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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 serious explorations of relationships and family that ring true beyond the reservation. The humor is presented in a matter-of-fact, tongue-in-cheek way that lends it a genuine quality — it doesn’t feel like staged gags (even if some of it is). The relationships feel real, even when the characters are quirky. The filmmaking quality is very good. Running time: 89 min.

Life is different on the Coeur d’Alene Indian reservation — and a fair bit funny. Sometimes, things might seem a little backward, but then maybe it’s not so different after all. There are still fathers and sons and mothers and cousins — we all try to make sense of mixed up family relations and crazy family histories. Victor Joseph and Thomas Builds-the-Fire go on an odyssey into the foreign lands outside the reservation, finding more family history than they had set out for.

Light profanity. One of the main characters becomes an alcoholic and physically abusive (intense, but short and not graphic).

  • Director: Chris Eyre
  • Screenplay: Sherman Alexie
  • Leads: Adam Beach, Evan Adams, Irene Bedard, Gary Farmer, Tantoo Cardinal
  • Cinematography: Brian Capener

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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, self-centered point of view: Victor sees his father only through the lens of Victor’s own pain. By the end of the film, Victor can see his father through the lens of his father’s pain, from the inside as it were, and he can understand that “he didn’t mean to.” While Arnold is still responsible for the wrongs he did, Victor finds the love and grace to see that his father’s offenses were more from his pain and human frailties than from a selfish disregard for others. For my part, if I can turn down my sensitivity to the wrongs others do against me, maybe I can come to love with greater compassion and be more of a force for healing rather than dissention in my relationships.

The other way that Smoke Signals affected me comes from the little gems of insight, spread throughout the film, into the Indian condition. There’s a personal analogue to societal conflicts like those between the United States and Native Americans: Often, we selfishly crowd others out, even encroaching on their space. With greater sensitivity to the Indian condition, I learn that I want to make more room in my life for others, as they are, and not crowd them out because they don’t fit my plan.

The center of the film is Victor’s journey. It is his father that died, and he is the one that moves the furthest in the film. But to understand Victor’s movement, we have to understand Thomas.

To calibrate Thomas’ place in the film, it’s best to start with the ending. After he and Victor return from Phoenix — that is, after they have risen again from the ashes — Grandma Builds-the-Fire takes Thomas’ face in her hands and says, “Tell me what happened, Thomas. Tell me what’s going to happen.” Then Thomas closes his eyes, as if to tell a story of the future. Thomas is bigger than life; he sees beyond what others can see, including seeing into the future. His beginning was of legend: He could fly, and he lived when he shouldn’t have. He lived to create legends in his stories, capturing truth via the “lies” he told. He is an embodiment of the Indian spirit and heritage — or, well, a nerdy version of the Indian spirit.

Why would Smoke Signals have cast the Indian spirit and heritage as a nerd? It helps to think of Thomas as being written from Victor’s point of view. Victor grew up with disdain for his people. He rejected much of his heritage because his people did not live up to it. He has even openly rejected his own family. Seeing the drinking and irresponsibility around him, he could say only that he had no favorite Indians — not even his own mother. He lives in the concrete world of bald facts, a world where evidence abounds that people hurt you and take advantage of you. He can’t hear — and can’t tolerate — the art and nonrational insight bound up in legend and heritage. It is, to Victor, out of touch and irrelevant, a relic of the past. In a word, nerdy. About the only thing Victor has taken from his heritage is the idea of being a warrior, which Victor needs as a bit of practical self-protection.

“Thomas” means “twin” — Victor’s twin and shadow, there to give voice to Victor’s confrontation with his heritage, sometimes in an in-your-face manner. Thomas asks, “Hey Victor…why did [your father] leave? Does he hate you?” This is every boy’s struggle when a father leaves, but particularly for Victor since it is but one more evidence that the Indian world falls short of what it should be. Thomas saying it this way is merely making visible the pain and struggle that was already going on inside Victor.

When the responsibility is laid on Victor to retrieve his father’s remains (and get the benefit of a pickup truck in the process), it turns out that Victor is bankrupt: financially unable to make the trip. Victor is also emotionally bankrupt, though he doesn’t realize it. His world is a self-centered one; his attitude toward others is characterized by his remark on the basketball court: “If I say it’s a foul, it’s a foul.” He sees it as his place to be the one who passes judgment on others.

