copyright 2010, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 52, summer 2010

Passage as journey in Sherman Alexie’s Smoke Signals: a narrative of environmental adaptation

by Robin Murray and Joe Heumann

In a scene near the middle of Smoke Signals (1998), Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) exclaims, “There ain’t any salmon in that river no more!” when his traveling companion Thomas Builds-a-Fire (Evan Adams) begins telling him about his dream of a fertile Spokane River thriving with fish. Victor’s exclamation not only stops Thomas’ storytelling, however, it also opens up space for Victor’s own dream-telling, a nightmare about his own boyhood attempts to wake up his drunk parents who are passed out after a party. In retaliation, Victor smashes empty beer bottles against his father’s truck, seemingly merely expressing his anger, but the action also empowers him, offering a solution to at least one of the causes of the disaster he sees around him on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation. In his dream, then, Victor is finding a way to turn the hell of his reservation household into a home. Even as a child, he attempts to adapt his environment to make it more habitable, just as Thomas adapts a lifeless river into a thriving ecosystem through his dreams.

Western films in which Native American characters are highlighted rest on what we call narratives of environmental adaptation. Although westerns with Native Americans at the center or on their edges do construct Native Americans as either savage or noble “others,” the films also (and most importantly for us) demonstrate how effectively Native Americans have adapted, and adapted to, what white settlers see as an environmental “hell” or something worse. As the Fort Lowell commander, Major Cartwright (Douglass Watson), puts it in Ulzana’s Raid (1972),

“You know what General Sheridan said of this country, lieutenant? ... If he owned hell and Arizona, he’d live in hell and rent out Arizona.”

In a move toward a more sustainable view of prairie and desert ecosystems, Native Americans in a variety of western films adapt a seemingly lifeless environment into a place they can call home. This narrative of environmental adaptation continues even into contemporary western films set on and near reservation lands and gains particular force in Sherman Alexie’s Smoke Signals (1998). 

Relocating Native Americans on and off screen: when barren land becomes home

Much has been written about Native Americans’ removal to reservation lands. After more than a century of skirmishes with tribes from New England to Florida, Andrew Jackson encouraged Congress to pass the 1830 Indian Removal Act, claiming it would separate Native Americans from the onslaught of settlers moving ever westward and help them evolve into what he saw as a civilized community. In 1832, Jackson insisted that Native Americans be removed from prime farming land in the Southeast and moved to Indian Territory in what is now Oklahoma on what has become known as the Trail of Tears. Of the 15,000 Cherokees who began the journey, 4000 died, and many more of the 70,000 moved to Indian Territory also died along the way. The move opened up the reservation system, however, and after battles with whites in the 1860s and 70s, Plains Indian tribes were also forcibly moved to reservations, this time in Oklahoma, Arizona, Utah, and other less productive and arable lands in the West.

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 since their allotment of cattle was small and sometimes stolen by corrupt government officials. According to Gary D. Sandefur,

“The lands reserved for Indian use were generally regarded as the least desirable by whites and were almost always located for from major population centers, trails, and transportation routes that later became part of the modern system of metropolitan areas, highways and railroads” (37).

Native Americans on reservations were isolated “in places with few natural resources, far from contact with the developing U.S. economy and society” (37). Breaking up reservation land into allotments after the 1887 Dawes Act only had a negative effect since the land provided was unfit for farming or ranching, and the remaining land was purchased at low prices or stolen for white settlers to homestead.

Reservation life for the Coeur d’Alene, Sherman Alexie’s tribe, has an equally brutal history, but, as Alexie asserts, “No one winds up on the Spokane Indian Reservation by accident” (quoted in Cornwall). The Coeur d’Alene tribe of the Upper and Middle Spokanes were late to the reservation system, entering an agreement with the United States in 1887 after the Dawes Act was signed. This tribe entered into a treaty more than six years after the Lower Spokanes had moved onto the Spokane Indian Reservation, resisting the move to reservation land in Lower Spokane County primarily because it was less desirable for hunting and fishing than the middle and upper Spokane. To maintain their claim on aboriginal lands, they moved onto the Coeur d’Alene Reservation in Idaho and other reservations, including the Spokane, receiving monetary compensation for houses, cattle, seeds, and farm implements. 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. According to the Official Site of the Coeur d’ Alene Tribe,

“Over a 100 year period, the mining industry in Idaho’s Silver Valley dumped 72 million tons of mine waste into the Coeur d’Alene watershed. As mining and smelting operations grew, they produced billions of dollars in silver, lead, and zinc. In the process, natural life in the Coeur d’Alene River was wiped out.”

