Volume XIV, Number 2, Fall 2018

"Native Americans in Chris Eyre’s Smoke Signals" by Milán Földesi

Milán Földesi is an MA student at the Department of American Studies, Institute of English and American Studies, University of Szeged. His main research interest are Native American culture and history, film studies, comic adaptations and the issues of minority representation in American movies. Email:

Abstract: Chris Eyre’s Smoke Signals (1998) could and should have been a milestone for Native American filmmaking. It differentiates itself from other Indian focused movies such as Dances with Wolves (1990) or The Last of the Mohicans (1992) by presenting life in a reservation with all its wonders and problems. Eyre, by adapting several stories from Sherman Alexie’s “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” (1993), shows aspects and issues of the contemporary Native Americans, such as the importance of their hair and their constant fight against alcoholism through the main characters, Victor Joseph and Thomas Builds-the-Fire. The aim of this article is to stress Smoke Signal’s legacy and to find out why it failed to change the way non-Natives look at the American Indians.

Keywords: Native, Native American, Indian, Smoke Signals, Chris Eyre, Sherman Alexie, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Victor Joseph, Thomas Builds-the-Fire, Native film, Native movie, Native reservation


At the 1998 Sundance Film Festival a young and relatively unknown director presented a groundbreaking film ravishing the heart of the audience. With the approval came the Audience Award, the Filmmaker’s Trophy and a nomination for Grand Jury Prize. Director Chris Eyre with the help of Sherman Alexie, on whose book the movie Smoke Signals (Eyre 1998) was loosely based on, gave the chance to non-Native viewers to rediscover the familiar, but misunderstood Native American character through the world of motion pictures. The award-winning movie does everything to avoid the well-known North American Indian stereotypes, like the warrior figure or the shamanistic elder and presents instead the contemporary life in a Coeur D’Alene reservation. But is it really possible for a film about Native Americans with a fully Native American crew to present the real identity of Amerindians without the grasp of stereotyping? The answer is, despite all odds, no. In this essay, I am going to show that even though Smoke Signals challenge racist representations of Native Americans in motion pictures by presenting a contemporary Indian reservation with its more authentic aspects and issues, the movie in itself fails to change the way non-Natives look at Amerindians.

After watching Smoke Signals, I chose several aspects from the movie to focus on, including the importance of naming and hair, the battle against alcoholism, oral traditions and Native humor. My aim was to see whether Eyre successfully excluded the conventional stereotypes from his movie or unintentionally only enforced them. The way Natives look at themselves is the last point I will be talking about, because this is what Smoke Signals presents perfectly. First, my approach was to find evidence of Hollywood mistreating Indian cultures in movies. For that purpose, I use an article from John A. Price, in which he talks about how the ill presentation of Native tribes is a perennial problem, racist images and motion picture industry has long been intertwined. Price claims that although Indians were shown on the screen even from the era of silent films, the biggest contributors to their presentation were the western movies (Price 1973, 154-155). He analyzes films like The Indians are Coming (1930, dir. Henry MacRae), They Died with Their Boots On (1941, dir. Raoul Walsh) and Broken Arrow (1950, dir. Delmer Daves) searching for the often not so obvious signs of racism. For example, Broken Arrow was the first attempt to try and turn the tide in Hollywood, as before the 50s, Indians in movies were shown mostly to be savages, rapists and stubborn wildlings (160).

Looking at the Indian’s past, I felt the need to analyze the way Natives received their names during the colonization and also before the 19th century. In Smoke Signals the two protagonists are called Victor Joseph and Thomas Builds-the-Fire, which are both quite interesting names. According to Linde E. Dick Bissonnette, the first Christian names were given to Natives around 1770, when Spanish priests started baptizing Californian Indians (Bissonnette 1999, 9). Before this, Native newborns were given two or three names usually by their grandparents and these names were used separately by the members of each family. During the first encounters and even after, Europeans were not able to pronounce the names of individuals, so they usually called them by their jobs and Indian children got their names after their foster parents. Bissonnette believes that this is the reason Indians had, and have even nowadays interesting surnames, like the famous Sitting Bull, Dry Creek Tom or even Thomas Builds-the-Fire. Smoke Signals gives several hints towards Thomas’s family name, but a clear explanation is never given.

