A Critical and Interpretive Analysis of the Film “Smoke Signals”


Americans like to use phrases like, “land of the free,” and “the American dream,” primarily because phrases like these have been spoon-fed to them via media outlets and social norms, and have been passed down through generations.

But what do these clichés represent? Like the American system of economics and currency, does this nation possess the gold to back its dollar? When was the last time America had to prove that she really was “indivisible,” if ever?

Isn’t that one of America’s most defining features? Is it not divided? Is it not diverse?

The last words of the pledge of allegiance, ironic as it is, are “liberty and justice for all,” but does that phrase ring true “for all,” or even, for any?

Does this country’s history contain substantial enough evidence of “equality,” “dignity,” and “honor” to be appropriately associated with those attributes? Or rather, are they simply abstract symbols and ideologies that together make up a set of invisible principles that we seldom actually appreciate or demonstrate, much like the stereotypes of the races of people that inhabit the nation?

Best Response

How was America’s land obtained and, based on those ugly truths, what was expected to happen? Did the founding fathers really think that a past of violence, intolerance, and close-mindedness could ever possibly lead to a future of peace, accessibility, and morality?

Who was excluded from this “American dream,” and why did it take so long simply to even acknowledge the hypocrisy of excluding anyone at all?

Smoke Signals Movie

The intention of this critical and interpretive analysis based on the cultural aspects of the film Smoke Signals is to clarify the fact that just maybe America does not always (or even usually) adhere to its own standard of professed values, and ultimately, that the stereotypes existing within American society are just as empty, contradictory, and hypocritical as the ideologies on which America was founded.

There are four major cultural and universal themes within Smoke Signals that lend themselves to this idea. The first of the leading foundations is that citizens are urged to assimilate.

But what exactly does it mean to integrate oneself into a specific “American population” when that population has never specifically been defined by any one “way of life”?

Patrick Bateman

Secondly, there is a strong presence of identity contained inside Smoke Signals. What does it mean to be Native American, or Black, White, Jewish, Arab, Asian, Hispanic, or anything else, for that matter? More importantly, is it necessary to label each of these denominations as being something separate from, nevertheless, American?

Then, it is important to discuss responsibility for these expectations, identities, and ethnic fictions. Could it be that the people within these races are just as responsible for the perpetuation of such small-minded viewpoints as those outside their races? Who is to blame for these continued stereotypes, long after one might assume that human beings had evolved beyond buying into such obviously foolish outlooks?

And finally, who wins, if anyone? What does society benefit from accepting these false angles? The aim here is to use evidence from Smoke Signals as a tool to analyze and evaluate assimilation, identity, and responsibility, all of which are still very important and relevant issues among Americans of every race, and finally, to establish who is defeated, and who is victorious.

So how exactly does one blend into the “specific” Code of Americanism? It is as impossible as the Code is invisible. In Smoke Signals, the choice becomes assimilation or reservation. But why does it have to be one or the other? Why is isolation necessary to those who do not care to emulate something that they do not represent and by whom they are not represented?


The first generalization consists of the presupposition that all American Indians identify with other American Indians inhabiting a certain reservation (similarly based on the notion that all people within one race can relate to others within that race). The film accomplishes a clear and accurate depiction of a Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation-dwelling Native American, but this is to assume that a Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation-dwelling Native American is the only denomination of Native American that exists.

Thomas and Victor do not encounter any successful, educated, business-owning American Indians on their journey, on or off the reservation.

Russell Means

For a viewer that possesses extensive experience with American Indians, the first tragic problem with Smoke Signals emerges: It only reflects the lifestyles of Natives on reservations, while excluding those living among mainstream citizens. This may give an audience member with little or no Native American understanding a false impression of the achievements of these people.

It may appear as if American Indians have not yet assimilated to American culture, or may even cause a viewer to forget or overlook the fact that they indeed were forced to assimilate.


Remember that teeny-tiny part in your high school American History course about American Indians trading their customs, spirituality, skills, land, languages, children’s education and desired upbringing, resources, and even their names for the mere right to avoid falling victim to annihilation and genocide? True story.

