With Ellen Summerfield
About the Film
Smoke Signals is the first full-length feature film to be written, produced, directed, and acted (in all major roles) entirely by Native Americans. Based loosely on the 1994 short novel by Sherman Alexie entitled The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, it won two awards when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. By all measures, it is a landmark film.
Alexie himself wanted the film to break with tradition. In an interview with the Oregonian (July 7, 1998), he says that Smoke Signals “challenges the cinematic history of Indians.” His Indian characters are virtually new to the big screen, posing a contrast to the stereotypes of Indians as “stoic and alcoholic,” as “depressed poor people.” According to Alexie, “Indians are the most joyous people in the world.” He says, “The two funniest groups of people I’ve been around have been Indians and Jews. So I guess there’s something to be said about the inherent humor of genocide.”
About the Author
One of six siblings, Sherman Alexie grew up in poverty on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Washington State. His mother is part Spokane and a Protestant, and his father is full-blood Coeur d’Alene and a Catholic. Both of his parents were alcoholics, but his mother was able to break her addiction when her son was seven years old, and she subsequently became a tribal drug and alcohol abuse counselor.
A frail and sickly child, Alexie realized early that humor was an effective way to stave off bullies. “People like to laugh, and when you make them laugh they listen to you. That’s how I get people to listen to me now…. I’m saying things people don’t like for me to say. I’m saying very aggressive, controversial things, I suppose, about race and gender and sexuality. I’m way left [in my viewpoints], but if you say it funny, people listen. If you don’t make ‘em laugh, they’ll walk away.” (Biblio Magazine, March 1999).
Also partly to avoid getting beat up, Alexie spent a lot of time in the reservation school library. His father, who often stayed home while his mother worked, read to him and gave him books. Alexie attended junior high and high school off the reservation, in the nearby mostly white town of Reardon. Successful as a basketball player, honor society member, class president, and debater, he received a scholarship to Gonzaga University, a Jesuit College in Spokane.
But he began to drink heavily and dropped out of Gonzaga. Later he enrolled at Washington State University in Pullman. He credits Alex Kuo, his professor in a poetry-writing class, with helping him to discover his talent and profession as a writer. Several poems written in Kuo’s class ended up in his first book, The Business of Fancydancing (1992). While still living in Pullman, Alexie sobered up and became a popular figure at local poetry readings.
Since 1992, Alexie’s literary career has been remarkable. Though he considers himself primarily a poet and has published eight volumes of poetry, his widespread popularity has come from his fiction and screenplays. His works include:
Poetry, trade editions
The Business of Fancydancing
First Indian on the Moon
Old Shirts & New Skins
The Summer of Black Widows
Poetry, limited editions
I Would Steal Horses
Seven Mourning Songs for the Cedar Flute I Have Yet to Learn to Play
Water Flowing Home
The Man Who Loves Salmon
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven
The Toughest Indian in the World
Ten Little Indians
One Little Indian Boy
White Men Can’t Drum
Alexie currently lives in Seattle with his wife, Diane, of Hidatsa/Winnebago/Potawatomie descent, and his two sons. His frequent readings and literary presentations around the country are well-attended and hugely successful. He has a large and loyal following among Indians and non-Indians alike.
The Native Americans: An Illustrated History
Killing the White Man’s Indian: Reinventing Native Americans at the End of the Twentieth Century
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West
500 Nations: An Illustrated History of North American Indians
Prison Writings: My Life Is the Sun Dance
Incident at Oglala (1992)
Powwow Highway (1989)
The West (1996)
Where the Spirit Lives (1989)
Check your local or university library, commercial video store, or online sources to order a copy.
Find clips in the movie where Sherman Alexie has the characters play with the typical stereotypes of Indians. Join in the discussion with Faye and Ellen to talk about these stereotypes.
Note: To help make Popcorn and a Movie more interesting and interactive, Ellen Summerfield, creator of Popcorn and a Movie for this site, asked a colleague and Klamath tribal member, Fay Hurtado, to serve as our consultant and “cultural insider” for the film Smoke Signals. During the month of June, they e-mailed back and forth from Ellen’s home in McMinnville, Oregon, to Fay’s home on the Warm Springs Reservation in Oregon.
Before we begin our discussion of Smoke Signals, could you tell me a little about your Indian heritage?
I am an enrolled member of the Klamath Tribe located in Southern Oregon. Although I was born in Klamath Falls, shortly after the Klamath Tribe was terminated we moved to Warm Springs. My grandmother and my great grandfather are from the Warm Springs Tribe, and I married and built my home here in Warm Springs. Although I am a member of the Klamath Tribe a lot of my values and beliefs have come thru the teaching of the Warm Springs people. (Hope that sounds okay! I had to look up the meaning of heritage, in Indian Country we say “where you from?”) So may I ask you where you from?
