Movie Review: Powwow Highway (1989)

Title: Powwow Highway
Release Date: February 24, 1989
Director: Jonathan Wacks
Production Company: Handmade Films

Powwow Highway is a buddy-road trip-comedy-drama featuring two men from the Northern Cheyenne tribe of Lame Deer, Montana.  Buddy Red Bow (A Martinez) is an activist with a cynical world view and a short temper.  Philbert Bono (Gary Farmer) is fascinated with the old ways of the Cheyenne people and drawn to mystical vision.  He decides to get a “pony” (really a derelict old Buick) to carry out a quest.  When greedy developers attempt to remove Buddy’s opposition to their strip-mining contract have Buddy’s estranged sister framed and arrested in Santa Fe, he turns to Philbert to have him drive him there.

They don’t exactly take the most direct route, with Philbert detouring to the sacred Black Hills of South Dakota and attending a Christmas powwow at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation with Oglala Lakota friends.  The contrast between Buddy’s serious and often angry personality and Philbert’s relaxed demeanor that often seems divorced from present-day realities is played for laughs, but also feels natural.  Farmer’s performance is particularly engaging and fully realized.

There are a lot of similarities between Powwow Highway and the later film Smoke Signals (which also stars Gary Farmer in a very different role), but not so much that I can’t enjoy them both for their unique qualities. It could be that I just really enjoy Native American-buddy-road trip-comedy-dramas.

Rating: ****