Victor’s heritage has a score to settle with him. He must either endure having Thomas-cum-heritage on the trip or abandon his responsibility, becoming part of the failed heritage he despises. At first, he’s too proud to take even the financial help. Once he accepts that, he is quick to place heavy restrictions on Thomas. Maybe he must have his heritage go with him, but he’ll do his best to constrain and contain it.

I wonder…I’ve hardly given a thought to my own heritage. I don’t mean the spiritual and mystic like Indian heritage — although that might be interesting, too — I’m thinking simply of the extended family that I know. I’m wondering if I’ve come to terms with what my family is and has been. The good. The bad. The misguided. The wonderful. The questionable. I think I’m like Victor as he starts out: I haven’t fully faced all of the dysfunction and come to love my people, in spite of their weaknesses, as the beautiful creations that they are.

Throughout most of the journey, Victor sees Thomas as just a nerd. He has no patience for Thomas’ “oral tradition” — repeatedly calling his stories lies. He tries to reform Thomas in his manner and in his appearance, to remake him in Victor’s warrior image — even though this image has lies of its own, seeing as how the Coeur d’Alene were fishermen, not brave and stoic hunters.

At Suzy Song’s place, Victor wants to leave immediately after retrieving his father’s ashes (though he will not even touch the tin they are in). Thomas had earlier agreed in principle to a quick departure, but he’s hungry now. His heritage has got Victor to a sort of ground zero, and he’s going to make sure he hangs around long enough to face the past. After enduring the plague of Thomas’ stories, Victor now receives the affliction of “song” — his personal heritage delivered via Suzy Song, who knows Victor’s own past. Victor has been sitting on the sidelines of the story telling, so Suzy asks Thomas if he wants to hear the truth or the lies. When he says he wants both, Thomas is not saying he wants fiction for the sake of a good story, he is saying he wants fiction that embodies the truth. To Victor this is a logical impossibility: Having grown to hate things Indian, he can see only the lies, not the truth in them.

After dinner, Victor and Suzy face off. When she tells Arnold’s basketball story to Victor, all he can say is that his father lied. What he can’t see is that, whether or not Arnold intentionally changed the end of the story, the new version carries a much deeper truth about his father’s love for him. Victor had assumed — and reasonably so, from Victor’s point of view — that his father left because he didn’t care, yet here is contradictory data that says something else was going on with his father below the surface. But Victor is not ready to hear it. Suzy presses Victor, pressing on him that he needs to face up: He needs to go into Arnold’s trailer to see what’s there, to see what he might salvage from the ashes of his father’s life. Victor needs to confront and resolve the issue of his father’s life, but he won’t do it. To avoid it, Victor is willing to make a liar of himself by going back on the bet he made with Suzy.

I’m like Victor here: I want to hold on tightly to the pain that others have caused me. I’ve called the foul, now let it be a foul. I want to be able to villify them without the complication of conflicting data that says maybe they were doing something that they themselves did not understand. Maybe their offense came from their weakness and confusion, not from an intentional pursuit of selfish aims. Maybe they even cared about me after all.

Suzy then tells Victor his father’s blackest secret: He started the fire that killed Thomas’ parents. Hearing about the fire, hearing about Arnold going back into the fire for Victor (even though Victor was not in the house), and beginning to understand the pain his father lived with, Victor softens. He goes to the trailer. He faces the stench left by his father’s life. Making his way through it, he comes to the heart of his father’s life: A picture in his wallet of Arnold, Arlene, and Victor, and on the back, the single word, “home.” Victor finally realizes how the bald facts of the matter had lied to him, telling him that his father didn’t care. He sees there was a deeper story underneath. He sees the pain his father had lived with. He gains a measure of compassion for his father, and he now can mourn his father’s death. He takes his father’s knife to his own hair. He thinks “the ceremony [is] over.” But he still hasn’t faced everything. He hasn’t faced himself.

