Chato now adapted to the land.
Chato adapting to a harsh desert landscape.
Chato in the desert.
Chato's land's setting.
Dances with Wolves
Dunbar after an attack by fellow cavalry soldiers.
Dunbar befriends the Sioux.
Dunbar crosses cultural lines.
Dunbar dances with wolves.
Dunbar and Stands-with-a-Fist go West to escape the whites.
Sioux watch encroaching whites.
In a scene near the middle of Smoke Signals (1998), Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) exclaims, “There ain’t any salmon in that river no more!” when his traveling companion Thomas Builds-a-Fire (Evan Adams) begins telling him about his dream of a fertile Spokane River thriving with fish. Victor’s exclamation not only stops Thomas’ storytelling, however, it also opens up space for Victor’s own dream-telling, a nightmare about his own boyhood attempts to wake up his drunk parents who are passed out after a party. In retaliation, Victor smashes empty beer bottles against his father’s truck, seemingly merely expressing his anger, but the action also empowers him, offering a solution to at least one of the causes of the disaster he sees around him on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation. In his dream, then, Victor is finding a way to turn the hell of his reservation household into a home. Even as a child, he attempts to adapt his environment to make it more habitable, just as Thomas adapts a lifeless river into a thriving ecosystem through his dreams.
Western films in which Native American characters are highlighted rest on what we call narratives of environmental adaptation. Although westerns with Native Americans at the center or on their edges do construct Native Americans as either savage or noble “others,” the films also (and most importantly for us) demonstrate how effectively Native Americans have adapted, and adapted to, what white settlers see as an environmental “hell” or something worse. As the Fort Lowell commander, Major Cartwright (Douglass Watson), puts it in Ulzana’s Raid (1972),
In a move toward a more sustainable view of prairie and desert ecosystems, Native Americans in a variety of western films adapt a seemingly lifeless environment into a place they can call home. This narrative of environmental adaptation continues even into contemporary western films set on and near reservation lands and gains particular force in Sherman Alexie’s Smoke Signals (1998).
Relocating Native Americans on and off screen: when barren land becomes home
Much has been written about Native Americans’ removal to reservation lands. After more than a century of skirmishes with tribes from New England to Florida, Andrew Jackson encouraged Congress to pass the 1830 Indian Removal Act, claiming it would separate Native Americans from the onslaught of settlers moving ever westward and help them evolve into what he saw as a civilized community. In 1832, Jackson insisted that Native Americans be removed from prime farming land in the Southeast and moved to Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma on what has become known as the Trail of Tears. Of the 15,000 Cherokees who began the journey, 4000 died, and many more of the 70,000 moved to Indian Territory also died along the way. The move opened up the reservation system, however, and after battles with whites in the 1860s and 70s, Plains Indian tribes were also forcibly moved to reservations, this time in Oklahoma, Arizona, Utah, and other less productive and arable lands in the West.
From the beginning of the reservation system, life on “the Rez” was like hell on earth. On these reservations, Indian agents attempted to force Native Americans to farm infertile lands, leaving them close to starvation since their allotment of cattle was small and sometimes stolen by corrupt government officials. According to Gary D. Sandefur,
Native Americans on reservations were isolated “in places with few natural resources, far from contact with the developing U.S. economy and society” (37). Breaking up reservation land into allotments after the 1887 Dawes Act only had a negative effect since the land provided was unfit for farming or ranching, and the remaining land was purchased at low prices or stolen for white settlers to homestead.
Reservation life for the Coeur d’Alene, Sherman Alexie’s tribe, has an equally brutal history, but, as Alexie asserts, “No one winds up on the Spokane Indian Reservation by accident” (quoted in Cornwall). The Coeur d’Alene tribe of the Upper and Middle Spokanes were late to the reservation system, entering an agreement with the United States in 1887 after the Dawes Act was signed. This tribe entered into a treaty more than six years after the Lower Spokanes had moved onto the Spokane Indian Reservation, resisting the move to reservation land in Lower Spokane County primarily because it was less desirable for hunting and fishing than the middle and upper Spokane. To maintain their claim on aboriginal lands, they moved onto the Coeur d’Alene Reservation in Idaho and other reservations, including the Spokane, receiving monetary compensation for houses, cattle, seeds, and farm implements. By 1905, however, the reservations lost rights to water in the Spokane River to the Little Falls Power Plant, and by 1909, the Spokane Reservation was opened up for homesteading. Coeur d’ Alene and other tribes on the reservation were now limited to allotments of from eighty to 160 acres on land too rocky for farming.
