Film has given a voice to many underrepresented groups in this country. Blaxploitation films such as Shaft created super heroes for young black males. Filmmakers from Spike Lee to Tyler Perry continue to tell African-American stories. The Latino film movement led by Luis Valdez introduced Chicano culture to mainstream audiences with films like Zoot Suit and La Bamba. Moctesuma Esparza, Sylvia Morales, Jesus Salvador Treviño, and Susan Racho aided in establishing a definitive genre. The LGBT community witnessed their struggle with films like Philadelphia and Brokeback Mountain. Filmmakers including Dustin Lance Black, Marlon Riggs, Lisa Cholodenko, Gus Van Sant, and John Waters ensure a solid foundation and movement in this area as well.
Sadly, Native Americans have not experienced a declarative film movement. In addition, Native Americans are seldom heard from or seen in a leading role in film. Perfomances such as Johnny Depp's Tonto reveal they are still marginalized and belittled in mainstream media. Unfortunately, this disrespect extends to other areas. It is unfathomable that in 2016 a national sports team in our nation’s capital is named the Washington Redskins. We cannot imagine a sports team named the New Jersey Jews or the California Brownskins.
Smoke Signals, on the other hand, shows no opposition to the dominant culture or any form of acculturation in its opening credits sequence. The beginning of the film introduces us to Lester Fallsapart (Leonard George) who sits atop a broken down van reporting traffic on the Fourth of July. The van rots at a crossroad, immobile, and even comical. In an analysis of Sherman Alexie’s work in both Smoke Signals and the short stories the film is based upon, Gordon Slethaug writes, “The Fourth of July seems to intensify the problem because the Indians on the Reservation are clearly celebrating their own domination and cultural demise when they celebrate the American Revolution or War of Independence” (138). Smoke Signals’ comment on the experience of Native Americans is sobering. Like the broken down van, they sit idle at the crossroads watching others celebrate this country’s independence, yet they are not a part of the festivites. This scene represents life on a reservation, and Alexie and Eyre are needed to share this private and painful experience with film audiences. In an interview, Alexie explained:
The Native American identity crisis is one that we seldom see, and it took two Native Americans to portray this situation accurately on screen.
The filmmaker’s use of automobiles to reveal the plight of the Native American continues throughout the film. The memorable stuck-in-reverse vehicle driven by the characters Lucy (Elaine Miles) and Velma (Michelle St. John) moves around the reservation backwards. This car, in many ways, represents the Native American experience. They carry with them a painful past and are often forced to see their future through a rearview mirror and not the front windshield. Their future is always linked to their tragic past. When Lucy and Velma drop off Victor and Thomas at the bus station, they ask the men an important question:
This comment underscores the fact that Native Americans were forced to live on the reservations and that the United States might as well be a foreign country to them. Arlene Joseph (Tantoo Cardinal) tells her son that before he leaves the reservation, he has to promise that he will come back. In some ways, this request is tragic; unfortunately, living on the reservation discourages upward mobility. He responds by asking if he wants her to sign a paper to assure his return. She does not like his comment and responds, “You know how Indians feel about signing papers.” This suspicion of signing papers demonstrates the Native American’s distrust of this country’s leaders while the reservation itself serves as a constant reminder of the unfair treatment they experienced. Imagine a freed black slave forced to live in the “master’s house” perpetually.
The director, Eyre, seamlessly blends Victor (Adam Beach) and Thomas’s (Evan Adams) childhood on the reservation with their journey outside of the reservation. Both of these worlds clash as Victor and Thomas navigate their Native American experience.
Their identity is challenged while they travel on the bus, which underscores the fact that they cannot afford to own their means of transportation. During this trip, Victor tells Thomas that he does not even know how to be an Indian and explains to him that he has to be stoic and look like a warrior or else the white man will walk all over him. He even mocks Thomas for watching Dances with Wolves many times. However, Victor perpetuates (unconsciously) the stereotypical cinematic Native American and even amplifies the way Native Americans have been portrayed in films. Thomas, on the other hand, is always smiling; his smiling face is a Native American face that is rarely seen on screen. In contrast to what Victor tells him, Thomas is the most unique character of the pair and defines his own style. Victor is more influenced by the stereotypical stoic Native American we are used to seeing in the media while Thomas is the more genuine character of the two.