And yet, because they have these designated reservations and sometimes practice some of the rituals and traditions of their past on said reservations, society can still claim that they have failed to assimilate. Perhaps American Indians should have abandoned every part of their culture and history in order to truly satisfy the status quo.


Or maybe the American Indians should have asked the early settlers to assimilate to their way of life. Perhaps then America would still have some trees left and the caps of the Appalachian Mountains wouldn’t be missing from America’s topographical map now.

It was not until the year 2000 that the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) issued “a formal apology to all American Indians” for forbidding “the speaking of Indian languages, prohibit[ing] the conduct of traditional religious activities, outlaw[ing] traditional government, and [making] Indian people ashamed of who they were” (Eastman 199).

“Worst of all,” the apology continues, “the Bureau of Indian Affairs committed these acts against the children entrusted to its boarding schools, brutalizing them emotionally, psychologically, physically, and spiritually,” and admits that “the trauma of shame, fear, and anger has passed from one generation to the next, and manifests itself in the rampant alcoholism, drug abuse, and domestic violence that plague Indian country” (Eastman 199).

As overdue and disturbing as this apology is, it still acknowledges that “Indian country” is not the same as America.


“You guys got your passports?” Velma asks the traveling duo at one point in the film. “But, it’s the United States,” Thomas replies. “Damn right it is!” she says, “That’s as foreign as it gets. Hope you guys have your vaccinations” (Eyre). This dialogue makes it apparent that there are completely different aspects to life on the Nation’s reservation than life as a typical U.S. citizen.

Why then, would the story fail to introduce perhaps other, more relatable Native American characters to its audience? Considering the “road trip” structure of the film, it had plenty of opportunity to work this occurrence into the plot. Even Suzy Song, a hospital administrator from New York, had to get rides home from Arnold Joseph, and told Thomas and Victor that she didn’t even know if she had a job anymore.

The film doesn’t have to choose between depicting a reservation-dwelling Indian or a rural-, urban-, or suburban-dwelling Indian, for that matter. In order to truly give the viewer a better insight to the modern American Indian, it could have depicted all of these possibilities, from reservation-dwelling to the Indian who has adjusted to living within the multi-cultural neighborhoods of other Americans. After all, as of 2010, only about forty percent of Indians live on reservations (Eastman 198). Joe Medicine Crow, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom said:

“I have lived in two worlds: one is a traditional Crow Indian way—I dance, sing, and go to ceremonies and all those things; and at the same time, I lived like a modern American, going to several colleges; I had good jobs. I can mix the two, blend the two, get the best from each and enjoy living life in both worlds” (Eastman 185).

Charles Eastman

Smoke Signals may have been more effective had it exemplified a more balanced American Indian character who, like Joe Medicine Crow, may have lived in a more “bi-cultural way” (Eastman 186). This “bi-cultural way” that Crow mentions reflects the realistic aspect of being any American citizen. Americans do not have to—and should not be encouraged to—choose between identifying with their nationality and identifying with their nation. The American can, and should, comfortably distribute his identity among both.

So if Sherman Alexie was attempting to humanize his Native characters, he may have done well to include a more emblematic American Indian in his cast. “Most American Indians support the idea of a visible cultural mosaic that allows them to retain their Indian identity and promotes multiculturalism” (Eastman 198). That considered, Alexie leaves much up to the audience. This proves that there is an overestimation of the amount of involvement his viewers are going to have in the film, which brings the involved viewer to the film’s second tragic flaw.

Casual Viewer

When watching Smoke Signals, it is important to consider that one cannot simply watch Smoke Signals. The objective of the film is not to entertain its audience. Hence, the tragedy: The film’s message is based on the assumption that its audience is going to be composed of active, critically aware participants in the film’s interpretation, rather than a group of conventional Americans in a theatre who possess the same amount of attention and deliberation towards their buckets of popcorn as they do towards the content of the film.

In order to fully appreciate the purpose of Smoke Signals, one has to think further than the exterior of its humor and lightheartedness. It is true that, “The success of Smoke Signals has indeed cracked open a door” to exploring the modern American Indian but that, “It remains to be fully examined as to how well the film negotiates the difficult spaces between entertaining and educating” (Gilroy 30).