Another aspect I am analyzing also goes back to the first meetings of Indians and Europeans because this is the root-problem of alcoholism in contemporary reservations, and this is one of the main points of Smoke Signals as well. In the movie, Victor Joseph’s father is an alcohol addict due to an accident he caused in the past and seeing his father always drunk, Victor chooses not to consume even a drop of beer. In “Firewater Labels and Methodologies,” Gerald Vizenor goes back to the very first time Natives were introduced to alcohol and debunks some statements, like the one that alcoholism is one of the worst problem among Indians (Vizenor 1983, 29). He gives a thorough look at the matter of ‘tribal drinking,’ as he calls it, and even tries to give reasons for Indians getting easily addicted to alcohol other than liking the taste of beer or whiskey (32). Moreover, the question of why Indians leave their hair to grow is often asked by non-Natives. Our society and beliefs differ greatly from that of the Natives’, thus Europeans and white Americans usually connect this phenomenon to cultural differences. From various sources on this topic, it can be assumed that Indians connect their religious beliefs to the length of their hair. Sometimes Indians were forced to shave their heads, like in military service or in jail, functioning as a form of violation the First Amendment of the Constitution (Norman 1993, 198), with the members of native tribes believing that their creator made them after his or her own looks, which includes the long, healthy hair, and therefore cutting their hair means severing their spiritual connections (199), an important topic that appears in Eyre’s Smoke Signals as well.

Chris Eyre and the Representation of Natives in Movies

The Native American Chris Eyre was born in Portland, Oregon in 1968 and was adapted by white parents early in his life (Juillerat 1). He became fond of black-and-white photographing and this hobby led him to the University of Arizona, from where he graduated with a Media Arts degree. Eyre later successfully traced his birthmother, Rose Lumpmouth, and this search inspired him in making his first film, Things Learned Young (Juillerat 1). His second film, Tenacity (1994), gave him the first chance to shine despite the film’s short runtime. In 1995, Eyre joined the Sundance Institute’s Directing Workshop and started working on Smoke Signals under the mentorship of Robert Redford. Up until now, Eyre directed, produced and even participated in several films, including Skins (2002), Edge of America (2003), A Year in Mooring (2013) and The Seventh Fire (2015). Through his creations, he aims to exclude the stereotypes on Native Americans, rooted deep in the minds of non-Natives (“Chris Eyre” 2008).

Native Americans were present in many western movies starting with the first silent films. The famous “Wild West Shows of Buffalo Bill” introduced the image of Indians to European audiences with Geronimo or Sitting Bull, two famous chiefs of the 1880s, even participating in some of these shows (Price 1973, 155). Later on, the first silent westerns presented mostly the eastern, agricultural tribes and these early movies, paradoxically, had the most authentic representation of Natives until the 1990s Price because the lack of fully formed stereotypes (Price 1973, 155). Nicolas G. Rosenthal talks about the racist attitude toward Natives during later years in “Representing Indians: Native American Actors in Hollywood’s Frontier” by stating that despite the rare occasions, when Indians were called to give technical advice on certain scenes, they suffered from restrictions in the world of motion pictures (Rosenthal 2005, 330). One of the most famous Native actors during this time, Jay Silverheels, who played Tonto in The Lone Ranger series, claimed that there were obvious problems in Hollywood regarding the inclusion of real Indians in movies, but they had to accept it and do what they could to remain close to movies (349). Moreover, Basham says that Natives were usually portrayed either aggressive or having no voice or only speaking unintelligibly. This was part of the dehumanizing process to create a horde of enemy for the new hero of the movies, the cowboy (Basham 2012, 554).

