Smoke Signals
Principia Film Series Study Guide

About the film:

Smoke Signals (1998) was the first feature film written, directed, and co-produced by Native Americans to receive a major distribution deal; in addition, all the actors who portrayed Indians are also Native Americans.  Sherman Alexie wrote the screenplay based on stories from his book, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.  Smoke Signals and first-time director Chris Eyre received the Audience Award and the Filmmakers Trophy at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival.

This film explores the relationship between Victor Joseph and Thomas Builds-the-Fire, two young Indian men living on the Coeur d’Alene reservation in Idaho.  The stoic, athletic Victor wants little to do with the misfit storyteller Thomas; however, when Victor learns that his estranged father Arnold has died in Arizona, Victor accepts Thomas’ offer to buy their bus tickets to Arizona so they can get Arnold’s truck.  

Connections to Principia:

Victor and Thomas examine what it means to be Indian in the United States, and the film challenges the audience to examine its attitudes regarding Native Americans. The friendships (of all sorts) displayed in the film can be linked to the discussion of friendship in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Finally the two aspects of of the active and contemplative life are instantiated in the characters of Thomas and Victor.

Questions for Discussion:

1.What were the most important meanings that you found in this film?  What messages do you think the filmmakers were trying to communicate?  What aspects of this film deal with situations unique to Indians, and what aspects concern universal human themes?  

2.Near the beginning of the film, Thomas says, “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 some children who are just pillars of ash, that fall apart if you touch ’em.  Me and Victor—we were children born of flame and ash.”  What does Thomas mean by this?  What images of fire and ash appear in this film?  

3.After Arnold saves Thomas from the fire, Grandma Builds-the-Fire says to him, “You saved Thomas.  You did a good thing,” and Arnold replies, “I didn’t mean to.”  Why does Arnold respond in this way?

4.Near the end of the film, Thomas asks Victor, “Do you know why your Dad really left?”  Victor replies, “Yeah.  He didn’t mean to, Thomas.”  What didn’t Arnold mean to do?  What does this exchange reveal to us about Victor and Thomas?

5.Thomas’ monologue at the end of the film is adapted from “Forgiving Our Fathers,” a poem by Dick Lourie, a non-Native author.  The film’s version of the poem is given below.  How does this poem work as a conclusion to the film? How do we forgive our fathers?  Maybe in a dream.  Do we forgive our fathers for leaving us too often or forever?  Maybe for scaring us with unexpected rage, or making us nervous because there never seemed to be any rage there at all?  Do we forgive our fathers for marrying or not marrying our mothers?  For divorcing or not divorcing our mothers?  And shall we forgive them for their excesses of warmth or coldness?  Shall we forgive them for pushing or leaning?  For shutting doors?  For speaking through walls, or never speaking, or never being silent?  Do we forgive our fathers in our age or in theirs?  Or in their deaths?  Saying it to them or not saying it?  If we forgive our fathers, what is left?

(For the full text see Ghost Radio by Dick Lourie.)

6.Our images of ourselves and of other people come not only from our experiences of ourselves and of other people, but also from movies, television, books, and other media.  How have Native Americans typically been represented in American popular culture, especially movies?  (Recall LaDuke’s discussion of this topic in Last Standing Woman, 108-110.)  How does Smoke Signals conform to or break with these images?

7.This film repeatedly uses humor to comment on stereotypes about Indians.  Identify some of the humorous scenes in the film.  Why might a Native audience find them funny?

8.What does being an Indian mean to Victor and Thomas?  (Recall especially their conversation on the bus when Victor ridicules Thomas for watching Dances with Wolves so many times).  Where do you think that Victor has gotten his ideas about how an Indian should act?  

9.Discuss the following comment by Sherman Alexie.  Do you agree with his understanding of fiction?  What do you see as the role of Thomas’ stories in the movie?

“It’s all based on the basic theme, for me, that storytellers are essentially liars. At one point in the movie, Suzy asks Thomas, “Do you want lies or do you want the truth?,” and he says, “I want both.” I think that line is what reveals most about Thomas’s character and the nature of his storytelling and the nature, in my opinion, of storytelling in general, which is that fiction blurs and nobody knows what the truth is. And within the movie itself, nobody knows what the truth is.” (“Sending Cinematic Smoke Signals: An Interview with Sherman Alexie,” by Dennis West and Joan M. West, Cineaste 23 (Fall, 1998): 28 (5 pages),

10. As the film proceeds how does the friendship between Victor and Thomas change? In NE Aristotle discusses the various types of friendship. Are Aristotle's types of friendship helpful in characterizing their relationship? What about the other relationships depicted in the film?

11. The characters of Thomas and Victor can be thought of as representing the active and contemplative aspects of life. In what way does each exhibit these characteristics? Is this a useful way of thinking about the life choices each of the young men have made?

12.Trivia question: What are the names of the women who drive around the reservation in reverse, and what is the significance of their names?

Selected links:

The Official Sherman Alexie site includes interviews and other interesting stuff.

Internet Movie Database page for Smoke Signals.

The Official Coeur d’Alene Tribe Website.

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This page written by Jim Egge. Modified by B. Luther 8/03.

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