Even though Victor has seen that his father wasn’t as bad as he thought, he’s still running. He has not yet seen that he himself is much worse than he thinks. He’s been so busy calling fouls on those around him that he’s not looked at the fouls he has been committing. He leaves Suzy’s place without saying goodbye. Thomas picks up again with his stories, and then he directly confronts Victor, capping it with, “You make your mother cry…All I know is that when your father left, your mother lost you, too.” Victor is cornered, blamed, and pinned, but he can’t accept it. The physical wreck on the road becomes the occasion for Victor’s physical runnning that embodies his emotional running. He starts running to save the girl in the wreck, but it turns out he’s running to save himself. As he runs, all of what his experience on the trip comes together, and the physical pain and the emotional pain become the fire that burns Victor to the ground. And for Victor, it is his father that raises him from the ashes.

Victor is saved through his own forgiveness. Standing before the sherriff, he owns up to his personal heritage as he accepts and takes his father, later even calling him “Dad.” He takes ownership of and apologizes to Thomas for “every wreck.” Before, he couldn’t take the idea that Thomas or Suzy had any closeness with his father, but now he lets go of jealousy and animosity and, back on the reservation, he “shares” his father with Thomas. Victor is even ready now to learn a bit of the mystical from his Indian heritage: He had thought of spreading Arnold’s ashes as merely a duty, but he learns from Thomas the magic that will be in that moment, as his father rises “like a salmon.” Victor smiles, accepting Thomas’s vision, and even accepting that the Coeur d’Alene were fisherman and the images of Beauty that go with that heritage.

But what about Arnold? Does Victor’s forgiveness lessen Arnold’s guilt in any way? Does Smoke Signals let Arnold off the hook? I don’t think so. Arnold carries with him to his death the shame of starting the fire — he cut his hair “and he never grew it long again.” He drank heavily both before and after the fire (his drinking caused the fire), but it was only after the pain of the fire that “for years after that, he threatened to vanish.” His guilt haunted him. He “talked about that fire every day; he cried about it…he wished he hadn’t run away.” In the truck that night before the wreck, after Victor says his father “was a liar,” but Thomas doesn’t deny it, he adds to it: “Your dad was more than that.” There is truth mixed in with the lies. Arnold is still culpable, but he’s also human and in many ways lost — like the rest of us.

As captured in the closing poem, forgiveness is the heart of Smoke Signals. It is easier to forgive when we take the effort to see inside the offender’s heart. We should forgive even if, unlike Arnold, someone maliciously intended to hurt us. Forgiveness shouldn’t be by brute force, as it were, because God commands it, it should be born of love. Forgiveness is a whole different thing when we truly come to see the humanity of the person that we are forgiving. We needn’t conclude that the other did no wrong, but we should see their life and their pain from their perspective.

The phrase “I didn’t mean to” takes on a new meaning after seeing Smoke Signals. I always took the phrase as a cop-out — which it was, is, and will continue to be — but there’s something deeper underneath the phrase for me now. What actually did someone mean by what they did? My response tends to be to catalog the wrongs done to me and blame the other person as though the hurt I feel was exactly what they meant to inflict. What I don’t do, but now hope I can do more often, is think that perhaps they are hurting just as much as I am, and maybe their offense is more a result of being blinded and incapacitated by their pain and human limits than of intentional, self-centered insensitivity. If so, they are still responsible for the offense, but the path to reconciliation is one more of mutual healing than of demand for reform on their part.

It’s very easy to blame others — particularly our parents — for the better lives they should have lived. It is very easy to be, and to remain, ignorant of the issues and pains that they lived with. Even if we try to know about them, we often won’t know the most important things, just as without Suzy, no one would have known about Arnold’s deepest pain. So we judge. We place ourselves above the other, casting aside the humility we should have. They may have indeed done wrong things they shouldn’t have, and that truth should not be minimized. We want the whole picture; nothing is to be left out. And part of the picture is to understand that we don’t know all of what another is dealing with. Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish philosopher whose life spanned the time of Jesus, said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” We especially don’t know as much as we think we do about those close to us, whom we often have the most frequent occasion to judge and the strongest basis for judgment. And another part of it — really the most critical part — is to realize that we are part of the problem. True reconciliation comes when we realize that we are as much in need of being forgiven as we demand repentance from others. Then, with compassion and humility, we can build bridges across the divide, realizing we both need love and care.

