Smoke Signals Discussion Guide
Racial Justice & Multicultural Ministries


"Smoke Signals," written by Coeur D'Alene Sherman Alexie, directed by Cheyenne/Arapaho Chris Eyre, and starring American Indians, is structured as a picturesque "road movie." Based on Alexie's short story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Smoke Signals depicts a journey from the Coeur D'Alene reservation in Idaho to Phoenix by two teenage Indians, Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) and Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams). Victor's father, Arnold (Gary Farmer) has just died and Victor is sent to return his ashes to the reservation. Thomas, whom Victor regards as something of a pest, pleads to be taken along. Their relation to each other and to Victor's dead father supplies the central dramatic impulse for the film.
Much of the film's power has to do with its honesty, both in the way the characters are depicted and also in its use of on-location filming at the Coeur D'Alene reservation which, like most reservations, is literally in the middle of nowhere. It is a mixture of rugged mountainous landscape with meager ramshackle housing and tacky general stores run by whites. Director Chris Eyre has found a way to capture both aspects of the reservation, so the audience understands both the lingering attraction of the reservation and what drives its inhabitants to desperation.

Things to Think About

Think about the troubles that Victor and Thomas have traveling across the country, why is this? Would you have this same problems?

Discussion Questions

  • Smoke Signals is the first commercially successful film in which the writer, director, actors and crew are almost exclusively Native American persons. Why do you think this is important to the Native American community?
  • Discuss how the representations of Indian people in Smoke Signals differs from "Hollywood" style movies, include the old "Cowboys and Indians" western genre as well as more contemporary films such as "Dances with Wolves" and "Geronimo" in your analysis.
  • Arnold (Victor's dad) goes through a process of "disappearing" in which he slowly disappears from his family, his community, and eventually from the world. Discuss this "disappearing" and how it relates to the invisibility of Indian people in contemporary society.
  • Storytelling plays an important role in Native American communities, also to the film's plot. What is the importance of story telling in Smoke Signals?
  • Discuss the relationship between Victor and Thomas as it relates to Thomas's role as the film's primary storyteller.
  • How does their relationship illustrate the tension between Native American traditional cultural values and contemporary realities?
  • The reality of Indian people in contemporary U.S. society is part of the consciousness of the characters in Smoke Signals. For example, Victor and Thomas refer to the U.S. as a foreign country, Arnold and Victor's basketball game against the Jesuits is described as the first time the Indians won since Columbus, etc. Discuss the interactions Victor and Thomas have with members of the dominant society (the White couple in the car accident, and the police officer). What stereotypes are operating?
  • What expectations do the various characters have based on the way Indian people are stereotyped?
  • What do you make of the soliloquy at the end of the movie?
  • What are the sins of our fathers that must be forgiven?
  • Where did you see the U.S. government as an occupying force?
  • What did they mean by practice vanishing?
  • How do Victor and Thomas treat their parents?
  • What did Thomas mean when he said they plea bargain it down to being an Indian in the 20th century? What do you think was meant by "The Cowboys always win?"
  • What would you have done if you overhear the two guys on the bus kick out Victor and Thomas from their seats.
  • How do Victor and Thomas deal with their environment?

Observations for You to Think About

  • Seeing U.S. as a foreign country.
  • Basketball game, Jesuits against the Indians, Indians won for the first time since Columbus.
  • Indians are invisible in U.S. society, use of culture as a way to destroy communities, cultural annihilation.
  • In order for Anglos to become "American" Indians had to disappear, one way or another.
  • Perception in Southwest that there was no one living on the land before the Anglos arrived; myths about Basque Shepherds being first inhabitants.
  • Alcoholism in Native American communities is related to racism; alcohol introduced to Native communities as a way to destroy them as an intentional strategy.
  • Added stereotype around Indian gaming.
  • Importance of the community.
  • Jimmy Carter took that away.
  • Gymnasts have a lot in common with the Indians.

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