Saving Thomas from a housefire.

Arnold's valley after he deserts his family.

Bus in desert Arizona landscape.

Reaching Victor's father's home in Mars, Arizona.

Gymnast on bus.

Victor and Thomas sing "John Wayne's teeth."

Red earth of Arizona viewed outside the bus.

Thomas watches river as a child.

Thomas and Arnold watch the river before going to Denny's.

Thomas and his grandmother rejoice when Victor agrees to take Thomas on his journey.

Thomas and Victor as boys.

Thomas as a stoic Indian.

Thomas offers to finance Victor's trip.

Victor and mother watch Arnold leave them and the reservation hell

Defining narratives of environmental adaptation

Although Native Americans seem to be constructed as either savages or “innocents” in most western films, with less maturity than Euro-Americans, their view of landscape and land use is usually valorized, especially from the mid-1950s forward. In these films, Native Americans represent a more environmentally conscious perspective than that of Euro-Americans and signify the possibility for a simpler and less cynical view of life. In Dances with Wolves, for example, Ten Bears, the chief of the Sioux tribe befriended by a U.S. soldier, John Dunbar (Kevin Costner), explains his tribe’s differing view of landownership when he shows Dunbar an old Spanish conquistador’s helmet:

“The white men who wore this came around the time of my grandfather’s grandfather. Eventually we drove them out. Then the Mexicans came. But they do not come here any more. In my own time, the Texans. They have been like all the others. They take without asking. But I think you are right. I think they will keep coming. When I think of that, I look at this helmet. I don’t know if we are ready for these people. Our country is all that we have, and we will fight to keep it.”

Dunbar’s voice, however, drives the film’s narrative. Through the lens of his journal, Dunbar tells us that the Sioux

“were a people so eager to laugh, so devoted to family, so dedicated to each other. The only word that comes to mind is harmony.”

For Dunbar, the Sioux he encounters represent a worldview that embraces nature and lives within it communally, without the individual greed that drives whites to “take without asking.”

The Native American constructed in films like Dances with Wolves fulfills Shepard Kreck III’s criteria for what he calls “the ecological Indian.” According to Kreck, the trope and “dominant image” of the ecological Indian found in literature and film is

“the Indian in nature who understands the systematic consequences of his actions, feels deep sympathy with all living forms, and takes steps to conserve so that earth’s harmonies are never imbalanced and resources never in doubt” (21).

The ecological Indian valorizes nature at the expense of progress, and this Noble Savage shatters when confronted with a modern world and its technologies. The ecological Indian cannot assimilate into Western culture and vanishes or faces extermination. The westward movement of Native American tribes is highlighted in many western films and reinforces this image. These cinematic marches of entire tribes are usually viewed from a distance, with the destination hidden over the horizon, as in films like She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) and White Feather (1955), a disappearing thread demonstrating that an “ecological Indian” must either vanish or face annihilation.   

Victor and Thomas's bus becomes a stagecoach going east. Changing landscape viewed from the bus.
Cowboys steal Thomas and Victor's seats. Eastward setting changes.

In Smoke Signals, on the other hand, the ecological Indian faces neither banishment nor annihilation since he adapts the hell of both the reservation and the wider Euro-centric world into a home. Alexie calls Smoke Signals “a very basic story, a road trip/buddy movie about a lost father.” According to Alexie, the film combines two mythic structures, one focused on the self, and the other focused on both a buddy and a lost father.

“You can find them in everything from the Bible to The Iliad and The Odyssey. What is revolutionary or groundbreaking about the film is that the characters in it are Indians, and they’re fully realized human beings” (Alexie).

Such an archetypal reading suggests Smoke Signals may also combine the same three perspectives on the American myth Robert Baird suggests underpin the making of Dances with Wolves:

  • “Claude Levi-Strauss’s notion that myths and narratives reconcile cultural contradictions and bring opposing forces and values [like nature and industry, hunting and agrarianism, innocence and decadence] together” (154-155),
  • R. W. B. Lewis’ claim in The American Adam that “the American continent triggered images of the Garden among European immigrants,” one in which the Native American “provided a ready-made adamic figure” (155),
  • and Freud’s family romance theory “where he attempted to account for certain fantasies of young children who denied their literal parentage in favor of more noble imaginary mothers and fathers” (156).

