Spring 2014 • English 120 • Section 7225 Instructor Karl Sherlock

Study Guide: Sherman Alexie, Smoke Signals


Official Website for the Film


Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel review the film



Adam Beach as Victor Joseph

Evan Adams as Thomas Builds-the-Fire

Irene Bedard as Suzy Song

Gary Farmer as Arnold Joseph

Tantoo Cardinal as Arlene Joseph

Cody Lightning as Young Victor Joseph

Simon Baker as Young Thomas Builds-the-Fire

Michelle St. John as Velma

Robert Miano as Burt

Molly Cheek as Penny

Monique Mojica as Grandma Builds-the-Fire

Elaine Miles as Lucy

Michael Greyeyes as Junior Polatkin

Chief Leonard George as Lester Fallsapart

John Trudell as Randy Peone

Darwin Haine as Boo

Tom Skerritt as Police Chief

Cynthia Geary as Cathy the Gymnast

Perrey Reeves as Holly

Featured Poem from the film

Forgiving Our Fathers

by Dick Lourie

maybe in a dream: he's in your power

you twist his arm but you're not sure it was

he that stole your money you feel calmer

and you decide to let him go free

or he's the one (as in a dream of mine)

I must pull from the water but I never

knew it or wouldn't have done it until

I saw the street-theater play so close up

I was moved to actions I'd never before taken

maybe for leaving us too often or

forever when we were little maybe

for scaring us with unexpected rage

or making us nervous because there seemed

never to be any rage there at all

for marrying or not marrying our mothers

for divorcing or not divorcing our mothers

and shall we forgive them for their excesses

of warmth or coldness shall we forgive them

for pushing or leaning for shutting doors

for speaking only through layers of cloth

or never speaking or never being silent

in our age or in theirs or in their deaths

saying it to them or not saying it -

if we forgive our fathers what is left

Questions for Discussion

c. Jim Egge, 2003; Concordia College



What were the most important meanings that you found in this film?  What messages do you think

the filmmakers were trying to communicate?  What aspects of this film deal with situations unique to

Indians, and what aspects concern universal human themes?  


Near the beginning of the film, Thomas says, “You know, there are some children who aren’t really

children at all.  They’re just pillars of flame that burn everything they touch.  And there are some children

who are just pillars of ash, that fall apart if you touch ’em.  Me and Victor—we were children born of flame

and ash.”  What does Thomas mean by this?  What images of fire and ash appear in this film?  


After Arnold saves Thomas from the fire, Grandma Builds-the-Fire says to him, “You saved

Thomas.  You did a good thing,” and Arnold replies, “I didn’t mean to.”  Why does Arnold respond in this



Near the end of the film, Thomas asks Victor, “Do you know why your Dad really left?”  Victor replies,

“Yeah.  He didn’t mean to, Thomas.”  What didn’t Arnold mean to do?  What does this exchange reveal to

us about Victor and Thomas?


Thomas’ monologue at the end of the film is adapted from “Forgiving Our Fathers,” a poem by Dick

Lourie, a non-Native author.  The film’s version of the poem is given below.  How does this poem work as a

conclusion to the film? How do we forgive our fathers?  Maybe in a dream.  Do we forgive our fathers for

leaving us too often or forever?  Maybe for scaring us with unexpected rage, or making us nervous because

there never seemed to be any rage there at all?  Do we forgive our fathers for marrying or not marrying

our mothers?  For divorcing or not divorcing our mothers?  And shall we forgive them for their excesses of

warmth or coldness?  Shall we forgive them for pushing or leaning?  For shutting doors?  For speaking

through walls, or never speaking, or never being silent?  Do we forgive our fathers in our age or in

theirs?  Or in their deaths?  Saying it to them or not saying it?  If we forgive our fathers, what is left?

(For the full text see Ghost Radio


Our images of ourselves and of other people come not only from our experiences of ourselves and of

other people, but also from movies, television, books, and other media.  How have Native Americans

typically been represented in American popular culture, especially movies?  (Recall LaDuke’s discussion of

this topic in Last Standing Woman, 108-110.)  How does Smoke Signals conform to or break with these



This film repeatedly uses humor to comment on stereotypes about Indians.  Identify some of the

humorous scenes in the film.  Why might a Native audience find them funny?


What does being an Indian mean to Victor and Thomas?  (Recall especially their conversation on the

bus when Victor ridicules Thomas for watching Dances with Wolves so many times).  Where do you think

that Victor has gotten his ideas about how an Indian should act?  


Discuss the following comment by Sherman Alexie.  Do you agree with his understanding of

fiction?  What do you see as the role of Thomas’ stories in the movie?

“It’s all based on the basic theme, for me, that storytellers are essentially liars. At one point in the movie, Suzy asks Thomas, “Do you

want lies or do you want the truth?,” and he says, “I want both.” I think that line is what reveals most about Thomas’s character and

the nature of his storytelling and the nature, in my opinion, of storytelling in general, which is that fiction blurs and nobody knows what

the truth is. And within the movie itself, nobody knows what the truth is.” (“Sending Cinematic Smoke Signals: An Interview with

Sherman Alexie,” by Dennis West and Joan M. West, Cineaste 23 (Fall, 1998): 28 (5 pages), http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/MRC/



As the film proceeds how does the friendship between Victor and Thomas change? In NE Aristotle

discusses the various types of friendship. Are Aristotle's types of friendship helpful in characterizing their

relationship? What about the other relationships depicted in the film?


The characters of Thomas and Victor can be thought of as representing the active and contemplative

aspects of life. In what way does each exhibit these characteristics? Is this a useful way of thinking about

the life choices each of the young men have made?


Trivia question: What are the names of the women who drive around the reservation in reverse, and

what is the significance of their names?