After realizing obvious misrepresentations of Natives, some directors decided to create pro-Indian movies with the help of real Natives during and after 1950s. According to Dan Georgakas, the filmmakers went from one extreme to the other (Georgakas 1972, 26) in movies like The Man Called Horse (1970, dir. Elliot Silverstein), Soldier Blue (1970, dir. Ralph Nelson) and Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969, dir. Abraham Polonsky) and pointed out the problems with the supposed correct image of Indians (26-32). Another movie, Little Big Man (1970, dir. Arthur Penn) is a perfect example for the iconography of Natives in the film of the sixties and seventies. In this film, Dustin Hoffman plays the lead character, who is a white man raised by Indians (29) and has double identity. The most contemporary revival of the western genre came in the 1990s with films like Dances with Wolves (1990, dir. Kevin Costner) and The Last of the Mohicans (1992, dir. Michael Mann). These films portrayed a less radical image of Natives, but ironically, the lead actors were still non-Natives, like Kevin Costner and Daniel Day Lewis (Basham 2012, 560). However, some years later, Chris Eyre’s Smoke Signals (1998) brought a fresh, new perspective to moviegoers by presenting less conventional Indian stereotypes with two teens from a reservation was the real strength of the movie.

In regard to the representation of Indians in the movies, Barbra A. Meek states that most of the scholars researched the language used to describe Indians rather than the Native ways of talking and she points out the importance of silence in movies with Natives, which is the only correct aspect of their representation (Meek 2006, 94). Meek distinguishes the real Indian speech from the one used in motion picture, which she calls Hollywood “Injun” English. By using this deformed English, Natives are shown to be foreigners on their own land and actors portraying Indians dull their own characters speaking this way (120). Furthermore, Robert Stam and Louise Spence claimed that Natives were ill presented way before Hollywood started showing Plain warriors or wise shamans on the screen. They believe that it all started with literature, specifically in western stories (Spence and Stam 1983, 5), supporting the idea that the western genre was the main reason of the unfaithfully represented Natives, but their main point is that the flaw is not the presence of stereotypes, but rather the absence of reality (7). Additionally, Julia Boyd says that films have the advantage of both visuals and sounds, thus viewers can see and hear the happenings on the screen (Boyd 2015, 105). Cheryl Bluestone agrees with this and points out that watching films on unfamiliar topics helps developing critical thinking (Bluestone 2000, 141). She thus proposes the idea to use feature films in teaching, as certain issues may be recognizable for students, so they can associate themselves better with the characters on the screen. Moreover, David Herlihy argues that watching films is more effective in teaching, especially history teaching, because the combined images and sounds create a better understating of the past and stays with the viewer for a longer time (Herlihy 1988, 1186). Herlihy adds his theory to the ‘visual history’ as he believes that through motion pictures, viewers evolve into eyewitnesses, thus getting a contemporary view on the subject shown to them.

Though Eyre’s film presents contemporary Indian life in a reservation, the question of the defining aspects of Native Americans remains unanswered. Clara Sue Kidwell believes that the reason very few really understand Native thinking is because it existed way before colonization and it only widened the gap between Indians and Europeans (Kidwell 2009, 7). Discussing the topic of Indian identity further, Kathryn W. Shanley talks about the difficulties in economy, society and education the Natives have to endure daily (Shanley 1997, 677). She believes that by giving Indians roles in the contemporary society and declining them to have their own voice, non-Natives achieve a feeling of superiority (677-678). Moreover, Theresa D. O’Nell presents the everyday of a reservation in the 90s.’ In her article, she discusses the life of the Flathead reservation, which is separated by racism (O’Nell 1994, 97). The uniqueness of this reservation is that the non-Natives created an organization called All Citizens Equal (ACE), which is harnessing the rights of the Indians. ACE prevents Indians from getting jobs, encourages schools to distinguish non-Natives from Natives forcefully and they even had some parts of the reservation rearranged to separate Indians. O’Nell also outlines the way of the Indian storytelling, in which there are a lot of pauses, subjects are differentiated by the way of the tone and humor gets a huge role (108-109). Furthermore, Jim Charles argues that there is a duality in Indians, because non-Natives either see them as warriors or shamanistic elders and Indians feel that they have to act according to these roles (Charles 2001, 54). This duality is only enforced by their choices, because they either try to live as whites and they are laughed at as untraditional, or they stay in the reservation to be criticized for not adapting to the modern, white life (54-55). This duality can also be found in Smoke Signals.

