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Native American Identity in ‘Smoke Signals’ Essay

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Updated: Jan 12th, 2022

Smoke Signals is a feature film that was directed, starred, and written by Native Americans in 1998. This is a humorous story about a journey of two young men, Victor Joseph who is seeking to forgive his father, and Thomas Builds-the-fire, from Coeur D’Alene reservation (Fielding 1). The two young men travel together and share experiences of what it implies to be an Indian. The director Chris Eyre made sure that each scene depicted aspects of Native American identity by the use of humor, narratives, and visions. Native American identity is represented by the differences between Victor and Thomas and the attempts of each to turn the other into an Indian. Therefore, this research shall seek to prove the presence of Native American identity in Smoke Signals.

This analysis is important since most Western American movies do not present American Indians in a favorable light as they are usually represented as savages (Fielding 1). However, the desire of the director Chris Eyre and the scriptwriter Alexie was to tell the story of American Indians in Smoke Signals (Kilpatrick 229). For the movie, Indian identity is a central theme in each character and scene. The movie uses the main characters, Victor and Thomas’s builds-the-fire, to support this theme. Builds-the-fire is presented as a character dressed in a business suit, who is fond of reading and storytelling which is a nerdy look. Victor wants Builds-the-fire to reshape his views of the world for the Indian ones. However, Builds-the-fire prefers to stick to the old and more genuine Indian roots which he describes through his continuous stories of traditions, family values, and ancestors (Fielding 1). Therefore, Victor’s identity is more based on the present while Builds-the-fire’s identity is founded on Indian indigenous roots. This difference in identity is evident from a statement made by Victor about Builds-the-fire. From the screenplay, he says,

‘What?… Thomas you got to look like a warrior … second, you can’t be talking as much as you do. You got to have some mystery. You got to look like you have secrets, you know? Like you’re in a secret conversation with the earth or something … you just nod your head. See! That makes you look dangerous’ (61-62).

From this section, it is evident that for Victor, Indian identity is reflected in physical looks, and therefore, by his standards, Builds-the-fire is not Indian enough. However, Builds-the-fire makes use of his stories about Indian heritage and visions to teach Victor how to be Indian. Builds-the-fire asks Victor to listen to his stories to gain knowledge and assist him in acquiring an Indian identity (Fielding 1). This approach to achieving identity presents an important theme for this movie. By listening to Builds-the-fire’s narrations, we learn about American Indian culture. Smoke Signals teaches a valued lesson that concerns civilized cultures (Kilpatrick 232). The main theme of the movie shows that the lack of understanding of native Indian culture leads to stereotypic ideas of a savage and brute society that are often represented by American western films. Often, films describe Celluloid Indians as savage warriors, which are different from the people we see in Smoke Signals by Eyre Chris. Therefore, in my analysis, the story of American Indians would be different if white settlers had listened intently to what Indians were telling about their beliefs. In Dippie (2011), the lack of appreciation of Indian culture results in the development of stereotypic images in Whites which eventually leads to breaking out a struggle between both cultures (1).

Additionally, Indian identity is revealed through traditional Indian interpretations of visions and dreams. During one of his narrations, Builds-the-fire tells Victor about a dream he had of Spokane River that was full of fish. Victor is surprised and makes the exclamation, ‘There ain’t any salmon in that river no more’ (Murray and Heumann 1). This statement stops Builds-the-fire from telling his story but gives Victor a chance to tell his dream. Victor narrates a nightmare about his childhood efforts to wake up parents who were sleeping after a party. This reminder makes Victor angry, that is why he breaks beer bottles against the father’s truck (Murray and Heumann 1). This action empowers Victor not only to reveal his anger and pain but to find solutions to disasters he witnessed on the Coeur D’Alene reservation. Through this dream, Victor tries to seek a way in which he could change his reservation into a home. Literature proves the fact that the Coeur D’Alene reservation was known to face many social and economical problems. On this reservation, Indians were known to suffer from poverty and vices such as alcoholism (Kershner 21). The reservation was also prone to immorality as the silver boom presented this community with very lonely miners (Kershner 21).

Problems present on the reservation explain the difficulty of American Indians achieving a true identity as they sought ways to manage vices resulting from their western assimilation. However, identity is achieved through Victor’s flashbacks which tell about Victor’s growing up. Through these flashbacks, the viewer is introduced to the problems Victor faced while he was growing up. Victor was raised facing serious alcoholic episodes from his father, which traumatized both Victor and his mother. During his traveling with Builds-the-fire, Victor recollects his childhood and adulthood and discovers that the only solution to regaining peace is to forgive his father (Kilpatrick 231). Moreover, as Kilpatrick discusses, the movie manages to reflect contemporary Native Americans with modern problems and reactions (230). The use of dreams and jokes in the film provides a glimpse of the difficulty in living on the reservations (Kilpatrick 230). Furthermore, this attempt in reviving the Native American identity through the visions is also evident with Builds-the-fire who revives the empty river in his dream.

Another aspect of American Indians presented by these dreams is their ability to view land. Through these dreams, American Indian identity is also represented as their association and adaptability to their environment. Victor relates the tragic fire in his childhood to the tough conditions on the reservation as he seeks his identity through forgiveness. Indians can live in peace with nature. Victor and Thomas Builds-the-fire draw a parallel between their lives on the reservation and the situations they pass through as they pick Victor’s father’s ashes (Murray and Heumann 1). This association with the present and past is reflected in Thomas Builds-the-fire explanation,

‘You know there are some children who aren’t children at all, they’re just pillars of flame that burnt everything they touch. And some children are just pillars of ash, that fall apart when you touch then … Victor and me, we were children of flame and ash’ (Murray and Heumann 1).

This statement reflects how Victor and Builds-the-fire accept their origins, their lives on the reservation, and the ashes of Victor’s father. This is because Victor and Builds-the-fire are “born of fire and ashes”. The acceptance of their identity leads the young men to share the ashes of Arnold, Victor’s father, which they ritually strew into Spokane River.

The movie presents the identity of Native Americans from their point of view through the use of dreams, flashbacks, visions, and narratives. Victor seeks a physical identity while Thomas researches a traditional authentic identity through narratives and visions. In the conclusion, they both gain their Indian identity after forgiving Arnold by Victor and setting free of their past troubled lives on the reservation.

Works Cited

Dippie, Brian W. Nature Transformed Teacher Service. 2008.

Fielding, Julien R. “Native American Religion and Film: Interviews with Chris Eyre and Sherman Alexie.” Journal of Religion and Film 7.1 (2003). Print.

Kershner, Jim. Carl Maxey: A fighting Life. Washington: University of Washington Press, 2008. Print.

Kilpatrick, Jacquelyn. Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and Film. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1999. Print.

Murray, Robin and Heumann Joe. “Passage as Journey in Sherman Alexie’s Smoke Signals: A Narrative of Environmental Adaptation.” Review of Contemporary Media, Jump Cut 52 (2010). Print.

Smoke Signals. Dir. Chris Eyre. Perf. Adam Beach, Bressler Carl, Estes Larry, Rosenfelt Scott and Skinner David. Miramax, 1998. Film.

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