Amanda J. Cobb, on the other hand, draws on Alexie’s notion of Indians as fully realized human beings when she asserts that Smoke Signals is “a significant act of self-definition, an exercise of ‘cultural sovereignty’”(207). Most of the scholarship addressing Smoke Signals examines the film in relation to Native American identity and representation. See for example,

  • Gordon E. Slethaug’s “Hurricanes and Fires: Chaotics in Sherman Alexie’s Smoke Signals and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,”
  • Joanna Hearne’s “John Wayne’s Teeth: Speech, Sound and Representation in Smoke Signals and Imagining Indians,” and
  • John Mihelich’s “Smoke or Signals? American Popular Culture and the Challenge of Hegemonic Images of American Indians in Native American Films.” 

For us, however, the narrative in Smoke Signals, goes beyond modifying the Odyssey story and examining Native American identity, representation, and sovereignty. It adds both a collaborative component and a search outside the self, in this case for a father’s ashes as the key to his truth. More important, the narrative centers on transforming the protagonists’ starting and ending point into a home. In Smoke Signals characters do gain self-awareness, as they do in The Odyssey, but the awareness extends to both others and their own seemingly barren and hopeless setting, the Coeur d’Alene Reservation. By translating four of a series of disjointed and primarily bitter stories from The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven into a filmic collaborative journey with what he calls “integrity,” Sherman Alexie has constructed a narrative of environmental adaptation with a clear and cohesive structure that follows an evolutionary pattern focused on place.

By following this evolutionary pattern, Smoke Signals adheres to a narrative that is embedded in the comic and communal, rather than tragic and individualized, notions of species preservation found in the tragic evolutionary narrative of The Odyssey and of “early Darwinism” (Meeker “The Comic Mode” 164) that supports extermination and warfare rather than accommodation.

According to Joseph Meeker, humans typically embrace a tragic evolutionary narrative as in The Odyssey that counters the climax communities of plants and animals, which are “extremely diverse and complicated” (162). But this position comes at a price and may cost humanity its existence. Meeker asserts,

“We demand that one species, our own, achieve unchallenged dominance where hundreds of species lived in complex equilibrium before our arrival” (164).

This attitude may not only lead to the destruction of other species but of humanity itself. Meeker believes humanity has “a growing need to learn from the more stable comic heroes of nature, the animals” (164).

The evolutionary narrative of Smoke Signals explores what might happen if humanity did learn from these more stable comic heroes, since, according to Meeker,

“Evolution itself is a gigantic comic drama, not the bloody tragic spectacle imagined by the sentimental humanists of early Darwinism” (164).

Meeker asserts:

“Nature is not 'red in tooth and claw' as the nineteenth-century English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson characterized it, for evolution does not proceed through battles fought among animals to see who is fit enough to survive and who is not. Rather, the evolutionary process is one of adaptation and accommodation, with the various species exploring opportunistically their environments in search of a means to maintain their existence. Like comedy, evolution is a matter of muddling through.” (164)         

For Meeker, successful evolution encourages communal action to ensure survival:

“Its ground rules for participants (including man) are those which also govern literary comedy: organisms must adapt themselves to their circumstances in every possible way, must studiously avoid all-or-nothing choices, must prefer any alternative to death, must accept and encourage maximum diversity, must accommodate themselves to the accidental limitations of birth and environment, and must always prefer love to war—though if warfare is inevitable, it should be prosecuted so as to humble the enemy without destroying him.” (166)            

Smoke Signals and environmental adapatation

Characters in Smoke Signals embrace a focus on “adapting themselves to their circumstances in every possible way” while the film adds the element of ecology. The director emphasizes this relation between human and nonhuman nature by successfully fulfilling Alexie’s goal to “let the landscape tell a lot of story” not only outside the bus window and along the paths Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) and Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams) follow toward Mars, Arizona, where Victor’s father’s ashes remain, but also within Victor and Thomas themselves. As Thomas explains:

“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 children who are just pillars of ash, that fall apart when you touch them….Victor and me, we were children of flame and ash.”