The Spokane Reservation suffered even worse repercussions from mining waste. In 1954, at the height of the Cold War, Jim and John LeBret, both tribal members, found uranium on the side of Spokane Reservation, and the Newmont Mining Company bought the rights to the Sherwood, Dawn, and Midnight Mines, all on reservation lands. The Midnight Mine remained active for twenty-seven years and became “an economic and social mainstay of the reservation,” but it also had devastating environmental consequences (Cornwall). According to Cornwall, Sherman Alexie “felt threatened by the uranium mines near his home on the Spokane Indian Reservation” after his grandmother died from esophageal cancer in 1980 and asserted, “I have very little doubt that I’m going to get cancer” (quoted in Cornwall). 

Although the Midnight Mine closed in 1981, its devastating legacy continues. When the mine closed, it abandoned 2.4 million tons of stockpiled ore containing 2 million pounds of uranium oxide and 33 tons of waste rock. The company never conducted reclamation work, leaving two giant pits like “festering wounds” and a small lake of toxic radiating brew that has since

“leached into groundwater, and into the sand and water of several small streams feeding Blue Creek, which runs through the reservation, and eventually into the Spokane River” (Cornwall).

Years of work near and around the uranium mines has also devastated the health of tribal peoples, perhaps leaving them “three times more likely to get lung cancer and more than twice as likely to get other serious lung diseases” (Cornwall). The Federal Government is compensating those workers in and around the mines who contract lung diseases, but no money has come to the Spokane Reservation. Clean-up has been slow, especially with the recent turn toward expanding nuclear power, creating a revived interest in mining uranium.

Economic and environmental disasters continue on reservations, perhaps like countries in the developing world where infant mortality, alcoholism, and poverty rates are shockingly high. Approximately one third of Native Americans live on reservations, and twenty-five percent live below the poverty line. Yet, as Sandefur asserts, numbers living on reservations have increased from twenty-five to thirty-four percent from 1980 to 2000 because the reservation also provides a cultural base where tribal language and culture can be maintained, a strong sense of family and community, and a sovereign system run by a tribal council and the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The goal for Native Americans living there is to adapt the “hell” of their reservations into a home. 

An earlier film, Chato’s Land (1972), helps illustrate the parameters and repercussions of such environmental adaptation. The film highlights the Apache worldview from a white perspective but provides insight into how Pardon Chato (Charles Bronson), a half Apache mestizo, survives in what seems like uninhabitable land. According to Captain Quincey Whitmore (Jack Palance), when Chato runs from the captain because he killed a U.S. marshal in self-defense, he “picks his ground” carefully. Unlike white soldiers, Chato has adapted to this inhospitable land and can use it to his advantage in a fight.
The captain explains the wisdom of Chato’s choice to run through Indian Territory: 

“To you this is so much bad land—rock, scrub, desert and then more rock, a hard land that the sun has sucked all the good out of. You can’t farm it, and you can’t carve it out and call it your own… so you damn it to hell and it all looks the same. That is our way. To the breed now, it’s his land. He don’t expect it to give him much, and he don’t force it none. And to him it’s almost human—a livin’ active thing. And it will make him a good place to make his fight against us.”

Other western films address the Native American perspective on adapting to their land in less obvious ways. The Scalphunters (1968), for example, complicates received beliefs regarding both Native Americans and Comancheros when a group of Native Americans exchange Trapper Joe’s (Burt Lancaster) animal hides for an escaped slave named Joseph (Ossie Davis). When the Native Americans are raided by Comancheros led by Jim Howie (Telly Savalas), racial binaries begin to disintegrate, making room for accommodation and a collective view of human and nonhuman nature. And The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) examines Native American worldviews both peripherally and from a first-person point of view—through the eyes of Lone Watie (Chief Dan George) who becomes part of a family of castoffs, including Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood). The majority of westerns, however, construct Native Americans as an “other” who must be destroyed or vanquished for civilization to prosper, but even films like The Searchers (1956) provide a more complex look at Native Americans when scrutinized through a narrative of environmental adaptation.