It is truly imperative to understand that, “The film creates a system of schemata that alerts the viewer to look beyond the surface level of the narrative for deeper philosophical meanings,” but that ultimately, it is left to the credit of the audience member to actually do so in order to grasp those connotations (Gilroy 31).

Unfortunate as it is that although Smoke Signals “develops characters with both specific Indian qualities and more common American aspects,” it may not “[promote] a more complete human image of contemporary American Indians to a popular American audience,” because the “popular American audience” tends to stick to the shell of the message instead of really digging into the core of it (Mihelich 131).

Reinforced Stereotype

As a result, it may be too easy for a viewer to decipher some of the violence, alcoholism, and poverty in the film as being an Indian-specific circumstance rather than a universally humanizing circumstance. (Because we haven’t reinforced that stereotype enough already.)

Not to mention, “The apparent surface simplicity of Smoke Signals belies its complexity and depth” (Gilroy 29). So although through no fault of the film’s writer, director, or other contributors, it regrettably risks being misinterpreted and perhaps taken too lightly.

As far as the identities of the characters in the film, Smoke Signals works to provide a plethora of struggles that Native Americans (and those within other racial groups) could realistically have, as Americans. The audience may have had its preconceived notions about American Indians going into the film, but they definitely wouldn’t have maintained those ideas by the time they reached its end.

Even Sherman Alexie, “who wrote the script…has noted that American popular culture recognizes only two major Native American profiles: the warrior and the shaman” (West 28). Why then, are the main characters in Smoke Signals depicted as such? Wouldn’t Alexie want to break away from these two overplayed roles?

Smoke Signals

Despite the modern lens through which the audience is viewing these characters, Victor clearly plays the warrior role while Thomas is the obvious shaman. Wouldn’t placing the main characters of an American Indian film in these positions only further limit what the viewer is going to take from those roles, which is a mere upholding of the fabricated illusions that the film should seek to eradicate?

This may seem like an unproductive method, but once again, should the audience look closer to discover the reasons behind those identities, they may find that the humorous use of these characters actually succeeds in familiarizing them with a new way of imagining American Indians. If the viewer cares to delve any deeper, he might discover that, “Victor’s inability to see beyond his own internalized stereotypical perceptions of Thomas, himself, and his father keeps him from seeing the greater truths in Thomas’ stories” (Gilroy 37).

So the casting is meant to draw attention to the restrictions of these stereotypes.

“Through the viewers’ identification with Victor, the movie holds a mirror up to a mainstream audience that might harbor similarly jaundiced views of American Indian cultures” (Gilroy 37).

In other words, the true intent of the warrior’s and shaman’s presences is simply to convey the message that intraracial struggles with identity can be just as detrimental as interracial struggles and, more importantly, to draw attention to Victor’s mistaken perceptions as a means to deter the audience from making the same mistakes he does when categorizing American Indians.

The film is constantly divulging the emergent concept that although we are laughing at the characters, we should really be laughing at ourselves. Brilliantly through humor, Alexie manages to “reveal how such systems of knowledge and thought create false images of American Indian people and cultures,” and he did this intentionally (Caves 162).

Sherman Alexie

Alexie even said, “I think humor is the most effective political tool out there, because people will listen to anything if they’re laughing” (West 30).

So with regard to identity, it would be easier for the American Indian to establish a sense of self were it not for the prejudicial outlooks towards themselves, and received from others. Throughout the film, we see Victor accuse Thomas of having an inability to “be a real Indian” (Eyre).

However, “Victor is blind to his own hypocrisy as he condemns Thomas for participating in the process of self-identification, despite the fact that Thomas clearly displays his understanding of his own cultural heritage as a tribe of fisherpeople rather than the stoic buffalo-hunting warriors Victor seeks to emulate” (Gilroy 34).

Victor’s blindness also offers an interesting point about the contradictions of labeling one’s own race. He speaks as though there is an Indian “rule book” of sorts, much like there is the aforementioned Invisible Guide to American Assimilation, which really only limits the extent of his potential identity.

He attests to the fact that, “You got to look mean or people won’t respect you” (Eyre).