Chris Eyre’s Smoke Signals

The award-winning Smoke Signals was based on a short-story from Sherman Alexie’s book titled “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.” The book contains several loosely connected stories, every one of them presenting the image of Natives created by white men (Carroll 2005, 74). Kathleen R. Carroll tells the story of the original, written material titled “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” which is a few pages-long short story written by Sherman.

The main characters, Victor and Thomas Builds-the-Fire, are two young Indians living in the Spokane reservation. Victor’s father dies due to a heart attack and the boy has to bring home the remains of his dad from Phoenix. He does not have the money to go alone, thus Thomas Builds-the-Fire helps him out, but wants to go with Victor. The evolution of their relationship is presented through flashbacks and Thomas’ vision-like stories. Their encounters with non-Natives are sometimes hilarious, but most white people separate themselves clearly from the young Indians. The story presents the stereotypical Native warrior in Victor and the shamanistic elder in Thomas, but shows the life in the reservation quite faithfully at the same time (Alexie 1994). Chris Eyre left most of the story unchanged, but these few pages alone were not sufficient for a feature film, so he filled in the gaps and used other stories from Sherman’s book. The film director used mostly the method of adaptation through intersecting as his way of adapting Alexie’s material. Eyre kept most of Alexie’s characters, their attributes and the setting, but he also inserted his own ideas into the film. This happened almost 20 years ago, however, and despite the movie’s success, it did not have a lasting effect (Boyd 2015, 110). From the sources I used, it also turns out that the problem of Native representation in movies comes up about every 20 years, so it is almost time now for either Eyre or for someone else with the same set of mind to create an another authentic representation of Native Americans.

Though Smoke Signals is not first movie centered around Natives, its uniqueness lies in the way it presents contemporary Indian life. Instead of giving the stoic, warrior Indians and their desperate fight against the whites, the story is about two young Coeur d’Alene boys and the development of their friendship. Screenwriter Sherman Alexie, whose short story the movie was also based on, helped director Chris Eyre and together they successfully included several aspects and issues of contemporary reservation life. The naming practices, the importance of hair for both men and women, alcoholism and its consequences and whether Natives see themselves as an oppressed group are all pressing issues present in the movie. These aspects however do not distract the viewer from the story, which is basically a coming of age story for Victor and Thomas, the two main characters.

Naming Practices

The first few scenes of Smoke Signals are set in the past, in 1976 during the 4th of July. The setting is Idaho, Coeur d’Alene reservation and the relatives of the main characters are presented, Arnold Joseph (Gary Farmer), Arlene Joseph (Tantoo Cardinal) and Grandma Builds-the-Fire (Monique Mojica). During the celebration of ‘white people’s independence’ (Smoke Signals 1998), Matty and John Builds-the-Fire die in a fire accident, thus leaving baby Thomas with his grandma. The Joseph family also have a small son, whose name is Victor, which, according to Grandma Builds-the-Fire, means he will be victorious in life.

Thomas’ Grandmother: Arlene, your son’s name is Victor, enit?
Arlene: Yes, it is.
Thomas’ Grandmother: It’s a good name. It means he’s gonna win, enit? (Smoke Signals)

The conversation above shows how important naming is for Indians and Linda E. Dick Bissonnette’s article supports this idea. In several tribes, the maternal grandmother gave the infant its first name, the paternal grandmother gave a second one and these names were used separately by the two sides of the family (Dick Bissonnette 1999, 8). The way Thomas’ grandmother takes care of the boy after the tragedy can be viewed as a nod to the elders. Bissonnette’s article discusses the naming processes from the ages of colonization, and brings the examples of forced adaptation and servants. It turns out that a lot of times Indians received their last names from the first name of their employers or adopters, but sometimes they were named after the place they stayed at, like ‘Dry Creek Tom’ (10); moreover, during the 1800s, nicknames were more often used to identify Natives, like Patch, Goodeye and so on, so it can be assumed that Thomas Builds-the-Fire’s last name is a sort of nickname (10). Nor the movie, neither the short story discusses the origins of this interesting name, so it remains to speculate whether it was given by white people during the earlier years, or something the tribal members gave the family for their fire building skills. This is not the only reference to fire and burning in the story; Arnold died in Phoenix, which is the name of the bird of fire and rebirth in classical Western mythology. Arnold gets cremated after his death, and Victor gives half of his father’s ashes to Thomas—this symbolizes their friendship in the end of the movie.

