Reserve the Best for Last Smoke Signals
by Otilla Sanchez
Sherman Alexie's new film, Smoke Signals, is indicative of the talent that has been surfacing throughout Indian Country in recent years and making its presence known in mainstream America. Filmed on location at the Coeur d'Alene IndianReservation in Idaho, Smoke Signals is both funny and serious, entertaining and thought provoking, surprising andexpected. That the film manages to convey such contrasts is a credit not only to Alexie's writing skills and Chris Eyre'sdirecting talents but also to their ability to work together to create a film totally from an American Indian perspective.
Smoke Signals is a funny film about a serious subject. You get a sense of the humor in various ways: through characters, names, through the dialog, through the songs, through scenes. In an early scene, for example, the disc jockey asks for atraffic report from Lester Falls-Apart, who is at the crossroads in the middle of nowhere in the KREZ traffic van that's literally falling apart. You get a good laugh at the dialog between Velma and Lucy as they drive in reverse on reservation land and banter back and forth about drinking (or not drinking) beer or about "loving" a particular song heard on the radio. When they encounter Victor Joseph and Thomas Builds-the-Fire, the main characters in the film, walking to town, Velma asks, "Do you guys got your passports? You're leaving the rez and going into a whole different country." When Thomas protests, "But it's the United States," Lucy quips, "Damn right it is. That's as foreign as it gets."
On the bus trip to Arizona, where Victor and Thomas are headed to pick up the ash remains of Victor's father, Victor makes up a song, pow-wow style, about John Wayne's teeth. Thomas quickly joins in the refrain, and the audience gets a big laugh about a cowboy "hero" movie star. Scenes like these keep the audience laughing, but you never lose sight of the seriousness of the film. You are constantly reminded of reservation life and the numerous issues affecting American Indians. Though the land appears desolate and the rez uneventful, it has its own special beauty; and the people have a sense of camaraderie that gets them through the tough times, such as the Fourth of July fire in which Thomas lost his parents.
It is indeed a good time to be indigenous, to paraphrase what disc jockey Randy Peone of KREZ radio tells his audience early on in the movie. It is a good time because we are witnessing a resurgent interest in "Native" subjects: art, medicine, prophecy, writing, music, cinema. Indigenous people must take advantage of this resurgence to set the records straight about what constitutes Indianness and to remain the keepers of the stories passed down from generation to generation. Through his primary characters, Victor Joseph and Thomas Builds-the-Fire, Alexie is sending out his "smoke signals" on these two vital roles of indigenous people.
A look at Victor and Thomas is a study in contrasts about some of the stereotypical images about Indians. Victor, in a lot of ways, lives up to some of these images, and even tries to "train" Thomas on how to be a "real" Indian. "Indians aren't supposed to smile. You got to look mean. You got to look like a warrior. You got to have some mystery like you're in a secret conversation with the earth or something. You got to know how to use your hair you've got to free it." In this brief passage, Victor's dialog hits on many of the idealistic views, especially from New-Agers, about Native people. Thomas brings Victor back to reality after their encounter with the cowboys on the bus who take their seats by gently reminding Victor, "Jeez, Victor, I guess your warrior look doesn't work every time."
After the vehicle accident, Victor and Thomas go to the impound yard. Victor drop-kicks the basketball into the refuse and muses, "A hundred years from now, some archeologist will find that basketball out there, buried in all that garbage, and he'll think it used to be some sacred Indian artifact. How come Indians have always been measured by what they've thrown away and not by what they've kept?"
Native people have kept their stories, and the stories keep the People alive. For this reason, Thomas, role is crucial; he is the keeper of the stories, not only the funny stories but also the painful ones that Victor is loathe to hear. The journey to Arizona turns out to be more than just a responsibility to pick up the remains of Victor's father; it becomes a trip toward self-realization and learning. Victor's lesson is about the need for the stories; for the film's audience, the lesson is the reminder that Alexie himself states best: "We are more than just writers. We are storytellers. We are spokes-people. We are cultural ambassadors. We are politicians. We are activists. We are all of this simply by nature of what we do, withoutever wanting to be." Just let us be. •
Sherman Alexie, of Spokane and Couer d’Alène heritage, is a talented writer whose work includes six collections of poetry, two novels and a collection of short stories. The film, adapted from his short story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, received the Audience Award and the Filmmaker’s Trophy at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival.
Otilla Sánchez, an active member in the Nativ community in Houston, is the national president of Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers. Sánchez is a board member of HCP and serves on the Multicultural Committee of the United Way.