A year later, minerals were found on reservations in Idaho. But this seemingly beneficial discovery has had catastrophic environmental results. Traditional tribal fishing became impossible. According to the Official Site of the Coeur d’ Alene Tribe,
The Spokane Reservation suffered even worse repercussions from mining waste. In 1954, at the height of the Cold War, Jim and John LeBret, both tribal members, found uranium on the side of Spokane Reservation, and the Newmont Mining Company bought the rights to the Sherwood, Dawn, and Midnight Mines, all on reservation lands. The Midnight Mine remained active for twenty-seven years and became “an economic and social mainstay of the reservation,” but it also had devastating environmental consequences (Cornwall). According to Cornwall, Sherman Alexie “felt threatened by the uranium mines near his home on the Spokane Indian Reservation” after his grandmother died from esophageal cancer in 1980 and asserted, “I have very little doubt that I’m going to get cancer” (quoted in Cornwall).
Although the Midnight Mine closed in 1981, its devastating legacy continues. When the mine closed, it abandoned 2.4 million tons of stockpiled ore containing 2 million pounds of uranium oxide and 33 tons of waste rock. The company never conducted reclamation work, leaving two giant pits like “festering wounds” and a small lake of toxic radiating brew that has since
Years of work near and around the uranium mines has also devastated the health of tribal peoples, perhaps leaving them “three times more likely to get lung cancer and more than twice as likely to get other serious lung diseases” (Cornwall). The Federal Government is compensating those workers in and around the mines who contract lung diseases, but no money has come to the Spokane Reservation. Clean-up has been slow, especially with the recent turn toward expanding nuclear power, creating a revived interest in mining uranium.
Economic and environmental disasters continue on reservations, perhaps like countries in the developing world where infant mortality, alcoholism, and poverty rates are shockingly high. Approximately one third of Native Americans live on reservations, and twenty-five percent live below the poverty line. Yet, as Sandefur asserts, numbers living on reservations have increased from twenty-five to thirty-four percent from 1980 to 2000 because the reservation also provides a cultural base where tribal language and culture can be maintained, a strong sense of family and community, and a sovereign system run by a tribal council and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The goal for Native Americans living there is to adapt the “hell” of their reservations into a home.
An earlier film, Chato’s Land (1972), helps illustrate the parameters and repercussions of such environmental adaptation. The film highlights the Apache worldview from a white perspective but provides insight into how Pardon Chato (Charles Bronson), a half Apache mestizo, survives in what seems like uninhabitable land. According to Captain Quincey Whitmore (Jack Palance), when Chato runs from the captain because he killed a U.S. marshal in self-defense, he “picks his ground” carefully. Unlike white soldiers, Chato has adapted to this inhospitable land and can use it to his advantage in a fight.
“To you this is so much bad land—rock, scrub, desert and then more rock, a hard land that the sun has sucked all the good out of. You can’t farm it, and you can’t carve it out and call it your own… so you damn it to hell and it all looks the same. That is our way. To the breed now, it’s his land. He don’t expect it to give him much, and he don’t force it none. And to him it’s almost human—a livin’ active thing. And it will make him a good place to make his fight against us.”
Other western films address the Native American perspective on adapting to their land in less obvious ways. The Scalphunters (1968), for example, complicates received beliefs regarding both Native Americans and Comancheros when a group of Native Americans exchange Trapper Joe’s (Burt Lancaster) animal hides for an escaped slave named Joseph (Ossie Davis). When the Native Americans are raided by Comancheros led by Jim Howie (Telly Savalas), racial binaries begin to disintegrate, making room for accommodation and a collective view of human and nonhuman nature. And The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) examines Native American worldviews both peripherally and from a first-person point of view — through the eyes of Lone Watie (Chief Dan George) who becomes part of a family of castoffs, including Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood). The majority of westerns, however, construct Native Americans as an “other” who must be destroyed or vanquished for civilization to prosper, but even films like The Searchers (1956) provide a more complex look at Native Americans when scrutinized through a narrative of environmental adaptation.
These narratives of environmental adaptation become most convincing, however, in the 1990s and 2000s when Native Americans begin telling their own stories both as filmmakers and actors. Written by a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian, Sherman Alexie, and directed by a Cheyenne-Arapaho, Chris Eyre, Smoke Signals illustrates how Native Americans still transform hell into a home, in a narrative of environmental adaptation centering on two fatherless young men exploring their heritage outside the reservation.