Thomas: And Victor Joseph was just a baby too, when his father saved me from that fire. You know, there are some children who aren’t really children at all. They’re just pillars of flame that burn everything they touch. And there are some children, who are just pillars of ash that fall apart if you touch ’em. Me and Victor, we were children born of flame and ash. (Smoke Signals)

Robert Ritzenthaler explains the way Chippewa Indians got their names after marriages with whites or by working for them. He states that this topic is rarely discussed among ethnologists despite the available sources (Ritzenthaler 1945, 175). According to Ritzenthaler, the Chippewa Indians did not follow the European tradition of patrilineal naming, in which the last name of the father was given to the newborn. Natives held Naming Feasts shortly after birth, and someone strongly spiritual from the tribe, usually the elders, gave two, or sometimes three names to the baby (175). An older aspect of this tradition is similar to Dick Bissonnette’s article, in which grandmothers gave name to the newborn. In both cases the two or three names were separate, each representing a guarding spirit for the baby. Nevertheless, some Chippewa Indians during the 1830s got married to French and Scandinavian fur traders, thus names like Cadotte, Corbine, Gauthier and Olson were adapted by Indians (Ritzenthaler 176). These white nations got their fur trades and lumber mills started near the area of the Chippewa tribe, thus they began trading and working together. Male Indians were attracted by lumbering and it is said that they became the finest lumberjacks. The only problem was that they used their Indian names, which was hard to write down for French employers, so Natives got their first Europeanized names. Most Indians got their original name translated into English and gave themselves a first name, thus John Frog, John Kingfisher and Vernon Wolf were created (176).

Smoke Signals only addresses Victor’s first name and gives away its meaning immediately, but never really discusses Thomas’s last name. Builds-the-Fire seems to be funny to a non-Native, but considered to be ordinary for an Indian at the same time. From the way Sherman Alexie writes his stories, it can be speculated that this name was given on purpose to one of the protagonists with the intention of mirroring white beliefs on Indian names. Leaving Thomas’s last name unchanged both Eyre and Alexie only enforced the stereotype of Natives having ‘strange’ names instead of Europeanized ones. This paradoxical situation worked in favor of the movie, as it did not alienate the viewer on any level and was not important for the plot at all.

The Importance of Hair

With the exception of Arnold, Victor’s father, every male Indian has a long hair in the movie, most of them wearing it unbraided. William Norman writes that religion and the length of the hair for Natives are intertwined, and forcing them to cut their hair equals with saying no to their rights written in the First Amendment (Norman 1993, 198). The biggest difference between Christian belief and Native religions is that Indians cannot and do not want to separate their belief in the creator from their everyday life. They believe that everything is connected and that their role is to take care of the world around them, rather than moving it forward forcefully (199). Tribes view themselves as one entity, and they respect their surroundings, include nature in their traditions and culture, and the destruction of these also means the end of their tribe.

Hair is the most sacred part of the body for an Indian and cutting it severs them from the spiritual world. The only occasion when Natives cut their own hair is when they lose someone close, a relative, a lover or a friend. In Smoke Signals, Arnold cuts his hair after Thomas’ parents die, but he does it as a way of penitence, because he knows that he caused the fire by accident. Victor, after accepting the fact that his father wanted to go back to him and his mother, cuts his own hair, forgiving his dad and accepting that he is gone forever.