These narratives of environmental adaptation become most convincing, however, in the 1990s and 2000s when Native Americans begin telling their own stories both as filmmakers and actors. Written by a Spokane/Coeur d’Alene Indian, Sherman Alexie, and directed by a Cheyenne-Arapaho, Chris Eyre, Smoke Signals illustrates how Native Americans still transform hell into a home, in a narrative of environmental adaptation centering on two fatherless young men exploring their heritage outside the reservation.

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.   

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:

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,

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.

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.

A journey of landscapes

The opening act closes when Victor and Thomas consult with their mother figures and move closer to their journey. Although Victor bears his pain in isolation, Thomas helps his grandmother make fry bread, gaining confidence that Victor will agree to travel with him to Arizona. The scene also illustrates the communal strength on which environmental adaptation can be built. Victor associates fry bread with relationship building when he hugs his mom and compliments her on her bread, the best on the reservation. Arlene’s story about fry bread helps Victor make his decision about taking Thomas: “I don’t make it by myself,” Arlene tells him. “I got the recipe from my grandmother and she got it from her grandmother, and I listened to people,” she says, showing him how building a new and better life—or fry bread—requires a collective process. As if responding to this communal vision, Victor goes to Thomas’s house to invite him on his journey, and the setting and tone begin to change.

For example, when Victor and Thomas walk toward the bus that will take them from Spokane to Phoenix, Arizona, a comic tone overcomes the isolation in act one. They meet Velma (Michelle St. John) and Lucy (Elaine Miles) driving in reverse because their car’s transmission is broken. According to the Cineaste interview with Alexie, the two women and their car provide a

“sense of time in the movie, when the past, present, and future are all the same, that circular sense of time which plays itself out in the seamless transitions from past to present.”

For Alexie this is a visual metaphor for the adage: “Sometimes to go forward you have to drive in reverse.” The Velma and Lucy storyline pays homage to Thelma and Louise but without the hopeless suicide pact that ends the white women’s filmic lives. Instead of driving off a cliff, the two young women flirt with Thomas and Victor, giving them a ride only after Thomas tells them a story that reveals something about Arnold and his work for the American Indian Movement (AIM):

“Arnold got arrested, you know. But he got lucky. They charged him with attempted murder. Then they plea-bargained that down to assault with a deadly weapon. Then they plea-bargained that down to being an Indian in the twentieth century. Then he got two years in Walla-Walla.”

The story also provides a comic turn in the film, especially when Velma laughs, “I think it’s a fine example of the oral tradition.”

The young men’s journey off the reservation begins when Victor and Thomas enter a bus, a modern stagecoach going east to Arizona instead of west. Lucy and Velma tell them they are going “to a whole ‘nother country,” since to the young women the United States is “as foreign as it gets.” Dramatic changes in the film’s ecology reinforce these words, as the bus carries the Victor and Thomas across flat brown steppe-like landscapes to the red rock of the Southwest.

The beginning of the bus trip prompts two more stories about Victor’s father, one in flashback from Victor’s perspective, the other directly from Thomas. These stories demonstrate that Victor and Thomas and their environment are moving from a lifeless and hopeless state toward the hope of life. Victor’s flashback seems like a dream that is broken by Thomas’ story.

Victor’s story centers on another houseparty, this time before the celebrants have passed out for the night. Arnold and Arlene, now both drunk, ask young Victor (Cody Lightning) about his favorite Indian, and he yells “nobody” repeatedly and runs away. Before the story ends, Thomas tells Victor another story about his father that reveals a more hopeful take both on Arnold and his environment. In this story, Thomas sits on a bridge in Spokane watching salmon run. Arnold sees him and invites him to breakfast at Denny’s. As Thomas says,

“Sometimes it’s a good day to die. Sometimes it’s a good day to eat breakfast.”

The Spokane River is clear and running wildly with fish in this story, but Victor exclaims, “There ain’t any salmon in that river no more!” before flashing back to his own dream. The party is over now in the dream, and Victor sees his parents passed out fully clothed on their bed. He runs from the room, and we hear banging noises. Victor is throwing beer bottles at Arnold’s truck, breaking them one by one. The hopeless drugged state of the reservation is critiqued here, but in the context both of one solution—getting rid of the alcohol—and a more natural alternative—a return to the life-filled river.