Sure. I’m from the East Coast. My great-grandparents were Eastern European Jews who immigrated to Baltimore, Maryland, where both of my parents were born. I was also born in Maryland. I’ve moved around a lot, and my husband and I finally landed here in Oregon twenty years ago. Just last year, my mother moved here from the East Coast to join us.
OK, now to the film. My first question to you resulted from a wonderful evening I spent in Portland, Oregon, last week, listening to a reading by Sherman Alexie, who, as you know, write the screenplay for the film. Alexie was in town to promote his latest book, Ten Little Indians.
In the question and answer session of his presentation, Alexie was asked about how Indians liked Smoke Signals, and he said, “My tribe loves the hell out of that movie.” He also told us that “Indians who hate my books love that movie.” So I was wondering if you loved the movie (I seem to remember you said you did) and, if so, why?
Glad to hear you had a good time listening to Sherman.
I enjoyed the movie because it was the first time I saw things in a movie that I might see at home. Some of the things that people saw as comedy are actually things we see and live with on a daily basis. Remember the girls with the car that only drove backwards? Their transmission was out. Those are things we see here and think nothing about because our laws are such that we have young people driving without licenses and people driving with no windshields in their cars, or no forward gears in their car. Those are the Rez cars. The car never leaves the Rez but it allows people to get around within our small community. I guess that is the reason that I liked this movie.
That’s interesting to me to hear about the Rez cars and the fact that young people drive without licenses because of different laws on the reservation.
A different question I had is about the humor in the film. On the vhs cover, humor is mentioned at least four times. We’re told to “celebrate the comedy that had audiences and critics cheering.” The film is called a “rare and entertaining comic treat” and is quoted as being a “bittersweet comedy...funny and stylish” (LA Times). It’s also quoted as being “very funny!” (Good Morning America).
This seems to me to miss the point of the film. Yes, it’s funny, but it’s not a “comedy” to me, and that’s not what should be emphasized. What do you think?
Some of the things that Sherman showed the world about Indian country he chose to do through comedy. Or that’s how it comes out! When we see things happen that are not the norm or something that we consider unusual, it’s considered funny before anything else. Think about how the dominant society would react to things that happen in the movie? Would they laugh at the situation or become angry for the person being stupid, or just what would they do? And even saying it is a comedy in Indian country is okay. Comedy to us is not belittling it, or saying it is not as good as a documentary. Was that what you felt it was doing to say it was a comedy?
Waiting to hear from you!
I’ve been thinking about what you said about comedy. To me, the film is much more than a comedy. Yes, it’s very funny, but it’s also very serious. There’s a great deal of pain that is dealt with through humor. But the pain is the overriding emotion for me. I think of Victor and his suffering as a little boy when his father leaves. To me the film is about Victor’s journey to make peace with his father, which of course is very powerful. I also think of his father’s pain at knowing what he did and having to live with it. And of Victor’s mother, who had to lose her husband to save her son.
All of this gives me a picture of Indian country in which life brings sadness and grief, but where people show incredible resilience and humanity. So I guess I would call the film a “drama,” even though the word itself isn’t that important. It’s just that I don’t want the film to be advertised on the cover in a way that might be misinterpreted as something light, even silly or superficial.
But, out of what you said, is Indian? I see things in there that you cannot see. What you explain about a suffering little boy could be about any culture, so what makes this movie different? Are you relating the suffering to Indian? If you took what you wrote about Victor and placed it somewhere by itself, would your reader know that it was about an Indian boy? If not, then I don’t think you are getting the right picture of Indian country. That’s what I enjoyed about the movie. Sure the story line is very familiar, it could be Orphan Annie or some other film of that nature. But what makes it Indian, that’s what I enjoyed. That is why Sherman said his tribe loved the hell out of it.
Does that make any sense?
Good morning Fay,
I think you caught me. Your question is right on. What is “Indian” about the drama I described? Well, I have to admit that probably it’s my stereotypes. This is embarrassing. I’m sorry but I have to tell you the truth if Popcorn is going to be worth anything, so please bear with me. I think it’s the poverty and alcoholism. All the negative stuff.
But, like you wrote, there’s poverty and alcoholism elsewhere, and non-Indian fathers leave families. So are you saying that what makes this film Indian is the slant on life, the way of dealing with things that is more accepting and humorous (humorous in an “Indian” way) rather than getting mad and trying to change everything like non-Indians might do? Please help, I don’t know if I’m getting what you are explaining. Is this particular attitude toward life part of what you said you see that I don’t see?
I think I need to watch the film again!
Sorry to make things so confusing for you! Sometimes I can see and feel the confusion and that makes it very hard for me to stay in the Indian and not just do what I have been trained to do (give you the easy out and just agree with whatever is bringing the confusion). But I have come to realize that there is not growth for the other person when I do that. Sometimes I want to do that also because I get lazy too and don’t want to put the work into it that it takes (just letting you know so that if it does happen, maybe you will see it in my writing, that you can hold me accountable to the commitment that I have made with you).
