In the 1998 film SMOKE SIGNALS, people are constantly telling stories. The film’s protagonists, Victor and Thomas, both young Native American men from the Coeur D’Alene Reservation in Idaho, tell each other stories while attempting to make sense of their families and their identities. Thomas is the more explicit storyteller: he’s known all over the reservation for his tales, which, much to Victor’s chagrin, often involve Victor’s estranged father Arnold, who left the reservation when Victor was twelve. Victor has his own stories about his dad. Sadder than Thomas’s, they mostly arrive in the film in the form of memories: they are the stories Victor silently tells himself. When Victor and Thomas take a road trip to collect Arnold’s ashes, the pair uses storytelling as a currency and defense mechanism, as well as a method of bonding with the people they meet along the way. They control and interrogate narratives throughout the film, an element that is fascinating in itself, but takes on greater significance given how frequently Native American people have been stereotyped and silenced on film.
Thomas, sweet and a bit nerdy in his eyeglasses and dress suit, entertains and connects with people by telling stories, often mythologizing his own past. When describing the fire that killed both of his parents, he says, “I can fly,” in reference to his desperate mother’s decision to toss her infant son out of a window (Arnold fortuitously caught him). He infuses something mystical into what for many others would be a tale of everyday tragedy. Notably fond of his memories of Arnold, Thomas takes on a reverent tone even when recalling the day Arnold took him to Denny’s for a Grand Slam Breakfast. There’s a danger to this mythologizing: the Arnold stories are painful for Victor to hear and arguably insulate Thomas from difficult truths about his life and loved ones. Yet at the same time, Thomas’ version of his life and the lives of those around him inform an open and friendly disposition and a largely upbeat worldview—things that appear essential to his survival. Indeed, Thomas is able to secure himself and Victor a needed ride to the bus stop by relating a story about Arnold’s anti-Vietnam activism to two women from the reservation. He befriends a gymnast on the bus by letting her tell him her story, and he swaps stories with Suzy Song, a latter day friend of Arnold’s, thus adding moments of human connection to a road trip with an ultimately grim mission.
Like Thomas, Suzy understands that stories are precious, and, in cases of loss, an important agent of healing. While sitting up at night talking to Victor, Suzy shares a story that Arnold told her: one about Victor triumphing in basketball. In the film, Suzy begins the tale, but it drifts into a flashback where Arnold takes on the role of orator, enthusiastically recalling the day that Victor soared over his opponents like an angel with “TV dinner trays” for wings. The story-within-a-story briefly resurrects Arnold, and, more importantly, gives him an opportunity to express his deep pride in his son.
For his part, Victor discounts the story Thomas tells about his father’s antiwar activism and insists that the gymnast on the bus was lying to Thomas about her brush with Olympic glory, saying, “Just remember Thomas: you can’t trust anybody.” His reaction to Arnold’s basketball story, told by way of Suzy, follows a similar logic. The way he remembers it, his team lost that day, and his father was a liar. Victor’s memories of his father are woven throughout the film, and they are difficult: a cheerful conversation in a car turns violent when Victor accidentally spills Arnold’s beer; a desperate Victor chases his father’s pickup down the road when Arnold leaves for the last time. As much as Thomas affirms his positive and at times mystical worldview through the stories that he shares with others, so Victor affirms his belief in a dishonest and largely cruel world by undercutting the positive stories that he hears, and by dwelling on his most painful memories.
But Victor’s salvation comes by confronting a more complex version of the past: though he initially planned to hit the road immediately after Suzy handed him his father’s ashes, he instead stays to listen to her stories about the father he never knew as an adult, developing a better understanding of Arnold as a result. Catharsis comes with Victor’s confrontation with the past, and so does the hope that Victor might move on to build a richer life story.
Of course, by its very existence, SMOKE SIGNALS enters into a dialogue with another kind of storytelling: filmmaking itself. The film made headlines in 1998 in part because of its predominantly Native American cast and crew, including screenwriter Sherman Alexie, director Chris Eyre, and stars Adam Beach, Evan Adams, Irene Bedard, and Gary Farmer. Mainstream American film has a history of vilifying, mocking, and ignoring Native American people and their experiences, as well as widespread and egregious whitewashing when it comes to casting. The portrayal of Native Americans onscreen has historically been so stereotypical, and even cartoonish, that SMOKE SIGNALS feels revolutionary for telling its small, deeply human story. That Adams, as Thomas, provides the film’s opening and closing voiceover is of tremendous significance: a Native American voice, by way of Adams and screenwriter Alexie, is at last in control of a cinematic narrative.
Some of the most memorable moments in SMOKE SIGNALS come when the characters acknowledge the impact of negative film and television narratives on Native American lives. When two aggressive white men steal Thomas and Victor’s seats on a bus, a disheartened Thomas sadly insists that “the cowboys always win,” a reference to the vast majority of western films. True to this film’s willful and sometimes playful subversion of stereotypes, the conversation leads Thomas and Victor to create a chant mocking John Wayne’s macho cowboy persona: a little triumph over a long and painful history of media marginalization.
SMOKE SIGNALS itself is a triumph over media marginalization, and one that is rightly celebrated nearly two decades after its release. But as recent controversies over films like THE LONE RANGER and THE RIDICULOUS SIX indicate, Native American representation onscreen remains a fraught and often frustrating topic. SMOKE SIGNALS is very much about the power of storytelling. One hopes that other films following its example by offering rich, complex stories by and about Native Americans will gain continued and increasing attention.