This is an example of Victor creating his own expectations of what it means to be Indian. “Victor must work through the labels of the dominant discourse before he can understand himself as an Indian and the importance of Thomas’ stories” (Caves 155). At the beginning of the movie when the narration is taking place surrounding the fire event, the audience is informed that “Arnold Joseph mourned by cutting his hair,” and perhaps that is how Victor mourned too, near the end of the film when he cuts his hair with his father’s knife (Eyre).

Or perhaps that was a symbolic move towards abandoning his silly concept that, “An Indian man ain’t nothing without his hair” (Eyre). Eventually, Victor sheds his hair and also his internalized racism.

Smoke Signals Bus

He “has been forced to realize that the stereotype of drunken Indian he has applied to his father” does not necessarily define who his father was, and that people are more complicated than the labels and reputations that have been attached to them by others (Caves 162).

In addition to internalized racism, a perfect example of an external preconception is the point in the film at which the police officer expresses “surprise at an Indian who doesn’t drink [which] reflects the stereotypical trope of the drunken Indian” once again (Gilroy 27).

It is only when Victor alleviates his father of that stereotype that he also relieves himself of the burden of his own “warrior” stereotype. One might argue that just as Arnold Joseph’s stereotype does not “encompass the entirety of the person, his actions, and experience,” nor do the people of America encompass the nation’s predominant viewpoint, its so-called values, or its history (Caves 162). That is precisely (and only) what our race says about us: We are separated by our experiences, depending on the group of people to which we historically belong. There is no specific code to being American, no “one way”.

“It seems to be a popular idea that all the characteristic skill of the Indian is instinctive and hereditary,” said Charles Eastman. “This is a mistake. All the stoicism and patience of the Indian are acquired traits” (Eastman).

In other words, Indians don’t come into the world holding peace pipes or wearing war paint.

These customs, like traditions within other American races, are passed down through generations and depending on how one is raised, one may not acquire all of the same ideas, impressions, rituals, or beliefs that another person might acquire from that same race.

The truth is that Thomas is far more in touch with himself than is Victor because Thomas does not allow these “Indian policies” to regulate his personality. The audience would be wise to use Thomas’ open-mindedness as a tool when deciphering what it means to be a part of any particular race.

Not only does this outlook allow people of other races to be who they truly are without having to live up to some non-existent prototypical mold, but it also gives the viewer—regardless of racial affiliation—more freedom to perceive people as they truly are. One may find it quite liberating and refreshing to actually form an opinion of someone based on who they actually are rather than what they appear to be.

So who wins in this battle against vacantly maintaining unfulfilling views of the identities of those within the several various races of people who populate America?

Some might say that no one wins.

After all, if no one can assimilate to the invisible standard of what it is to be “American,” and if no one can fully identify with the interpretation of their nation or their nationality, and if no one accepts responsibility for the continuation of these impossibilities, then clearly, no one wins.

There is, however, one way that Americans can all win, and that is to collectively get on board with truth. And the truth of the matter is exemplified in Ian Haney López’s The Social Construction of Race, a piece in which he defines race as “a vast group of people loosely bound together by historically contingent, socially significant elements of their morphology and/or ancestry” (López 165).

As unrealistic as it may sound for every citizen to alter their mindset to this definition, it may not be as difficult as it seems if the correct action is taken through political discussion, early education, and parental guidance. If everyone adopted López’s definition of race, there would no longer be any reason to discriminate against those who look different from us, because what it says is basically that, biologically, everyone is human. And although they may have varying elements that make up their histories, they are all American.

As for who was defeated and who was victorious in Native America’s battle, the answer is obvious.

White America prevailed, as usual, while the American Indians still feel the residual cruelty and corruption that was done unto their people.

The death rate for Natives on reservations for ages 15 to 24 is sixty percent higher than the overall population, and for ages 24 to 44, it is eighty percent higher (Eastman 196).

“Alcoholism, tuberculosis, diabetes, pneumonia, and suicides are much higher [on reservations] than the average…[and] violent crime is 250% higher than [the] overall population” (Eastman 196).

In addition to health concerns, “Sixty percent of Indian women will become victims of violence during their lifetimes…[and] twenty-six percent [of reservation-dwelling Indians] live below the poverty line—the highest of any racial group” (Eastman 196).

