on the family when the son was about 12. It’s all about coming to terms with these contradictions—as one must when a parent passes away.

One comment

  1. Thanks for writing up Powwow Highway. I’ve watched it as a result and found it to be great. I was already familiar with Smoke Signals and enjoyed that, too.

    I do agree with you that there need to be more films like this.


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