Geography of the United States and Canada

Discussion of Smoke Signals

The screen play for Smoke Signals was written by Sherman Alexie and based loosely on his

book, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Firstfight in Heaven. The movie is somewhat more upbeat

than the book, but manages to convey many of the themes that Alexie has emphasized in his

writings. Alexie has been cited by critics as being particularly adept at dealing with the issue

of cultural and ethnic stereotypes, and this will be one of the questions that you must deal

with in your essay.

All cultures have basic traits that many people in that culture share in common. These traits

are frequently linked to larger or deeper cultural values. For those who study culture, traits

can be a way of learning about these cultural values. However, traits themselves fail to

“define” a culture and in some cases many not tell us much about the culture. In addition,

not all members of a culture share all the traits. A stereotype in its most basic form

simplifies an individual to a cultural trait that he or she is supposed to possess based on

preconceptions we have about his or her culture. In short, it reduces people to one

dimensional beings. For example, talkativeness is a cultural trait of the Irish – “the gift of

gab”. Many Irish people are verbally gifted, and there has been an emphasis in Irish culture

on both the spoken and written word. While this is a meaningful cultural trait, it does not

apply to all Irish people. Some are quiet, and others have no love for the written word.

More importantly, however, even for those Irish people that have this cultural trait, it does

not define who they are. People are much more complicated than stereotypes allow them to


Native Americans have been stereotyped as much as any group in the United States. Most

commonly these stereotypes have been negative, but occasionally positive. Nonetheless,

mainstream America seems content with a grossly oversimplified understanding of Native

Americans. This is where Sherman Alexie’s work is quite important. In Smoke Signals, Alexie

presents us with four important characters: Victor Joseph, Arnold Joseph, Thomas Builds-

the-Fire, and Susie Song. Each represents a common stereotype of Native Americans. For

example, Arnold is the classic drunken Indian who is abusive, unreliable and generally a

messed up guy. Victor is the Noble Savage, a concept of Native Americans that was quite

popular in the 19th century. They were often viewed as stoic and brave, but uncivilized.

Alexie is quite careful to emphasize this aspect of Victor in the movie. At one point, Victor

even tells Thomas to quite smiling so much. Thomas is the mystic. His storytelling and

apparent spirituality are part of a common, albeit somewhat positive view of Native

Americans. The modern view of Indians as environmentalists tends to stem from this

tradition stereotype of Native Americans. Finally, Susie Song seems to represent a female

version of the Noble Savage – perhaps the Savage Beauty. This idea, which has been around

for at least 150 years, portrays Native American women as beautiful and exotic. The sexual

overtones of this stereotype have been strong, especially in the Victorian era when

“American” morals did not permit much open discussion of sexuality. Most recently, the

Disney animated feature Pocahontas used this portrayal of Native American women.

Although the character of Pocahontas had many positive features, like all Disney heroines,

she was a “babe.” This plays very much on the traditional savage beauty stereotype. By the

way, on the posters for the movie and the cover of the video and DVD, Susie Song appears

in the center in the front with Thomas and Victor at her sides (near the edge of the picture) –

– a reasonably prominent place for a character that was clearly second to both Victor and

Thomas in the movie. To make the situation more interesting, Irene Bedard, the actress

who plays Susie Song, is the same actress who voiced the character of Pocahontas.

However, Alexie does not let these stereotypes stand. He forces (as much as a writer can)

the reader or viewer to see that these characters have more to them than the stereotype.

Victor can be stoic, but he also smiles, is well spoken when he wants to be, and clearly has

complicated feelings about his father.

With all this in mind, TYPE a brief response (two pages, double spaced, each) to the

following questions:

1). Pick one of the four main characters and describe several examples where Alexie seems

to be setting up the stereotype and then describe instances in the film where he breaks the

stereotype down. How does he do this? Is it effective in forcing the viewer to understand the

characters in a more complex fashion? How so?

2. The film seems to end on a relatively positive note, but it also seems that the real story is

just beginning. Victor and Thomas face life on an Indian reservation that may offer few

economic benefits, but may allow them to hold on to important parts of their culture. If a

sequel was to be made about Victor and Thomas ten years later, what do you envision them

doing? Are they rich/poor, dead/alive, happy/distressed? Why?

This assignment will be due on December 2 by 11 p.m.

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