In addition, “Six of the seven counties with the lowest income in the U.S. are on reservations in South and North Dakota,” which is due to several “economic barriers that inhibit employment on reservations,” such as, “remote geographic locations,” “inadequate education,” and “lack of access to investment capital” (Eastman 196).

It is clear here who has been defeated.

And yet, “American Indians remain the racial group with the highest rate of volunteer military service,” and display the American flag at many of their powwows and sacred rites (Eastman 197). Perhaps this is because they still think of themselves as warriors. Perhaps it is to prove how much they regret the outcome of the last time they fought for America, before she was even called “America”.

The BIA stated in its apology to Native Americans in 2000:

“Never again will we attack your religions, your languages, your rituals, or any of your tribal ways. Never again will we seize your children, nor teach them to be ashamed of who they are. Never again” (Eastman 199).

But why would they have a reason to commit any of those brutal atrocities ever again when they got it right the first time? It seemed to have yielded precisely the desired effect—an effect that has lasted over seven generations. The Indians are defeated. The White man has won because, as Thomas reminds us, “The cowboys always win” (Eyre).

That is the status quo that Americans assimilate to: Being victorious at all costs. That is what people achieve by being “American”.

There is only question left: Why? Why would people want to emulate such a historically horrendous group of people? Why would anyone want to come to America and assimilate to such a distorted and selfish way of life? Perhaps it is one’s right to say things like these about America that makes it worth inhabiting. But if America’s set of beliefs has never been actualized in the history of America, why would anyone think that it’s possible now?

The answer lies in John Wayne’s teeth. “Victor and Thomas do, in a sense, get the last word. They may have lost their seats, but not their dignity” (Gilroy 36). As long as Americans still exist who are willing to rise to the occasion of standing up and speaking out, then there will be a chance for collective truth. So next time someone starts chanting in the back of a bus, join them. Make that the “American thing to do,” because united, we really do stand.

Fry Bread Power

Works Cited

Caves, Awndrea Shar. “This Ain’t Dances with Salmon, You Know: Postindian Simulations in Sherman Alexie’s Smoke Signals.” Newcastle upon Tyne; Cambridge Scholars. Sovereignty, Separatism, and Survivance: Ideological Encounters in the Literature of Native North America. Chapter 8 (2009): p. 153-168. Print.

Eastman (Ohiyesa), Charles Alexander. Living in Two Worlds: The American Indian Experience. Ed. Michael Oren Fitzgerald. Bloomington, Indiana: World Wisdom, Inc., 2010. Print.

Eyre, Chris, dir. Smoke Signals. Writ. Sherman Alexie. ShadowCatcher Entertainment. Welb Film Pursuits, Ltd., 1998. Film. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120321.

Gilroy, Jhon Warren. “Fine Examples of the Oral Tradition? Identification and Subversion in Sherman Alexie’s Smoke Signals.” Studies in American Indian Literatures: Representations of American Indians in Contemporary Narrative Fiction Film. Vol. 13. No. 1. Spring 2001. p. 23-42. University of Nebraska Press, JSTOR. Web. 5 Apr 2012. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20736999.

López, Ian F. Haney. “The Social Construction of Race.” Critical Race Theory – The Cutting Edge. Ed. Richard Delgado and Ed. Jean Stefancic. 2nd Edition. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994. p. 163-175. Print.

Mihelich, John. “Smoke or Signals? American Popular Culture and Challenge to Hegemonic Images of American Indians in Native American Film.” Wicazo Sa Review. Vol. 16. No. 2 (Fall 2001): p. 129-137. Web. 5 Apr 2012. http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/wic/summary/v016/16.2milhelich.html.

West, Dennis, and Joan M. West. “Sending Cinematic Smoke Signals: An Interview with Sherman Alexie.” Cineaste: America’s Leading Magazine on the Art and Politics of the Cinema Vol. 23.No. 4 (1998):   p. 28-31. MLA International Bibliography; EBSCO Host; Academic Search Complete. Web. 5 Apr 2012. Accession Number 1998088696.

Published by GramenVox

I love hypothetical conversations about how to survive the apocalypse. I love arguing over which musicians I could combine together to form the perfect band. I love conducting research, and I appreciate my resources. I love freedom (or at least the ones that haven't yet been revoked), and look forward to the day that everyone will have the same ones.

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