Smoke Signals' 1998 traffic report

Victor and Thomas hitch a ride for a story

Views of the run-down reservation in 1976

Impoverished reservation homes on display

Another scene of reservation poverty.

Thomas watches Victor play.

Throwing Thomas from the burning house.

1976 traffic report reveals the reservationís isolation

Victor's father making home constantly difficult.

Victor's father practicing vanishing.

Thomas and Victor both of ash and fire.



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.

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