The return to the river is metaphorical, but it also signifies a return to life, following a narrative of environmental adaptation that facilitates transforming a lifeless environment into a home. This metaphor is reinforced when Victor insists that Thomas take off his suit—complete with vest—and take down his hair to become a “real Indian.” He tells Thomas, “You’ve got to look like you just came back from killing a buffalo,” but Thomas knows better and explains, “But we were fishermen.” When Thomas stops at a gas station and changes his clothes, he returns, seemingly transformed but wearing a shirt that reads “frybread power.” Now they both can be “stoic,” as Victor asserts, and survive in a white world.

They also adapt to the world of white Western popular culture when two cowboys steal their bus seat and refuse to move, telling them to “find somewhere else to have a powwow.” Thomas notes their failure, but together they turn the potential conflict into a success. Thomas begins by saying the cowboys always win, and lists a few, from Tom Mix to John Wayne. Victor laughs, remembering, “In all those movies, you never saw John Wayne’s teeth,” and the two build a chant around John Wayne’s teeth. Here the landscape tells their story through the windows of the bus where red rocky hills line the road toward Phoenix, emphasizing the hardships that must be faced on their journey.

The walk from Phoenix to Mars, Arizona, provides one of these challenges. They walk through desert grasslands that for Thomas signify Native Americans’ continuous movement west: “Columbus shows up, and we keep walking,” he says, and then repeats the mantra for historical white figures from Custer to Harry Truman. Yet Thomas slips in humor again to counter the setting and the message saying that Victor’s dad “looks like Charles Bronson.” Mars, Arizona, on the other hand, looks like a crater in the desert, but two trailers break the gold loneliness of the valley. When the two arrive in the valley, Suzy Song (Irene Bedard) greets them and offers Victor his father’s ashes. A western is on Suzy’s television, and Thomas jokes,

“The only thing more pathetic than Indians on TV is Indians watching Indians on TV.”

Suzy’s willingness to help them and clear affinity with Victor’s father serves as the opening of a story that brings them closer to hope and life. Thomas tells about Victor’s mother feeding a hundred hungry Native Americans with fifty pieces of fry bread, a clear reference to the loaves and fishes parable from the Sermon on the Mount. Thomas accentuates Arlene’s struggle to determine how to feed so many people, ending with a practical solution, tearing the bread in half, so each person gets a portion. The story again reinforces the need to work collectively to adapt to a sometimes-hostile environment. Victor learns more about his father from Suzy, reenacts his father’s ritual hair cutting when collecting personal items from Arnold’s trailer, and then leaves with Thomas in Arnold’s truck without telling Suzy good-bye. To Thomas, the connection between human and nonhuman nature drives their departure: “Suzy and drought, mother and hunger, father and magic” all “heavy with illusion.”  

Transforming hell into a home

One last conflict moves Victor and Thomas toward environmental adaptation and serves as the entrance into the third act of the film. While fighting over visions of Victor’s father, Victor and Thomas crash Arnold’s truck, avoiding a car parked in the middle of the highway. They turn what could be a dangerous altercation with police “off the Rez” into a triumph, changing Arnold’s past crimes into communal solutions. Instead of leaving the scene and avoiding a confrontation with police, Victor helps an injured girl from the accident, running all the way to the town hospital for assistance. Even when questioned by the police before leaving the hospital, Thomas and Victor transform an expected altercation into a ride home. The driver of the car responsible for the accident accuses Victor of assaulting him, but before Victor can defend himself, the white police chief (Tom Skerritt) lets them go, saying, “Mr. Johnson’s wife Holly says he’s, and I quote, ‘a complete asshole.’” In a rewriting of Arnold’s earlier arrest for participation in an AIM demonstration, the police even drive them back to their truck. This transformation of expectations coincides with Suzy’s burning Arnold’s trailer back in Arizona, a purifying action that parallels the opening fire and cleanses Arnold and Victor of their past.

The fire and ride in the police car help Victor bring life to the reservation, as he brings back his father to his mother and home. Victor shares some of the ashes with Thomas after thanking him for his help. Then in a reversal of western films’ foregrounding progress, the film shows Victor and Thomas’ ritual strewing of Arnold’s ashes into the Spokane River. The ashes look like magic dust as they float toward the water. Once the ashes reach the water, they race downstream like salmon. The overhead tracking shot shows the waters crashing over rocks around curves like a highway cloverleaf in How the West Was Won (1962), but there is no concrete along this river. It is lined with green and shows how ashes and fire can transform into life.

