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Smoke Signals (1998)

"Before viewing" talks introduce the film without spoilers. Watch it, then click on the "After viewing" talk for more. More»» by Randy Heffner

Why the film is worth your time

Made by Indians about Indians (we can say “Indians” rather than “Native Americans” because they themselves say it that way in the film), Smoke Signals creatively mixes humor from multiple angles (about Indians, about reservations, about how others see Indians, about the history of Indian relations with the USA, etc.) with

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"After viewing" talks assume that you have seen the film. They will contain spoilers. More»» by Randy Heffner

How the film enriched and changed me

Watching Smoke Signals affected me in two distinct ways. The first comes from seeing Victor struggle with his father’s failings and offenses. Victor starts quite naturally with an external,

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Screenshots and dialog copyright © 1998 by the filmmakers.

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One Response to “Smoke Signals”

  1. Cerys says:

    I saw Smoke Signals on the television about 6 years ago, and when I started searching for it again online today I couldn’t remember that much about it – not even the name. Nevertheless, I remembered that it had an impact on me at the time. And one scene that stayed in my mind was the main character running along the road to get help for the car accident, the feeling of that scene really stuck with me.

    I found your page from the link you posted on IMDB, and I’ve enjoyed remembering the film again and reading your thoughts. Thank you for posting this.

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"Backstory" talks speak of things behind the film. Go to "Before" or "After" talks for the film itself. More»» by Randy Heffner

How the backstory adds to the film's impact

The most important part of the backstory for Smoke Signals is that it was written, produced, directed, and acted by Native Americans. This gives it a degree of credibility available to few other feature films concerning Indians. The basis for the screenplay is a book of short stories by Sherman Alexie, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. A “Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian, [Alexie] grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, WA” (per his web site). In addition to the title story, other stories in the book include:

  • Imagining the Reservation
  • The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore
  • A Train Is an Order of Occurrence Designed to Lead to Some Result
  • The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor
  • A Drug Called Tradition
  • Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Woodstock

Thomas as the Indian spirit

In writing the film’s script, Alexie pulled from and strengthened material from multiple characters and stories in the book. Thomas’ character, particularly his role in the film as the voice of Indian heritage, is reinforced in the story The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire. The story begins by recounting that Thomas, twenty years ago, was accused of a “storytelling fetish accompanied by an extreme need to tell the truth,” which was said to be “Dangerous.” Thomas had “held the reservation postmaster hostage for eight hours with the idea of a gun and had also threatened to make significant changes in the tribal vision.” He agreed to remain silent, and he was let go. But lately, he has been inspiring Indians with mere “syllables that contained more emotion and meaning than entire sentences constructed by the [Bureau of Indian Affairs].” During the trial, Thomas tells the story of, and then is called to account for his part in, events that occurred in 1858. He is timeless, and he is a visionary voice of things Indian.

In other stories in the book, Thomas and his stories are scorned by many of his peers, not just Victor. Then, in A Drug Called Tradition, Victor and Junior have an experience with Tradition that makes them a bit more sensitive to it.

Alternate titles

Two of the alternate titles for Smoke Signals add depth to its impact:

  • This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona was the working title for the film, and it is the story in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven that forms the core of the film’s plot (though it is a much stronger story in the film). I think about this from Victor’s and Thomas’ perspective — but especially from Victor’s — and it gives a power of place to the transformation in Victor. Having never been off the reservation, a name like “Phoenix, Arizona” would mean very little to Victor. It is only some far off place that one hears about. Perhaps even it has negative connotations for Victor, since maybe the only thing he has heard about it is that his father is living there. Then comes the trip to Phoenix and every thing that happens, which leaves a great impact on Victor. After his transformation, considering as much richness of life as he gained on the trip, when Victor now hears someone say, “Phoenix, Arizona,” it will bring to heart huge associations and connotations. The name “Phoenix, Arizona” was forever changed in Victor’s heart.
  • The Secret of Ashes is the French Canadian title for the film. Although more oblique, this title carries greater depth than either of the other two. It tells us that there is something we don’t know, a secret, hidden in the ruin and ashes in our lives. The ashes are not merely the leftovers of a consuming and destructive fire, they hold something more. The reference to Phoenix (a “phoenix” being the bird of Phoenician mythology that, at the end of its life, is burned in a fire, from the ashes of which a new phoenix is reborn) tells us that there is life left in the ashes, something ready to be reborn. Rather than toss out the ashes, regarding them with disdain, we should examine the ruins in our lives to find what secrets they hold. For Victor, the ashes of his father’s life held for him a deeper ability to love and a deeper connection to his roots. What will we find in the ashes of our own lives? Have we the courage to look?


  • In an homage to the leaders of their tribes, the film puts two chiefs together in the film. The actor that plays Lester FallsApart, the traffic reporter and weather man, is the real life “elected chief of the Tsleil-Waututh Nation (which translates as “people of the inlet”) in Burrard Inlet, British Columbia” according to Santa Clara University. As the camera pans from the big truck up to Lester on the KREZ van, it pans by the street sign, “Benewah Rd.” Benewah was a Coeur d’Alene Indian chief.
  • Note: some web browsers may have a hard time with the I Hate Tonto link.In his 1998 essay, I Hated Tonto (Still Do), Sherman Alexie talks of his experiences watching Indians in the movies and on TV. It was Tonto’s realness that most bothered Alexie.
  • In Spanish, “tonto” means “idiot.”

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