To build this narrative, the film follows a three-act narrative grounded in ecology:

  1. Establishing the reservation as an inhospitable setting for human and nonhuman nature.
  2. Leaving the reservation on a journey of landscapes.
  3. Returning to the reservation able to transform hell into a home.

The reservation as hell on earth

The reservation’s ecology seems less than life sustaining during the film’s first act. Smoke Signals opens in 1976 with an announcement from the reservation radio station, KREZ. It is White People’s Independence Day, Randy Peone, the DJ (John Trudell), explains, before switching to Lester Fallsapart (Chief Leonard George) on the broken down KREZ van at the crossroads. “Big truck just went by… now it’s gone,” Fallsapart states, reinforcing the empty world of the reservation. The broadcast bridges to a house party that joins the bleak physical environment with reservation social life, while it begins the film’s narrative: the party celebrates the Fourth of July and the bitter emptiness it leaves for Native Americans less than independent on the Rez.

Social images of reservation life highlight some of the real economic, environmental, and social problems still prevalent for Native Americans. In one scene, for example, we see a drunk Arnold Joseph (Gary Farmer), Victor’s father, who stumbles out of his house, throwing firecrackers to prolong the celebration. Beer cans and fireworks cover the lawn. The party is over, but Arnold fires a roman candle into the house, and the curtains and living room furniture burst into flames. Thomas’ voice tells us that the “fire swallowed up my mother and father,” but Arnold catches an infant thrown from an upper story window, saving it from the raging fire. It is Thomas, and Arnold places him in the arms of his grandmother (Monique Mojica). When the grandmother thanks him, he says he “didn’t mean to,” a sign of the guilt he will carry that the father validates when he cuts his hair and, as Thomas states, “practiced vanishing.” Thomas and Victor have almost literally been “born of flame and ash” on a reservation where the only hope seems to be survival. 

Twenty-two years later, the same radio DJ broadcasts, “It’s a good day to be indigenous,” but life on the reservation is still bleak and barren of hope, and the flat brown landscape reflects that desolation. The DJ reports on the few passing cars and the story surrounding each driver, but the road is empty. The Coeur d’Alene Reservation isolates Native Americans, the scene suggests, leaving them on a desert-like island with few prospects for economic gain or environmental fecundity.

A scene in a school gym where three young men play basketball reinforces this image. Thomas, wearing a suit, tells stories from the gym stage. “When Indians go away, they don’t come back,” Thomas says, with novels like The Last of the Mohicans to back up his claim. The story acts as a bridge to a phone call received by Victor’s mother, Arlene (Tantoo Cardinal). Arnold Joseph has passed away in Mars, Arizona, and Victor must find a way to bring him back home. But narrratively the forthcoming trip also highlights the inevitable path of the Native American, according to their history. Native Americans have been removed to reservations or annihilated, so their representation vanishes from the face of the American myth.

Victor denies his Indian family because they have made his home unbearable. Victor smashes beer bottles to protest the horror that is his home.
Victor's mother's fry bread demonstrates the need for community. Victor tries to stop his father's departure from a bad situation at home.

Efforts to facilitate Victor’s journey are thwarted because of the hopeless state of both Victor and the reservation. In the reservation grocery store, Thomas, who has “heard it on the wind” and seen Victor’s mother crying, offers to pay for Victor’s trip as long as Victor takes him along. But Victor thinks about his father driving him around on the reservation for the last time, showing off his magic while drinking beer out of a cooler next to him. The buildings father and son pass are dilapidated, and they sit on hard-packed dirt accentuating the lifeless state of the reservation. Arnold tells Victor, “[I] wave my hand and white people are gone.” Everything he waves at, he says, will disappear, “the reservations…, the drunks …, the Catholics …, the drunk Catholics …. I’m so good, I’ll make myself disappear,” and he does. Arnold has so internalized the hell of the reservation and the message it represents that he literally vanishes. Victor, too, has internalized the desolation around him and its manifestation in Arnold, empty despair.

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