Smoke Signals

Provost's Film Series

September 10, 2003



Native American Filmmakers

When it was released in 1998, Smoke Signals was billed as the first feature film written, directed and acted by Native Americans.  Yet, as Roger Ebert writes in the Chicago Sun-Times, "It hardly seems necessary to even announce that:  The film is so relaxed about its characters, so much at home in their world, that we sense it's an inside job."

The Native American has long been featured in Hollywood films, first as the Indians in old westerns, and then as the tragic victim of manifest destiny.  "Most films about Native Americans," Ebert admits, "have had points to make and scores to settle, like all those earnest 1950s white films about blacks. . . . Now here are two young Indians who speak freshly, humorously, and for themselves."

Indeed, the two young Indians—director Chris Eyre and screenwriter Sherman Alexie— know firsthand about life on the boundary lines between Native American communities and mainstream American society.  Much of the humor of Smoke Signals could be considered a wry, Gen-Xer satire about life on the reservation and about the icons of popular American culture.  Director Eyre is a Cheyenne-Arapaho Indian from Klamath Falls, Oregon.  Smoke Signals, his first feature, was produced after Eyre had earned critical attention for a series of short films.

Sherman Alexie, the son of a Spokane Indian mother and a Coeur d'Alene Indian father, wove the plot together from his own 1993 collection of short stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, a sharp, occasionally bleak anthology.  Under Eyre's direction, the film has a warmer, more humorous flavor than its fictional inspiration.  Like the main characters in the film, Alexie lived for several years on a reservation.  Raised among the Spokane Indians, he decided to move off the reservation and attend high school in Reardon, Washington, where he was "the only Indian . . . except for the school mascot."  Shortly after graduating from Washington State University, he published two collections of poetry—the Business of Fancydancing and I Would Steal Horses.  Recently, Alexie has tried his own hand at directing, turning Fancydancing into a film.


On the Road Again

Smoke Signals fits the familiar genre of the "road movie," with a journey that serves as the catalyst for greater self-discovery.  Many of the most famous American road movies are essentially about escape from the staid, provincial world of home.  They are stories about flight and freedom, and the characters seem most at ease when, like Huck Finn, they decide to "lit out for the territory" rather than settle down.  Other road movies, in the tradition of The Odyssey, tell of the quest to return home after years of wandering, exile or struggle.  Smoke Signals, quite cleverly, fuses both traditions into a single story.  On the one hand, the film reveals characters—Victor Joseph and Thomas Builds-the-Fire—who feel caught on a claustrophobic reservation in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho.  They are adolescents who need to get away, to find fresh air on the open road, much like the screenwriter Alexie.  Yet, for Victor, this is also a journey to find his home.  He is travelling to Arizona to claim the ashes of his father, to encounter his father's world, and to piece together his father's story so he can understand why his father abandoned him years ago.  Victor not only must bring his father's remains back to the reservation, he must also enter into his father's new home before he can go home again himself.


Tragi-Comic Storytelling

The film also draws upon the myths of the homeless wanderers, stories like Faulkner's As I Lay Dying or Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, which Alexie lists as his favorite book.  These tales deal with the plight of the dispossessed who must carry the bodies of their relatives until they find a proper burial place.  It would be all but impossible for Native American filmmakers to tell such stories without alluding to some of the tragic themes of the Native American history—the bitter memory that the American tribes have been dispossessed and their sacred burial grounds often plowed under or scattered. 

What drew praise from critics, however, was that the filmmakers could so capably evoke these historic themes without losing their comic touch or succumbing to preachiness.  Furthermore, they did not hesitate to hold Native Americans responsible for some of their own struggles, such as alcoholism or apathy.  The filmmakers know that the distinctions between Native American history and popular American culture get blurred.  Victor accuses Thomas, at one point, of learning how to be an Indian by watching Dances With Wolves.  The protagonists make up a funny song about John Wayne, one of the best "Injun fighters" in the American western.  The lead actress, Irene Bedard, was the physical model for Disney's Pocahantas. 

Yet the big political and moral issues about justice and belonging are there too, even if lingering below the surface or captured in an ironic aside. To catch some of the film's blend of moral seriousness and self-effacing humor, think about the complex connotations of the title itself and the interplay of imagery about fire, smoke and ashes.  The filmmakers convey much about the particular plight of contemporary Indians even as they strike after themes that branch across cultures.  Director Eyre called the film "a universal story about fathers and friends and forgiveness," and the narrative builds toward a final poem by Dick Lorrie:  "How do we forgive our fathers?  Maybe in a dream . . ."

For all of its precise glimpses at the irony of everyday Indian life, Smoke Signals is also told as if it were a dream, as a series of flashbacks within a flashback.  Storytelling is one of the traditions of Native American culture, a means of preserving the past and coping with present disappointments.  Alexie remarks, "I love the way that movies have more power than books.  They continue the oral tradition, the way we sit around the fire and listen to stories."  With both sportive humor and respect for that oral tradition, Smoke Signals is structured as a tale told to us by Thomas, a non-stop chatterbox who drives everyone crazy with his constant storytelling.  In the end, though, it is the story he has been telling us that achieves a humane and simple elegance.