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By Francesco Felici
Super Bowl final, February 2020. The football teams San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Pitchers face each other in the biggest sport event in the world. With over 102 million people watching it live, this night is supposed to be a moment of glorification for the American culture. However, this worldwide show became once again a display of the complicated history between the United States and their Native culture.
All throughout the tournament, the Kansas-City team – which ultimately won the Super Bowl – was highly contested for their supporting chants. The so called “Tomahawk Dance” involves all the Kansas fan dressing up as Native Americans – complete with feathery headpieces and face paints – and wildly scream and cheer to support their team. Whereas this event could easily be dismissed as a minor concern, this choreography actually entails a variety of issues that are at the core of the convoluted relations between the so called, “Indians” and the US.
Indeed, by wildly chanting and screaming these supporters are depicting Native Americans as this brute and belligerent people in front of 102 million people. Not only that, they are doing so in order to intimidate their opponent by showing their savagery. They are saying “we are dangerous rabid people, thus you should fear us.”
Many Americans broadcasts have tried to sugar-coat this whole situation by comparing it to the Haka, the famous ritual dance that the All Blacks (the national New Zeland rugby team) perform before every match. However, they could not be further apart. The Haka ritual dance reflects a tribal heritage that has been integrated into a modern society, whereas the Tomahawk dance is a display of complete misunderstanding of a neighboring culture.
This episode perfectly encapsulates the butchering of Native American culture in the modern American society. Indeed, the idea of the West as a spiritual land inhabited by forces that go beyond the understanding of men has drastically crumbled before the American capitalist project. Thus, not only an entire population has been largely slaughtered and stripped of his native lands, but now the same population is also forced to watch as their culture is reduced to a gimmick.
Many different medias have tried to depict the struggle of the Native Americans to adapt in this new modern world, but only few quite achieved what Smoke Signals did in 1998. The movie is based on the short story “This is what it means to say Phoenix Arizona” by Sherman Alexie, who has also contributed in the script for the movie. The story revolves around the journey of Victor and Thomas-build-the-fire – two Native Americans who live in the reservation of Idaho – who embark on a journey to Phoenix Arizona to retrieve the ashes of Victor’s estranged father, Arnold.
Since the very beginning of the movie it is established the different understanding of what it means to be Indian for our two main characters. Victor is constantly angry at the world for the way he had to grow up stranded in a reservation in Idaho away from the rest of the world. Also, he has forsaken his Native American traditions and has adopted a more “corporate” way of presenting himself by going around with a suit and getting rid of his braids. On the other hand, we can see how Thomas Build-the-fire is more in touch with his tribal roots, and throughout the movie he becomes a sort of narrator by exploring the themes of family, traditions and values. Indeed, Thomas is a story-teller, and a big chunk of the movie is just him telling stories on their journey to Phoenix with his dream-like narration.
This is the outside layer of the movie: a story of rebirth and discovery through a cross country journey of two young man, and it is actually a quite light tone that most audience would enjoy. However, there is so much more than meets the eyes.
Smoke signals deals with the conditions of Native Americans inside of the reservations. The movie shows how the people resent being stranded in the middle of nowhere, and how they usually result in alcoholism and violence due. This is presented in the character of Arnold – Victor’s father – who was an alcoholic and actually caused the death of Thomas’s father. By showing us how much Victor’s initially resents his father, the director Chris Eyre is creating the perfect metaphor for the position of Native American tribes in these reservations.
Ultimately, Smoke Signals is about not only what it means to be Indian but what it means to be human in a broader sense. The movie excels in conveying the sense of belonging to the land of the Native American culture, as well as exposing the grudge they feel for they were stripped of such land. In this road trip movie both Alexie and Eyre resume all the wronging that this population has suffered, as well as their inherent pride and spiritualism.
Thus, many of the so called “true American “should think twice before going on live televisions with painted faces and feathers on they head, and they should really learn to pay respect to a culture of which only fault was to trust the white man.
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