In Smoke Signals, Victor and Thomas turn a bleak hell on the reservation into a thriving ecology in a narrative of environmental adaptation that includes collective views of human and nonhuman nature and provides a living community. Victor adapts to his once-bleak environment and finds hope and life. According to Alexie, the movie is about

“Victor, Thomas, and everybody else calling for help. It’s also about the theme of fire. The smoke that originates from the first fire in the movie is what causes these events, and the smoke from the second fire brings about the beginning of resolution.”

For Victor and Thomas, who have been born of ashes and fire, however, it is the water of the Spokane River that leads them to love and life, because it is the river that at least metaphorically turns Arnold into a fish, connecting him and the two young men who scatter his ashes with nature and each other. They have fulfilled, as Meeker explains, an effective evolutionary process,

“one of adaptation and accommodation, with the various species exploring opportunistically their environments in search of a means to maintain their existence” (164).

As Meeker concludes, “The lesson of ecology is balance and equilibrium, the lesson of comedy is humility and endurance” (168). Victor and Thomas learn all of these lessons well.


This narrative of environmental adaptation evolves in U.S. western films with Native Americans at their center, from the early valorization of Native American worldviews, through the vilification of the savage Indian in the 1940s and ’50s, back to a more revisionist, if condescending, look at Native American perspectives from the 1950s and 60s through the 1990s that makes way for the Native-American-centered narratives to come. A review of Smoke Signals in Rolling Stone asserts,

“When it comes to American Indians, Hollywood either trades in Injun stereotypes or dances with Disney” (“Smoke Signals” Review).

Certainly, none of the western films highlighted here comes close to the central evolutionary narrative of Smoke Signals, but they all rest on a similar narrative structure that reaches a resolution either by relocating or assimilating complacent Native Americans or destroying those who resist. 

Smoke Signals stands out in contrast to other films from the 1990s hailed as groundbreaking because of their sympathetic portrayal. Dances with Wolves (1991), for example, follows a pattern similar to that found in Jeremiah Johnson (1972), where a white American goes native, embracing and in the process co-opting Native American culture and attitudes toward environmental adaptation. Sherman Alexie calls this “cultural appropriation” a threat to Native American sovereignty. In the context of Dances with Wolves, such cultural appropriation serves as a threat to the Sioux Indians’ very survival. John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) penetrates the Siouxs’ homes, families, and culture as a brother, but he represents the military that will soon force the tribe’s banishment to the West. Before the film’s end, however, the narrative of environmental adaptation follows an evolutionary pattern: rebellion against and rejection of U.S. culture and movement west, discovering Native Americans on the plains, gaining sympathy for Sioux culture and internalizing their ideology, and clashing with the dominant culture they left behind.

For us, the narrative in Dances with Wolves harkens back to Run of the Arrow (1957) where Pvt. O’Meara (Rod Steiger) leaves the defeated Confederacy, joins the Sioux as an ex-soldier and takes a Native American wife. Both films reverse the narrative of environmental adaptation by inserting a sympathetic white soldier as protagonist. In both movies, however, this evolutionary narrative fails because white intruders either banish or exterminate the Sioux. In spite of the two soldiers’ initial sympathy for the Native Americans that adopt them, intruding pioneers dominate the narrative. As Meeker argues:

“No human has ever known what it means to live in a climax ecosystem [in which human and nonhuman nature thrive], at least not since the emergence of consciousness which has made us human. We have generally acted the role of the pioneer species, dedicating ourselves to survival through the destruction of all our competitors and to achieving effective dominance over other forms of life.” (162)

In Run of the Arrow and Dances with Wolves, on the other hand, the Sioux and the white men they adopt are constructed as thriving members of a climax ecosystem that dissolves only when the pioneers, the cavalry, intervene.