Peggy Doty’s “Constitutional Law: The Right to Wear a Traditional Indian Hair Style: Recognition of a heritage” talks about several cases in which Natives sued Institutes as they were not let to keep their hair with the most famous case being Teterud v. Gillman. This is the only case up to date, in which the Court let American Indians to leave their hair uncut because of religious beliefs. The Court found that the length of the hair is indeed important for the Plains Indians, and it could play a religious and cultural role in their lives, thus cutting it violates the First Amendment (Doty 1976, 111). In connection with this case, the name Teterud also appears in Teterud v. Burns, in which the same inmate filed suit against the Iowa State Penitentiary (Norman 202). The Court defended Teterud’s statement, as he told everyone how the Great Spirit created the Creek tribe and gave them the long hair, which is similar to the Spirit’s appearance. Several officers argued that letting an inmates grow their hair may cause accidents in activities with machinery, knives and other sharp equipment may be smuggled in the hair and that a shaved head is more hygienic. The Court dismissed these arguments and gave Teterud the right to wear his hair as long as he wants it, but wear hairnet during activities and this became the first case when a Native American was let to grow his or her hair as long as religion required it (Norman 203).

In Smoke Signals, Arnold cuts his hair willingly; he is not forced to end his connection with the Great Spirit, but we can assume it happens despite. His son, Victor is proud of his long, black hair and he constantly bugs Thomas as he wears his hair braided.

Victor: I mean, look at your hair. It’s all braided up and stuff. You gotta free it. An Indian man ain’t nothing without his hair. (Smoke Signals)

Besides, during the bus ride to Phoenix, they discuss the meaning of the length of his hair for a male Indian. In the end though, Victor cuts his mane, as he finds out that his father caused the Builds-the-Fire family’s death, but this is also his acceptance of the great loss. He may be shamed, but at the same time, freed of his anger against his father.

(Fighting) Alcoholism

Cutting his hair was not the only way Arnold wanted to escape his guilt, as meanwhile he also started drinking heavily. This issue among Indians is not new; since the 1950s drunkard Natives are prevalently presented in movies. Sadly, this is not just a white stereotype to demean Indians. Gerald Vizenor writes about the fact that even Natives accept their own problems with alcoholism and thus with unemployment (Vizenor 1983, 27). Nevertheless, some anthropologists coined the alcohol addicted Indian case as ‘firewater myth,’ a myth Vizenor claims is still actual nowadays (27). Nevertheless, not all tribes got into heavy drinking, but the Eastern part of North America was crowded with fur traders and land buyers, who did not want to trade with sober Indians, so they thought better to give them a few rounds of liquor before making a deal (28).

Joseph Westermeyer, author of “’The Drunken Indian:’ Myths and Realities” discusses three different stereotypes, which are still in the head of Europeans and Americans about Natives and alcohol. The first one is that they cannot hold their drinks: they drink it immediately and without hesitation (Westermeyer in Vizenor 28). The second stereotype is that alcoholism is very often found among Indians. This statement is wrong on several levels, including the way Indians are looked at. There are several tribes, with different drinking habits and with different amount of drinks. As mentioned before, mainly the Eastern tribes got introduced to alcohol from Europe, so this part of North America raises the average rate. There are also subgroups and factors in each tribe, like elders, adults and youngsters, employed and unemployed, men and women, and among each group there are significant differences between individuals. Thus saying that alcoholism rate is high among Natives is not a specific statement (Westermeyer in Vizenor 29). The third, and last stereotype is that alcoholism is the worst problem for Indians. Even in groups, where alcohol consumption is high, it is unclear whether the problems are due to this, or other issues present in the reservation. As Westermeyer states, when alcoholism is seen as the major problem, other serious factors are overlooked and even if all Indians put down the bottle, many social and economic issues remain (29). There are several other scholars in Vizenor’s article, who believe that drinking in Native culture differs from the way non-Natives look at it in American culture. Laura Wittstock and Michael Miller claim that Indians do not accept the way alcoholism is treated by the white society and that drinking is intertwined with their everyday life (Miller and Wittstock in Vizenor 32), believing that alcoholism is only a symptom of a more serious illness, which comes from bad social and economic situation, thus curing only drinking does not help the addicted in a long run (34).

