Sherman Alexie: “Smoke Signals”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

Smoke Signals is the first – and as far as I know, only – feature-length, commercially distributed film written and directed by Native Americans with a fully Native American cast. Written by Sherman Alexie and directed by Chris Eyre, the 1998 film is loosely based on Alexie’s first collection of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, published in 1993. The film also includes characters who recur throughout Alexie’s other literary works.

Is it a comedy? Is it a drama? I suppose it is predominantly a drama, as Victor Joseph and his friend Thomas Builds-the-Fire travel from the Coeur d’Alene reservation in Washington to Phoenix, Arizona, to pick up his father’s remains. In that sense, it is a coming-of-age story of sorts – or perhaps more accurately, a coming-to-terms story.

But there are also many comic elements to the film, and the wry humor emerges in part because Smoke Signals is also a classic buddy road trip movie. Victor and Thomas, as mismatched as they ever were as children, spar and play off each other – Victor the cool, stoic Indian, Thomas the geeky, ever-chatty storyteller who smiles too much. As they ride the bus to Arizona, Victor tutors Thomas in how to present himself as a “real Indian.” He needs to let his hair flow freely as a symbol of his warrior status, and he needs to wipe the goofy grin off his face. Thomas returns wearing a Fry Bread Power T-shirt, his braids unfurled, his gaze serious, and his walk a swagger. While this scene is funny, it is also searing, as Alexie deftly skewers the stereotypes white Americans have of Indian people.

Alexie pulls off this double-edged humor again and again in the film. One of my favorite scenes is the one in which Victor and Thomas ask two young women on the reservation for a ride. The women say they’ll consider the request but first need to hear a story. Ever one to spin a yarn, Thomas launches into an account of Victor’s father, Arnold Joseph, being arrested for protesting against the Vietnam War. He plea bargained, and his ultimate charge was “being an Indian in the twentieth century.” When Victor asks the women what they think and whether this story is good enough to catch them a ride, one of the women says, “I think it is a fine example of the oral tradition.” Academics who teach Native American storytelling and literature are caught up short – they’re forever celebrating the Native American oral tradition – but those in the audience can’t help but laugh. The scene ends with Victor and Thomas climbing into the backseat and with the car taking off in reverse – the only direction in which it goes.

But the film is much more than jokes, funny thought they may be. No, the film is much more a drama. Called to retrieve his dead father’s ashes, Victor goes on a quest to find his father, to make peace – if he can – with the legacy of an alcoholic, sometimes violent father who abandoned Victor and his mother. At the end of the film, Victor calls to his father, Arnold, from the bridge over a river, and we feel his release as he lets his father’s ashes go.

Like all of Alexie’s writing, Smoke Signals is self-aware, self-conscious, self-referential, perhaps one could say postmodern and not go too far. In Smoke Signals, there is a strong, clear story. But there are also “meta” references, where it’s clear that Alexie, as screenwriter, and Eyre, as director, are very well aware of the tropes they are using and overturning. Buddy film? Check. Road film? Check. Coming-of-age story? You got it. Western? You just might have something there.

Developed at Sundance Labs, Smoke Signals won the Filmmaker’s Trophy at Sundance. Provocative insights into the film can be found in Filmmaker Magazine’s interview with Alexie and Eyre – and background on the making of the film and its impact on other Native American filmmakers can be found in an interview with Eyre. As the New York Times says, it is also more than a “first” in Native American film: “it is a step by a new generation of Indian artists toward finding an idiom for exploring their individual and cultural identities without resorting to self-pity, political correctness or Hollywood cliches.” For those of you who are teachers, check out the University of Michigan Press’s curriculum guide to Smoke Signals as well as the Teach with Movies supplemental lesson materials.

If you haven’t seen Smoke Signals, you owe it to yourself to get a copy and take a look. And when you get hooked on Alexie’s work (as I know you will), you’ll want to delve into his print writing as well. Alexie is absolutely one of the best American Indian writers today (along with N. Scott Momaday, among others). His first novel, Reservation Blues, was published in 1996. His young adult novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, won the 2007 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. War Dances, a collection of Alexie’s short stories and poems, won the 2010 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. This year, he published a picture book for children, Thunder Boy Jr. In addition to his fiction, poetry, screenplays, and books for young adults and children, you’ll also want to check out his poem “How to Write the Great American Indian Novel.”

Watch:Watch a short clip from Smoke Signals. In this scene, Thomas Builds-a-Fire (Evan Adams) and Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) hitch a ride with two young women from the reservation.

Image Credit: Sherman Alexie, photo by Larry D. Moore, CC BY-SA 3.0,