In Run of the Arrow, O’Meara refuses to return home after the Civil War and pledge his allegiance to the Union with whom he had been fighting as a Southerner. He rejects the Union and flees to the West, meeting a tribe of Sioux who adopt him. He marries Yellow Moccasin (Sara Montiel) and lives peacefully with the Sioux until the cavalry begins building a fort on their land. This invasion into the Sioux paradise disturbs the evolutionary narrative O’Meara had been following. In the end, the cavalry defeat the Sioux in battle. O’Meara rejoins the white military and helps defeat his adopted “family.”
John Dunbar of Dances with Wolves rejects the civilization of the eastern United States when he asks to be reassigned to a western fort. His major (Maury Chaykin) asks him, “You wish to see the frontier?” And Dunbar answers, “Yes, sir, before it’s gone,” a subtle critique of the destruction in the West and of its resources by white settlers.

He then encounters Sioux near his abandoned fort and records his observations in a journal, all reported in his voiceover narration. With each meeting, Dunbar gains more sympathy for the tribe. In one early entry, Dunbar notes,

“Nothing I have been told about these people is correct. They are not thieves or beggars. They are not the bogeyman they are made out to be. On the contrary, they are polite guests and I enjoy their humor.”

Before the end of Dunbar’s evolutionary narrative, he has adopted a Native American worldview. As Kicking Bird (Graham Greene) asserts of Dunbar’s transformation,

 “I was just thinking of all the trails in this life, there are some that matter most. It is the trail of a true human being. I think you are on this trail, and it is a good one.”

Ten Bears (Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman) even tells Dunbar, when Dunbar expresses concern about the cavalry’s hunt for him, “The white man the soldiers are looking for no longer exists. Now there is only a Sioux named Dances with Wolves.”

Ultimately, however, the narrative breaks down because whites, like intruding pioneers, threaten to wipe out the Sioux and their land. The cavalry does find Dunbar and arrest him for desertion, but he escapes and, like the Sioux, vanishes into the wilderness, taking Stands With a Fist (Mary McConnell) with him. Unlike the Sioux, however, Dunbar and Stands With a Fist are white and can integrate easily into white culture. The Sioux, however, must contend with white men whose numbers are, as Dunbar explains, “like the stars.”

Other westerns from the 1990s and 2000s revise perspectives on Native Americans, humanizing them and representing their characters sympathetically. See Black Robe (1991), The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Geronimo (1993), Cheyenne Warrior (1994), Pocahontas (1995), North Star (1996), Grey Owl (1999), Shanghai Noon (2000), and The New World (2005), as examples. But these films all draw on similar ideologies of progress, even when they lament the loss of Native American cultures constructed as a necessary sacrifice to promote “civilization” based in progress.

Only films like Sherman Alexie and Chris Eyre’s Smoke Signals can transcend this cultural erasure. Although Alexie admits his writing is influenced by dominant popular culture, as a Native American who grew up on a reservation, he is tied by his experience to a Native American worldview, one written as a narrative of environmental adaptation. When Native Americans control the script, the direction, and the production of a film, they control its narrative, making space for a comic evolutionary narrative that, as Ten Bears states in Smoke Signals, chooses life.

Annette Kolodny’s parting words in her “Rethinking the Ecological Indian” may shed some light on the significance of this change. According to Kolodny, when reading Kreck alongside both Joseph Nicolar’s The Life and Traditions of the Red Man and historical documents on which they both draw, she and her students discovered,

“Together they argue for cultural traditions that self-consciously promote ecological sanity. Dams could still be built on rivers, but they would be opened periodically to accommodate seasonal spawning migrations. Hunting would not be eliminated, but it would be regulated so as to allow the game populations to survive for future generations. And rather than use up or pollute the earth’s resources merely ‘for comfort’s sake,’ the lands bounty would be husbanded ‘for love’s sake.’” (18)

When choosing life, perhaps Alexie chooses love, as well.

Works cited

Alexie, Sherman. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. New York: Perennial, 1994.

----. “Sending Cinematic Smoke Signals: An Interview with Sherman Alexie.” West, Dennis and West, Joan M. Cineaste: America’s Leading Magazine on the Art and Politics of the Cinema. 23.4 (January 1, 1998). Accessed 6 December 2009.

Baird, Ronald. “’Going Indian’: Dances with Wolves.Hollywood’s Indian: A Portrayal of the Native American in Film. Peter C. Rollins and John E. O’Connor, Editors. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1998. 153-169.

