Smoke Signals is a seminal piece of Native American cinema. In fact, it’s one of the only Native American films written, directed, and produced by Native Americans that has been absorbed into the Western canon. Based off of various short stories from Sherman Alexie’s “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” (another piece of Native American art that’s been critically accepted), the film’s plot is contingent on modern Native life. The thing is – the “Native American-ism” present in the film isn’t what makes it great. The characters and their relatable, endearing qualities of pain and healing make them human, and this human core is what makes the film great.
Victor, the main character of the film and arguably the main character in “…Fistfight in Heaven,” is in pain. His pain stems from his father Arnold’s departure from his family and reservation – Arnold “disappears,” which he claims is the only thing he’s ever been good at. Victor consistently takes this pain out on those around him, particularly Thomas, a boy that’s intrinsically linked to him by his father.
Victor and Thomas are dichotic opposites – where Victor is violent, Thomas is peaceful; where Victor is popular, Thomas is an outcast; where Victor was raised by his parents, Thomas was orphaned as a baby. Thomas being saved by Arnold is a complex factor in Victor’s life, and is perhaps the primary reason for his long held distain for Thomas. Thomas has happy stories of Arnold, but Victor only has memories of pain and abandonment of his father. When Victor is told that his father also saved him from the fire, he refuses to accept this because his negative construct of his father was wrapped around this abandonment and perceived favoritism of Thomas. Ultimately, Victor seems to accept that his father started the fire on accident, an event that shaped the lives of everyone involved. The fire also explains Arnold’s pain and why he felt the need to disappear from the reservation for so long. Victor is ultimately healed when he gives a portion of his father’s ashes to Thomas and spreads the rest into the river.
Thomas is in pain as well, but his adjustment to being orphaned and ostracized by much of the tribe is different from Victors’. Instead of turning to anger and violence, Thomas tells stories to explain his own pain and the pain of those around him. Instead of striving for popularity and entertainment, Thomas focuses on his grandmother’s wellbeing. Thomas is marginalized by a group of marginalized people; an outcast among outcasts. Thomas is eager to please, and is hurt when other’s don’t accept him, but he rarely changes his own behavior for the sake of others. He foots the bill to collect Arnold’s remains not only because Arnold is an important figure in his own life, but because he wants to get closer with Victor – someone who, I’d wager, he sees more as a brother than a friend. Thomas’ healing comes, as always, from helping people, and part of his healing came from Victor relinquishing part of his father’s ashes.
There are numerous Native American symbols in the film, but hair is one of the more intriguing ones. Hair serves as a symbol of being Native; the longer and freer it gets the more of a Native you are. Arnold chops his hair off after starting the fire, showing his rejection of himself as a member of the tribe. Victor cuts off half of his hair after accepting his father’s death, either as an act of solidarity with his father or as an act of change in his own life, a break away from the past. Thomas unbraids his hair when Victor convinces him that’s what a real Native should do, but reverts to his standard braids and suit following the car crash. Likewise, fire, alcohol, fry bread and more all serve as interesting, complex Native American symbols present in the film.
Smoke Signals can be, and has been, praised for being Native American to its core, but its true strengths lie in the relationships between characters and their respective growths throughout the film. Some characters are perhaps a bit one dimensional, but the theme of pain and healing permeates the film and makes it what it is. Smoke Signals isn’t just a good Native American film – it’s a damn good film outright.