Reflections from US–Indian relations

On another note, Smoke Signals treads (mostly) lightly on the character of US–Indian relations, but it provides plenty, for those who are willing to listen, to make white people think about what we’ve done. No doubt there is blame to cast on both sides, yet my own conclusion is that the greater share of it falls to the US. I carry away from the film greater sensitivity to the Indian condition by simply remembering a few quick clips:

  • Lucy’s reply to Thomas about going from the reservation to the United States: “That’s as foreign as it gets. Hope you two have your vaccinations!”
  • In one of Thomas’ stories of Arnold, the line, “…then they plea-bargained that down to being an Indian in the twentieth century…”
  • The irony of celebrating Independence Day on an Indian reservation.
  • The white men taking Victor’s and Thomas’ seats on the bus.
  • Arlene saying to Victor, “You know how Indians feel about signing papers.”
  • Suzy, saying of the Gathering of Nations Pow-wow: “I wish we’d been this organized when Columbus landed.”

There’s a reality to the wrongs done by the US against native peoples — wrongs that can never be fully redressed. With the film’s intertwining of personal relationships and the Indian condition, I take away from its portrayal of US–Indian relations a metaphor for personal relationships. Often, we invade each other, pushing the other aside. Like Victor’s treatment of Thomas, I often don’t make room for another in my life. I want them to give way to my plans and desires for life. I crowd them out and devalue who they are in favor of my own pursuit of enlarging my life. I tend to ask, “What use do I have for this person?” rather than “What Beauty can the world see because my life and theirs have come together?”

  • The theme of fire and ash woven throughout the film, particularly in the manner of casting Victor as a child of fire and Thomas as a child of ash.
  • Using basketball dribbling in the place of a traditional Indian drumbeat when Victor and his friends were singing in the gym about Geronimo beating Custer.
  • As Arnold is driving off, leaving home in his pickup, the sign on the building in the background says, “Warpath.”
  • After Victor and Thomas first get on the bus, the three scenes shown out the window are of a store/junkyard, a church, and a school, each preceded by a bright sun shining in our eyes — Victor must face the junk in his life, deal with spiritual issues, and learn.
  • When Victor and Thomas get back on the bus, the white men have taken their land (their seats), and they have to go to the back of the bus. The best they can do is make fun of the white man’s culture, and their impromptu singing of “John Wayne’s Teeth” finds its way into their traditional music as the soundtrack takes over from their singing. It encapsulated well what a peaceful response to the white man’s invasion would have looked like, and it help me feel a bit of the Indian rage.
  • “Kafka” as the name of Arnold’s dog — it seems unusual for a man like Arnold to be that well read, but then, Kafka’s reputation for themes of alienation and futility precedes him, and Arnold felt such themes keenly.
  • Suzy saying to Victor of Arnold, “He always wanted to go home — he’s waiting for you…” Suzy captures Arnold’s heart and lays it before Victor.
  • The juxtapositions in the stories that Thomas tells in the truck after they leave Suzy’s place. He told stories of “Suzy and drought, [Victor's] mother and hunger, [Victor's] father and magic” — there are deep connections in these juxtapositions.
  • The windchimes often playing with the flashbacks.
  • All of the miscellaneous self-referential one-liners:
    • “…a fire rose up like General George Armstrong Custer…”
    • “It’s a great day to be indigenous.”
    • “We’re Indians, remember. We barter.”
    • “Big truck just went by. Now it’s gone.” — “Well there you go, folks: Looks like another busy morning.”
    • “There you go, folks: Looks like nobody’s getting to work on time this morning.”
    • As Victor and Thomas drive back onto the reservation, the boundary sign says “Population: variable”
    • “The only thing more pathetic than Indians on TV is Indians watching Indians on TV.”
    • “Who needs money on the rez, anyways.”
  • In the police chief’s office, when the camera is focused on Victor, a sign on the wall behind him says, “And justice for all.”
  • The simultaneous occurrence of Victor having trouble starting the truck and Suzy having trouble lighting the grass-torch for burning Arnold’s trailer. It’s hard to restart life.
  • At the end, the camera panning from the first bridge, from which Thomas looked on the river, to the rougher waters just downstream, then up to Victor on the footbridge with the sun behind him, then mixing Victor’s screams with the screeching traditional Indian music.

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?

Miscellaneous

  • 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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