Q. Dear Michael, I went to see “Smoke Signals” and, although I enjoyed the film, humour and the performances by the actors, I was also wondering why the native people were shown to be spending their time drinking, or Victor’s father hitting his wife and child and leaving his family. Is this really how life is there? It seemed so filled with hopelessness.
A. “Smoke Signals” is about Indians – yes. There are generalizations in the movie about us that make it easy for the various Indian cultures to see something familiar in the reservation represented in the film. In other words, there are elements in the film that strike a common chord amongst our peoples. But is this film a portrait of all Indian people and families? No. This is a specific portrait of one family, some of the reasons why it broke apart and, most importantly, the consequences that followed. I think you can look at the film in a broader context. Obviously many families in America, both Indian and non-Indian, have problems. Sometimes it is because of alcohol or drugs; sometimes there is abuse—all things the film showed. So you have to think- if I see an ethnic group portrayed in a certain way, can I see what is common between us or do I keep the experiences of one group separate from mine? You asked “Is this what life is like on a reserve? It all seems so hopeless.” I didn’t see the film this way. I looked at the life on the reserve there and saw people’s humour win out again and again over their poverty. In “Smoke Signals” there is comedy and sadness. There are times when the story breaks your heart. But there are other times when the characters make you see how important it is to work through all the pain to love and forgive each other. There is regret as well. Do you remember the scene where Gary Farmer who plays the father tells his young friend, “Yeah, I broke three hearts that day too.” That was one of the most moving and understated lines of dialogue I had ever heard in a film. When I see the film I don’t see hopelessness but redemption. I hope if you see it again, you can come away with feeling that too.
Q: Dear Michael, Thank you for caring about us. It is a measure of the beauty of your spirit. Here is my question: How did you make this transition into acting? Were you always interested in it? Was it a natural progression or an unexpected development? Sincerely, Elaine
A: My transition into acting was aided immensely by the films “Last of the Mohicans” and “Dances With Wolves.” After seeing “real” Indian actors on screen, I thought to myself that this is something I could do. I wasn’t interested in acting until 1991, when I worked with a group of actors in Wisconsin. They were very interesting and reminded me of dancers. We talked about acting, and I realized that it wasn’t so different from dancing, especially the way that Eliot [Feld] approached dance. Looking back, there are many, many differences but those were easy to overcome. A huge debt of gratitude is owed to my agent in Toronto, who took me on without any experience. She is a big talent agent now, but she believed in me and was willing to take a risk. I can’t imagine where I’d be without that lucky break. She’s in a position now where she doesn’t take newcomers, so I was lucky to be starting out just when she was.