The root of alcohol consumption is in its surrounding, various problems. Arnold’s situation is a good example for this from Smoke Signals, as he is constantly drinking to make himself forget the night he caused two people’s death and made their son an orphan. Arlene, Victor’s mom, is also a heavy drinker until she sees how it effects their son and so she quits drinking forever. No one else in the tribe is drinking alcohol; Victor even states in the end that he never had a drop of beer in his entire life. Smoke Signals tries to give a couple of reasons for Arnold’s addiction, one being Arlene. Her case is not addressed in the movie and we only know that she changes her behavior after seeing Victor’s reaction to the situation. Victor decides not to consume alcohol due to his father’s behavior but Thomas, who would have every reason to take a few shots now and then, still chooses not to. In this context, even with the explanation of Arnold’s behavior, the movie can hardly change or challenge the way non-Natives think of Indians drinking, but this could be due more than cultural differences.

Oral Traditions

Thomas Builds-the-Fire, serves as a narrator in the movie and is a character endowed with supernatural abilities. He is the exact opposite of the warrior-like Victor. Alexie and Eyre use Thomas’s last name to stress his connection with Native spirituality. Thomas was raised by his grandmother, who is a very important member of his Indian tribe. He uses speech and oral traditions to teach Victor, but to also entertain him and, on one occasion, he gets Victor a ride by telling a story about Arnold during the 1960s.

Oral traditions and storytelling is one of the cornerstones of Native heritage, but their definition of it differs from the mainstream approaches one has to orality in Western culture. Angela Cavender Wilson talks about this discussing the modes in which oral history differs in European and Indian/Native society. For Natives, stories can include both human and supernatural elements, but new elements or materials cannot be further added because that would break the tradition. The way the story is told, for example among the Dakotas, is more important, than the length of time the story remembers (Cavender Wilson 1996, 8). According to Charles Eastman, a Wahpetonwan Dakota, tellers and listeners are both part of the tradition, because listeners will be tellers with time. This shows how important it is for all Natives to improve their memory and hearing, because this is their tribal heritage (qtd. in Cavender Wilson 8-9).

The oral history of Natives has connection with American literature(s) as well, as more and more Indian writers try to integrate their stories into their writings. One of the most notable ones in the long list of Native American authors including William Apess, Vine Deloria Jr, Joy Harjo, Zitkala Sa (Gertrude Bonnin), Louise Erdrich, Sherman Alexie, Gerald Vizenor, Paula Gunn Allen, Simon J. Ortiz, N. Scott Momaday, Wendy Rose, and many more is Leslie Marmon Silko, who challenges Euro-American literature by combining different genres in her stories (Carsten 2006, 107) and by experimenting with the chronological order of her writings, an idea originating from her Laguna Pueblo heritage. For example, in her autobiographical writing, Storyteller, Silko talks about the techniques used to challenge the European style of writing, including references to other works, photographs and traditional Native stories (108) and about the binary opposition present in her writing, as she applies the Laguna tribe’s oral tradition combined with the rules and frames of writing and storytelling of the Euro-American world (111).

This kind of inner conflict is also present for the character of Victor in Smoke Signals, especially when he promises his mother he will return home after gathering the remains of his father. Victor asks his mother whether he has to sign a paper to make the promise official but Arlene looks at him with a grimace telling him how Indians feel about signing papers or any kind of written document. In their culture, even contemporary, orality comes first. She says: “No way. You know how Indians feel about signing papers” (Smoke Signals). This sentence uttered in a contemporary setting brings cleverly forward the effects and the pain of colonization showing the way Indians feel about losing their lands by trading with Europeans.

Thomas also seems to benefit from the way Coeur d’Alene members interact with stories. During the exposition of the movie, he tells the viewers about Arnold’s despair and about the background of his alcoholism. In the last scene of the movie, Thomas’s is not seen but his voice is heard and he is talking about forgiveness while Victor throws the ashes of his father into the nearby waterfall. Throughout the movie, Thomas acts as the shamanistic Indian, a stereotype Hollywood used and abused so many times. He often seems out of place, starts conversations with random people and even Victor tells him that he does not understand half of what Thomas says. If Victor symbolizes the contemporary warrior figure in Eyre’s film, then Thomas is the wise, spiritual Indian that guides the tribesmen’s lives as an everyday man. It may be intentional or accidental, but with this lifelike approach, Eyre does not alienate non-Native viewers, as these representations bear many traces of former stereotypes Hollywood also built on when telling visual stories involving American Indians.