Cobb, Amanda J. “This is What it Means to Say Smoke Signals: Native American Cultural Sovereignty. Hollywood’s Indian: A Portrayal of the Native American in Film. Peter C. Rollins and John E. O’Connor, Editors. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1998. 206-228.

Cornwall, Warren. “Radioactive Remains: The Forgotten Story of the Northwest’s Only Uranium Mines.” The Seattle Times. 24 February, 2008. Accessed 6 December 2009.

Hearne, Joanna. “John Wayne’s Teeth: Speech, Sound and Representation in Smoke Signals and Imagining Indians. Western Folklore. 64: 3 & 4 (Summer and Fall 2005): 189-208.

Kolodny, Annette. “Rethinking the Ecological Indian.” Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment. 14.1 (Winter 2007): 1-23.

Kreck, III, Shepard. The Ecological Indian: Myth and History. New York: Norton, 1999.

Meeker, Joseph. “The Comic Mode” The Eco-criticism Reader: Landmarks in Literary Ecology. Ed. Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm. Athens: U of Georgia P, 1996. 155-69.

Mihelich, John. “Smoke or Signals? American Popular Culture and the Challenge of Hegemonic Images of American Indians in Native American Films.” Wicazo SA Review. Summer 2001: 129-137.

Sandefur, Gary D. “American Indian Reservations: The First Underclass Areas?” Focus. 12.1 (Summer 1989): 37-41.

Slethaug, Gordon E. “Hurricane’s and Fires: Chaotics in Sherman Alexie’s Smoke Signals and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.” Literature Film Quarterly. 1/1/03: 130-140.

Smoke Signals Review.” Rolling Stone July 9-23, 1998: 790-91.


Black Robe. Dir. Bruce Beresford. Perfs. Lothaire Bluteau, Aden Young. MGM, 1991.

Chato’s Land. Dir. Michael Winner. Perf. Charles Bronson, Jack Palance. United Artists, 1972.

Cheyenne Warrior. Dir. Mark Griffiths. Perfs. Kelly Preston, Pato Hoffmann. Libra Pictures, 1994.

Dances with Wolves. Dir. Kevin Kostner. Perf. Kevin Kostner, Mary McConnell, Graham Greene. Orion Pictures, 1991.

Geronimo. Dir. Roger Young. Perfs. Joseph Runningfox, Nick Ramus. Turner Pictures, 1993.

Grey Owl. Dir. Richard Attenborough. Perf. Pierce Brosnan. 20th Century Fox of Germany, 1999.

How the West Was Won. Dirs. John Ford, Henry Hathaway, George Marshall, Richard

 Thorpe. Perfs. Richard Widmark, George Peppard. MGM,1962.

Jeremiah Johnson. Dir. Sydney Pollack. Perfs. Robert Redford, Will Geer. Warner Brothers, 1972.

The Last of the Mohicans. Dir. Michael Mann. Perfs. Daniel Day-Lewis, Madeleine Stowe. Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, 1992.

The New World. Dir. Terrence Malick. Perfs. Colin Farrell, Q’Orianka Kilcher. New Line Cinema, 2005.

North Star. Dir. Nils Gaup. Perfs. James Caan, Christopher Lambert, Catherine McCormack. Warner Brothers, 1996

Pocahontas. Dirs. Mike Gabriel and Eric Goldberg. Disney, 1995.

Run of the Arrow. Dir. Samuel Fuller. Perfs. Rod Steiger, Sara Monteil. Universal Pictures, 1957.

The Scalphunters. Dir. Sydney Pollack. Perfs. Burt Lancaster, Shelley Winters, Telly Savalas. United Artists, 1968.

The Searchers. Dir. John Ford. Perf. John Wayne. Warner Brothers, 1956

Shanghai Noon. Dir. Tom Dey. Perfs. Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson. Touchstone Pictures, 2000.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Dir. John Ford. Perf. John Wayne. RKO Radio Pictures, 1949.

Smoke Signals. Dir. Chris Eyre. Perfs. Adam Beach, Evan Adams. Miramax, 1998.

Ulzana’s Raid. Dir. Robert Aldrich. Perfs. Burt Lancaster, Bruce Davison. Universal, 1972.

White Feather. Dir. Robert D. Webb. Perfs. Robert Wagner, John Lund, Debra Paget. Panoramic Productions, 1955.

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