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Study Guide: Sherman Alexie, Smoke Signals

Download a pdf of this resource: "Smoke Signals" Study Guide

Sherman Alexie


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 

  1. 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?  
  2. 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?  
  3. 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 way?
  4. 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?
  5. 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
  6. 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 images?
  7. 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?
  8. 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?  
  9. 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?
  10. 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?
  11. Trivia question: What are the names of the women who drive around the reservation in reverse, and what is the significance of their names?
  12. 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)
Last Updated: 02/08/2016


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