Native Voices:
Or, Vehicle as Symbol in Smoke Signals

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2016, Volume 15, Issue 1


Andrea Baltazar
Pepperdine University

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.

This country's indifference towards Native Americans is at the heart of Sherman Alexie’s groundbreaking screenplay Smoke Signals. Both Alexie and the director of the film Chris Eyre are Native Americans and produced this film together with a Native American cast and crew. Smoke Signals is, as the name suggests, an alarm, a message to the masses. Using symbolism through vehicles, Sherman Alexie examines Native American identity, discrimination, substance abuse, and most importantly the issue of cultural acceptance. Yet, despite the film’s evident success, few Native American films are produced today. According to Alexie himself, "Smoke Signals remains the only film ever written and directed by Native Americans that received national and international distribution. It's the only film that ever went even remotely mainstream" (Hearne, "Remembering").

The first images of a film not only set the tone but also give insight to the film’s theme. In the film Shaft, John Shaft (Richard Roundtree) walks out of the subway and onto the streets of Harlem in a long, black trench coat. Like a super hero in a cape, he struts through traffic as cars and people yield to him. Shaft represents the black experience and confronts the American establishment with brash confidence. The film emboldened the black community and paved the way for African-American filmmakers such as the aforementioned Spike Lee. In the opening credits of the film La Bamba, Bob Morales (Esai Morales) rides his motorcycle along the highway with the wind running through his hair. He cuts through traffic, scares a snake off the road, and drives past a building waving the American flag. Luis Valdez shows us the Latino experience as upward bound. Although discrimination is present in their lives, Latinos feel they can achieve the American Dream.

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:

What is revolutionary or groundbreaking about the film is that the characters in it are Indians, and they're fully realized human beings. They're not just the sidekick, or the buddy, they're the protagonists. Simply having Indians as the protagonists in a contemporary film, and placing them within this familiar literary, and cinematic structure, is groundbreaking. (West)

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:

Velma: You guys got your passports?
Thomas Builds-the-Fire: Passports?
Velma: Yeah, you’re leavin’ the rez and goin’ into a whole different country, cousin.
Thomas Builds-the-Fire: But... but, it’s the United States.
Lucy: Damn right it is! That’s as foreign as it gets. Hope you two have your vaccinations. [All laugh]

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.

While they are at a rest stop eating dinner, Thomas reveals to us that their people were fisherman. This scene shows us how Native Americans were connected to the land and subsisted off of it. Sadly, they had to give up their land as white men were expanding their territory. Native Americans were constantly on the move being pulled from their natural surroundings and forced into territories that were not their own. The bus journey symbolizes this movement as well.

Interestinlgly, Robin Murray and Joe Heumann explore Smoke Signals as an environmental adaptation:

From the beginning of the reservation system, life on “the Rez” was like hell on earth. On these reservations, Indian agents attempted to force Native Americans to farm infertile lands, leaving them close to starvation… To maintain their claim on aboriginal lands,  they moved onto the Coeur d’Alene Reservation in Idaho and other reservations… By 1905, however, the reservations lost rights to water in the Spokane River to the Little Falls Power Plant, and by 1909, the Spokane Reservation was opened up for homesteading. Coeur d’ Alene and other tribes on the reservation were now limited to allotments of from eighty to 160 acres on land too rocky for farming. A year later, minerals were found on reservations in Idaho. But this seemingly beneficial discovery  has had catastrophic environmental results. Traditional tribal fishing became impossible. (26)

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.

Moreover, Alexie’s use of the bus evokes the US Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Most of the patrons on the bus and the bus driver are white. Thomas and Victor are foreigners on the bus, and their uncomfortable presence is palpable. In the article “John Wayne’s Teeth: Speech, Sound, and Representation in Smoke Signals and Imagining Indians,” Joanne Hearne comments on the scene in which Victor and Thomas return to the bus after a rest stop to find that two white men have taken their seats. “Coded by their costumes as cowboys,” the men tell Victor and Thomas to go “find someplace else to have a powwow,” after which they move to the back of the bus ( Hearne 195). According to Hearne, “[This scene] not only re-creates the bus as a segregated social space of the American South in the Civil Rights era, but also echoes the federal policies of relocation and dislocation of Native tribes” (195). Victor and Thomas are not asked to sit at the back of the bus, yet they still cannot choose where to sit. This scene reveals that civil rights have yet to be achieved for all people of color, especially Native Americans. Alexie reiterates this idea with Thomas’s line, “Cowboys always win.” Victor responds with his line about John Wayne’s teeth and states that “there must be something wrong when you can’t see a guy's teeth.” The two “Indians” take back their social space by chanting an impromptu “pow wow” about John Wayne’s teeth. This scene is powerful, for it shows two Native Americans reclaiming their social space on the bus and, by extension, in the US.