Native Humor

Due to the racist stereotypes Hollywood created about Natives, it is really hard to believe that humor and laughter are essential parts of an Indian’s life. In Smoke Signals, Thomas represents the funny image, as he constantly tries to give Victor a good laughter. One of his best humorous sentences in this regard is related to oral traditions connecting the joy of life with the sadness of things in the following: “I heard it on the wind. I heard it from the birds. I felt it in the sunlight. And your mom was just in here cryin’” (Smoke Signals). In most of his sentences, it seems like Thomas makes fun also of his own spirituality, but this self-reflexive attitude is just his response to the image his environment sees in him.

Sherman Alexie is a master in the presentation of the Native humor in his works and Smoke Signals is no exception. The movie uses humor through the Native characters to show injustice, to heal wounds or in order to strengthen relationships (Coulomb 2002, 94). In his best work, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, on which Smoke Signals was partly based on, Alexie creates special scenes and situations in order to make his readers sympathetic toward Native life. In the second story of the book, “A Drug Called Tradition,” Thomas gets a larger amount of money from a non-Native electrical company, but Victor cannot decide whether this was a good idea or not. He says that with these kinds of paradoxical deals, the ancestors’ laughter can be heard in the trees, but, he is not sure whether the spirits laugh at the whites or at the Indians. Victor, and the viewers can hardly figure out who is targeted by the satire when Thomas talks.

Nevertheless, in the end Victor accepts that this is the way life works (at least in his tribe), and his acceptance brings him closer to his ancestors (Coulomb 2002, 96-97), with Thomas Builds-the-Fire acting as Victor’s own consciousness. However, Alexie’s humor is a two-edged sword. In Smoke Signals, when Velma and Lucy pick up Victor and Thomas, the girls are driving a car which can go in reverse only. This creates a funny situation as it is clearly not the best way of transportation, but not having any other choice, the boys get in the reverse-motion car, a metaphorical scene of their own life which seems to go backwards in the context of contemporary life but which can be perceived rather as a return to the origins and traditions. In this way, humor acts as a metaphor for the Natives both in their storytelling and in their acts, helping them cope with the mundane issues as well as with the ways of their re-learning of the old ways their ancestors had. It is through humor that Victor and Thomas figure out what is their place in the universe, as they share both the benefits and the burdens of the two worlds, past and present, Native and non-Native. This how they communicate this attitude:

Victor: Indians ain’t supposed to smile like that. Get stoic. You gotta look mean, or people won’t respect you. White people will run all over you, if you don’t look mean. You gotta look like a warrior. (Smoke Signals)

In Smoke Signals, the young boys of the tribe were raised on these movies and so Victor even asks Thomas how many times he saw Dances with Wolves. They both have a hard time figuring out what kind of image to present to the outer world, to the people outside the reservation. But when they are among themselves, they see and know each other’s misery without judging, because they are in the same situation. Outside the tribe, however, the young boys have no idea how to act. On the one hand, Victor presents the stoic warrior to scare people away, but he is not like that under the mask he wears: he is rather scared, broken and this is the only way for him to hide his weakness. Thomas, on the other hand is naïve and starts speaking with strangers to widen his view of the outside world. He knows that a great storyteller must also participates in stories and in order to learn how to do it, he also watches Hollywood western movies, but only because these are the only movies that have Native imagery. There are no authentic ones to present reality, thus he has to rely also on his grandmother’s teachings with Grandma Builds-the-Fire being a crafted storyteller and a spiritual helper in one. Despite their differences, Victor and Thomas become great friends due to circumstances and they both accept their places in the modern world, inside and outside their reservation. Due to various reasons, they cannot follow exactly the path they were put on by their families, but they will find their own identity by searching for values they find useful in the modern world.

All in all, Smoke Signals, despite the fact that it had a Native crew in the intradiegetic world and Native creators in the extradiegetic realm was not enough to change the way non-Natives look at American Indians. There is more to do in this direction but this includes also us, viewers, too. Nevertheless, it signaled the beginning of a new process of representation in the American film industry, including Hollywood.


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