Sorry, because my intent was not to embarrass you. Most people either put us in a place of feeling sorry for us, or hate what they do not understand. The idea of “the slant of life” makes sense to me. What people usually want to see is the negative stuff or the magical mystical stuff. Those seem to be the only two categories that the dominant society puts the Native American. Do you see anything different in the movie when you take out the poverty and alcoholism? What about the characters? Do they all seem normal to you? If not, who are the normal ones, or are they all not average or normal? Do they interact with each other as the dominant society does? Those are the things to me that make this movie good or why Indian people like the movie. Like I said before, the story line is somewhat familiar, the thing that separates it for me is the details of the story line. They are very subtle and if you do not know any Indians or have never been around them, you might not even catch them or be aware of them. That’s what I meant about things I see that maybe you do not. Because our beliefs and values are different I would not even call it an attitude. Attitude to me is something that is very much on the surface, things I can change by what company I am in. What I mean about the slant on life goes deeper than that. It is a way of being that we are or are not aware of.
Hang in there! Fay
Looking forward to hearing from you again.
What you wrote yesterday is very helpful. Thank you. I will try to understand better the “way of being” you referred to. I plan to watch the film again this weekend to try to see it in a different light.
Another question I’d like to ask you is which scene or scenes in Smokes Signals stand out for you? I suspect that we will choose different scenes, so it should be interesting to compare.
I am having trouble with this... Trying to decide on a scene is a little harder than I thought. What the Indians liked about the movie was the similarities to our way of life. The slang language “enit”, “aye” and such are very common to the Rez. That is the way we talk and make fun. The main point Sherman is trying to make is at the end of the movie, which I am sure that we all understood, but in trying to pick something that is Indian, you could actually pick any scene and go from there.
One thing off the top of my head, why is it so important to be able to make the best fry bread? That is common throughout the movie. There are comments throughout the movie like that that we understand. The comment about going to a foreign country when leaving the reservation, that is common. Anyway, let me know what you think and maybe we can go from there. Hope you have a great 4th!
This weekend I’m thinking about July 4th in terms of the film. It’s important, I think, that Sherman chose that day. I’m wondering if it has a particular meaning for you. Do you and your family and friends on the reservation celebrate it? If you do, is it more in an ironic way rather than a real holiday?
I’d love to know more about the slang you mentioned. I don’t even know what enit and aye mean. How do you use them to make fun?
Also, could you please explain why it’s so important to make the best fry bread? I thought that was sort of like me saying that “my mom makes the best apple pies,” but I wasn’t sure if that’s the meaning.
Hope you’re enjoying at least a long weekend and look forward to hearing from you,
The 4th is kind of celebrated, because we like fireworks, but as for the meaning no we do not celebrate it as an Independence Day. (It’s really only White People’s Independence Day.) For us it is a paid holiday (day off with pay) and I guess ironic rather than a real holiday. That is the same with Columbus Day, Thanksgiving Day, Washington’s Birthday & Labor Day—we all joke about celebrating it. They don’t have any real meaning to us other than bad news for our people.
This one I might have to think a little about, off the top of my head, enit is used kind of as a question that is made after a statement you make. Rather than saying “that dog is pretty, don’t you think?” you might say, “that dog is pretty, enit.” That’s how the word is used in language structure, but we are never looking for an answer to the question. There never has to be a response and usually never is. There are other ways the word is used but they are difficult to put into terms that would easily be understood.
“Aye” is more or less an expression of something joking. When you are teasing someone, you might make a teasing statement and then say “aye” at the end of it laughingly. It is funny but for the most part all reservation Indians are aware of the use no matter what Rez you are from.
In terms of Smoke Signals I guess “the best fry bread” would be the same as apple pie. From a country that has been oppressed for so long and has lived in poverty for so long, what you can “do” and who you “be” tends to have greater significance than what you drive and what you own or the career you have. Our political structure is based traditionally by what family you come from and what you “do” and “be” for the people rather than for yourself.
Well, I hope some of this makes sense and you get something out of it. Sometimes I wonder if any of this makes any sense because it is not something that you can really use for any purpose but maybe for your own knowledge. Just remember once you seem to get a handle on it and kind of understand it some other Indian is going to come along and say “no that’s not how it is for us.” Just as you have experienced even in the dominant culture, some don’t know the definition of culture and might answer you differently.
Hope you had a great 4th of July. What does that mean to you anyway? Do you celebrate it with any particular meaning or is it just a day of leisure for you too?
I sure enjoy the emails, they make me think! (Maybe you will see some of the way we talk written into our emails, I have been trying to respond the way I would at home and not make it sound like the way I am supposed to write.)
About the 4th. I’m not sure how much meaning it really has for white people or other non-Indians. It’s a paid holiday, like you said, and people usually get together with family and friends for a picnic or barbeque. And they set off fireworks or go to town to see them. I guess for a lot of people there’s some patriotism involved, but I’m not patriotic myself when it comes to things like holidays.
More later, Ellen