As Victor and Thomas continue their journey to retrieve Arnold’s ashes, the flashbacks show the audience what it is like to grow up on the reservation. In one of the early flashbacks of the film, Arnold and his son sit in the yellow pick-up truck that Arnold will use to leave the "rez" and his son forever. He tells his son:

I’m feeling independent. I’m feeling extra magical today like I can make anything disappear...Wave my hand and poof! The white people are gone, gone back to where they belong. Poof!... Wave my hand and the reservation is gone. The trading post and the post office, the tribal school and the pine trees; the drunks and Catholics, and the drunk Catholics. Poof! And all the little Indian boys named Victor. I’m so good, I can make myself disappear. Poof.

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.

Indeed, alcoholism plays a large part in this film. Arnold not only cuts his hair in mourning and shame of the sins he committed to Thomas’s parents but he also continues his alcoholism to numb his shame. Many Native American believe the “white man,” in order to control and take what was not theirs, introduced alcohol to the Native Americans. Flashbacks of Victor’s childhood revolve around alcohol and his parents’ substance abuse. The alcoholism perpetuates through Arnold’s guilt and leads to domestic violence, abandonment, and ultimately death. Eyre shows this result in the sequence that leads to Arnold finally leaving the “rez” after threatening to leave for a long time. In this sequence, a young Victor throws beer bottles at his father’s truck -- a symbol of his father as well as the eventual adandonment -- while his parents are passed out drunk on their bed. Victor hates to see his parents this way and lashes out by throwing the bottles; he carries this hatred of alcohol throughout his life by choosing not to drink as an adult. In another flashback, Victor’s drunk parents ask him to come outside, and they ask him “who [his] favorite Indian is.” He responds with “nobody.” Hearne states:

Arnold’s speech and Victor’s favorite Indian -- "nobody” --suggests that his struggle against powerful and dominant stereotypes, in the context of a culturally and racially mixed community, has become self-hatred…Arnold Joseph’s other (non)identity as “nobody” and his absence from his family and community function powerfully as metaphors for Euro-American colonizing strategies and disruption of Native identities and families. ("John Wayne's Teeth" 194)

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:

"The way time works in Indian culture is a lot more circular, so that the past, the present, and the future are all the same thing.” Eyre uses the flashbacks skillfully, presenting a story that unfolds in reverse… As Victor and Thomas travel to Arizona… Victor rediscovers his father through flashbacks narrated by his father’s new friend. This rediscovery and Victor’s emerging ability to forgive provide the focus of the film. (231)

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.

As the two head home, Thomas tells Victor one more story in the truck. They have a final confrontation where Thomas exhibits a bit of anger and aggression toward Victor being distant. This argument suddenly stops as Victor tries to avoid a car accident caused by a drunk, white man who blames Victor for the crash. Alexie writes in this act of blaming and placing fault on the “other” to show us that this still happens today. Yet despite being discriminated against, Victor runs for help, literally. On the way, he sees a vision of his father accepting his help and ultimately saving the woman from dying.

Once we believe all will be fine, Alexie then presents their run-in with the police at the hospital as if the situation would only get worse for these two fish out of water. However, after telling the officer their names, Victor defends himself to the officer who ultimately backs up his story because the wife of the white man relays that it was her drunk husband’s fault, not Victor's or Thomas’s. Thomas and Victor then continue their journey home in the yellow pickup truck once again. We are hopeful Victor has transformed -- as Freire explains it in another context:

His fatalism might have turned into a possible dream. It might have become the utopia of liberation, which he will have begun to understand as a social process against the force that crushes him… He thus understands the problematization of the future rather than its inexorability. Such a future will not come if we do not speak about it at the same time that we make it. (42)

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.

Victor finally gets closure with his father and an overall acceptance for himself and who he is by the end of the film when he releases his father’s ashes at Spokane river, the river that once gave his ancestors food to survive through salmon fishing.

Smoke Signals was a groundbreaking film produced by Native Americans, and it represents a step in the right direction toward more accurate representations of Native Americans on screen. However, this script was produced in 1998, and sadly few other Native American films have been produced -- and none with a high profile. Although Smoke Signals can still be seen as an alarm to mainstream America, its impact diminishes with every year that passes. More Native American voices need to be heard to shed light and break down barriers of identity, discrimination, and acceptance -- all symbolized so powerfully in the script through Alexie's use of the vehicle.

Works Cited

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.)

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