Interestinlgly, Robin Murray and Joe Heumann explore Smoke Signals as an environmental adaptation:
Like their own people, Victor and Thomas are displaced; they are both fish out of water -- yet unable to fish for salmon as their ancestors did. But in order to survive, they must adapt. Victor's father Arnold (Gary Farmer) adapts by leaving the “rez” and his family in his yellow pickup truck never to return. He finally settles in Arizona residing in a mobile home -- a home on wheels, not permanent, not stable. Many of the cutaway shots throughout the film show that many of the homes on the reservation are also mobile homes. The mobile home further perpetuates the displacement of Native Americans from their land constantly on the move and relocated when “needed” by the government, yet stuck in temporary, substandard housing. When both Victor and Thomas finally reach Arnold’s mobile park, they are invited into the home of Suzy Song (Irene Bedard) to eat and rest. As Thomas enjoys her fry bread, he states, “The only thing more pathetic than Indians on TV is Indians watching Indians on TV” (this line was improvised by the actor; Hearne, "Remembering"). With this moment in the script, Alexie directly comments on the depiction of Native Americans in film and television and how this depiction affects actual Native Americans.
In this scene, Arnold empowers himself and does not play the victim card, yet that empowerment is negative and requires that he leave his family behind. He has subscribed to a certain fatalism and believes that his destiny has already been written -- there will be no opportunity for upward mobility. His leaving helps him hide his shame from his family. In the book Pedagogy of the Heart, Paulo Freire writes, “It is necessary that the weakness of the powerless is transformed into a force capable of announcing justice. For this to happen, a total denouncement of fatalism is necessary. We are transformative beings and not beings for accommodation” (36). As a fatalist, Arnold resorts to alcohol to make himself and his situation numb. Alexie’s comment on the fatalist mindset is evident as he allows Arnold to be fully aware of the negative factors that impact Native Americans, yet Arnold can never escape his alcoholism. Alcohol is a cancer to the Native American community, and Alexie is not afraid to highlight this fact.
The impact of what happened generations before has an impact now in the present, and Alexie shows this through Arnold and his substance abuse. In his self-hatred, Arnold has become the other and has accepted his circumstances. Rather than changing his path, he runs away.
Although Victor is determined not to follow the same path as his father, he still feels shame for his father and thus himself. This road trip with Thomas helps him face these problems. Both he and Thomas grew up fatherless. Victor’s father left his family while Thomas’s parents died in a fire when he was a child. Victor’s and Thomas’s flashbacks often clash with how they each view Arnold. Victor loved his father, but hated that he was a drunk and ultimately abandoned him and his mother, blaming himself for his father leaving. Thomas, on the other hand, idolized Arnold and painted him as a super hero. Ultimately, this film is a journey of two lost Native Americans in search of their identity. A journey of self-awareness not only to not forget who they are but also to claim valuable social and cultural space. In her book, Celluloid Indians, Jacquelyn Kilpatrick takes a look at the film Smoke Signals, following a quote from Alexie:
Victor finally mourns the passing of his father by cutting his own hair and takes his father’s yellow pickup truck home. Hair in this film serves as a reminder of cultural acceptance and identity. In Spike Lee’s Malcom X, Malcom X (Denzel Washington) goes to a barbershop to get his hair straightened, a process that burns but straightens out his “black” hair so that he looks whiter. In John Water’s musical Hairspray, the beehive updo that Tracy sported signaled the coming of a new era. Victor cutting his hair represents his willingness to forgive his father.
Victor was on the path of becoming a fatalist like his father, but rather he confronts that possibility. When the two men go back home, Victor’s run for help is added to one of the stories Thomas will tell for future generations to come. Their journey is a walkabout of sorts, two boys without fathers becoming men through reliving their own childhood with the only father figure either of them had in Arnold Joseph. Victor realizes what Arnold meant to Thomas and gives him some of Arnold’s ashes to pay homage to the man who saved both their lives. In the end, the words “I/He didn’t mean to” ring true to Victor and Thomas who now have a mutual respect for the mistakes and sins Arnold committed and his decision to leave as well as a mutual respect for each other.
Freire, Paulo, and Ana Maria Araújo Freire. Pedagogy of the Heart. New York, NY: Continuum, 1997.
Hearne, Joanna. “John Wayne’s Teeth: Speech, Sound and Representation in ‘Smoke Signals’ and ‘Imagining Indians.’” Western Folklore 64.3-4 (2005): 189-208.
---. "Remembering Smoke Signals: Interviews with Chris Eyres and Sherman Alexie." Post Script 29.3 (2010): 119-135. (Accessed through Ebsco full text with n.p.)
Kilpatrick, Jacquelyn. Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and Film. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1999.
Murray, Robin, and Joe Heumann. "Passage as Journey in Sherman Alexie’s Smoke Signals: A Narrative of Environmental Adaptation." Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media 52 (2010): 26.
Slethaug, Gordon E. “Hurricanes and Fires: Chaotics in Sherman Alexie’s Smoke Signals and the Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.” Literature/Film Quarterly 31.2 (2003): 130-140.
Smoke Signals. Dir. Chris Eyre. Prod. Writ. Sherman Alexie. Alliance Vivafilm, 1998.
West, Dennis. "Sending CInematic Smoke Signals: An Interview with Sherman Alexie." Cineaste 23.4 (1998): 28-32. (Accessed through Ebsco full text with n.p.)