Smoke Signals

Written by Coeur D'Alene Sherman Alexie, directed by Cheyenne/Arapaho Chris Eyre and starring American Indians, "Smoke Signals" is a deceptively "small" movie. While lacking the big budget elements of the plastic commercial blockbusters featuring Arnold or Tom or Julia, it is from another perspective much grander than those types of films. It evokes William Blake's lines in "Auguries of Innocence":

"To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour."

Structured as a picaresque "road movie", "Smoke Signals" (based on Alexie's short story collection "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven") depicts a journey from the Coeur D'Alene reservation in Idaho to Phoenix by two teen-aged Indians, Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) and Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams). Victor's father Arnold (Gary Farmer) has just died and Victor is sent to return his ashes to the reservation. Thomas, whom Victor regards as something of a pest, pleads to be taken along.

Their relation to each other and to Victor's dead father supplies the central dramatic impulse for the film. While guests are asleep following a drunken party at the house of Thomas's parents on the fourth of July in 1976, Alvin accidentally starts a fire with a sparkler he is waving drunkenly. The infants Thomas and Victor are saved from the fire but Thomas's parents die in the flames. Thomas is rescued by Alvin, who catches him from a second story window. This act lends a certain grandeur to Alvin in Thomas's eyes, but for Victor his father is just a wife-beating drunk. Structured around a series of flashbacks, we see Alvin trying to impress the young Victor with magic tricks while in the next moment slapping his face for accidentally spilling some beer.

During a long bus ride, Victor and Thomas discuss what it means to be an Indian as well as what it means to be a human being in the larger sense. Victor is a suspicious and angry young man who excels in sports, while Thomas is warm, accepting and physically unprepossessing. Thomas is also a visionary and a story-teller, who occasionally drives Victor to distraction with his spontaneous Shaman-like tales. Victor is also on a reclamation project to make Thomas look "more Indian". This means getting him to get rid of the nerdy looking business suit he wears and his braids. While Victor's idea of being Indian has a lot to do with image, we (and Victor) discover that Thomas is in touch with older and more genuine indigenous roots as the film takes shape. Thomas's nonstop musings serve as the central "voice" of the movie as he constantly babbles about family, traditions, ancestors and values. While Victor glares at him during these rhapsodies, he is eventually seduced, as are we.

Much of the film's power has to do with its honesty, both in the way the characters are depicted and also in its use of on-location filming at the Coeur D'Alene reservation which, like most reservations, is literally in the middle of nowhere. It reminded me much of what I have heard from Jim Craven about the Blackfoot Reservation in Montana. It is a mixture of rugged mountainous landscape with meager ramshackle housing and tacky general stores run by whites. Director Chris Eyre has found a way to capture both aspects of the reservation, so the audience understands both the lingering attraction of the reservation and what drives its inhabitants to desperation. One of the nicest touches is Thomas and Victor getting a hitch to the bus stop by two teenaged girls in a jalopy stuck in reverse. Before they allow the two boys in, they demand a payment for the ride. Thomas suggests a story as barter and proceeds to spin out a wry tale of Alvin Joseph as a militant Indian antiwar hippie in 1967, to Victor's customary chagrin. To Victor's complaint that this never happened, Thomas responds with a smile and a shrug of the shoulders.

Interviews with Sherman Alexie during the publicity campaign surrounding the film's debut last year depict a man who appears to be a combination of Thomas, and both Victor and Arnold Joseph. Alexie is 6'2" and played basketball during his student days. Physical prowess did not come easy to him, however. He was born hydrocephalic and underwent brain surgery at the age of 6 months. He wasn't expected to survive and, if he did, the doctors expected him to be left mentally retarded.

Like many sickly children, Alexie took comfort in books. This eventually led him into a writing program at Washington State University and early successes in poetry and prose. Success has not come easy to him, however, and he has had to battle alcoholism. He has also had a troubled relation with his own father, who worked as a truck driver and logger on and off the reservation. He says, "We've had difficulty, mostly when were younger. We're at the point where I love him, but I'm pissed off at him. And I can tell him both things." (Minneapolis Star Tribune, July 8, 1998)

Alexie describes "Smoke Signals" as a challenge to the cinematic history of Indians. "In most films, Indians have been stoic. That's the stereotype of what Indians are supposed to be--stoic and alcoholic, depressed poor people. But in fact, Indians are the most joyous people in the world. The two funniest groups I've been around have been Indians and Jews. So I guess there's something to be said about the inherent humor of genocide."

Another challenge to preconceived expectations is what has been happening to the Coeur D'Alene people economically.

Since opening a modest bingo hall and casino in 1992, the reservation has become an "economic powerhouse" in the northern Idaho Panhandle, according to an August 14, 1998 Washington Post article. More than $100 million in land and facilities is held and another $60 million is slated for construction.

The Post article points out that the Coeur D'Alene view casinos as a means to an end, that being a diversified economic structure including industrial parks to golf courses, which they believe will be more dependable and long-lasting than casinos. David J. Matheson, their chief executive officer for gaming, says, "Ultimately, we'd like gaming to be a footnote in our history, to be able to say that it was here and we used it for a purpose because we chose to. But my ultimate hope is that someday we can phase out gaming entirely."

For the average reservation resident, the income has made a difference. Charlotte Nilson got a degree at Lewis and Clark College in Lewiston, 75 miles south of the rez. "There are no limits to what we can do. We can do just about anything we want to do."

Leaving aside the question of whether other economic resources might have entailed less loss of cultural autonomy, a backlash is growing in Washington against the system which allowed casinos to be built. Lawmakers seek to remove tribal autonomy and exemption from local and state taxes. The Coeur D'Alene are also under attack for launching U.S. Lottery, the first American Indian gambling site on the Internet.

While the Coeur D'Alene are determined to protect their right to use gaming for the collective benefit of the people, their real priorities are on projects like a Wellness Center that is meant to fight unhealthy habits in Indian country, including obesity, alcoholism and drug abuse.

Another important project is the eventual purchase of world-famous Coeur D'Alene Resort, 40 miles north of the reservation. The state court has ruled that the lake the resort sits on is Indian property, ceded by the federal government before Idaho statehood.

In 1991 the tribe filed a massive lawsuit against the local silver, lead and zinc mining industries for dumping millions of tons of heavy metals into the Coeur D'Alene watershed, which also fouled the lake. Today, the site is the nation's second largest Superfund cleanup project, expected to cost $120 million.

The current owner of the resort said that he'd be surprised if the entire lake came under Indian control. But if it did, he said, "I think the tribe would be good stewards. They have a long history of deep concern for the lake, and I think however it turns out, its beauty will be retained."


I want to thank long time cyberfriend Ya-ZZZ, a Cherokee wisewoman, for recommending "Smoke Signal" and also the way she recommended it.