Smoke Signals Film Essay Questions

Go to the Learning Guide for this film.

Helpful Background:

Notes on the Movie

The director, Chrys Eyre, stated that in this film he tried to show "a kind of Indian sensibility in the heartland, rather than all that romantic, spiritual, oppressive stuff about Indians sold by non-Indian filmmakers." The film enriches the student's awareness of modern Native American cultural experience as it illuminates the nature of forgiveness in a lesson applicable to all, especially those who need to forgive their fathers.

The director of this movie said that "Any time you put an Indian on the screen it's political--that's kind of the luggage that comes with the whole Indian package."

Coeur d'Alene Indians

The Coeur d'Alene Indians held sway in a territory that now comprises parts of north Idaho, eastern Washington State and western Montana. It extended for some four million acres over the drainage and headwaters of the Spokane River. The Coeur d'Alene obtained food by hunting, fishing, gathering wild plants and root digging. They used basic techniques to manage their resources, pruning plants that grew wild, and burning some areas to generate better plant growth. The Coeur d'Alene also burned extensive areas of forest to eliminate the lichen that hangs from trees. This lichen was used as winter forage by deer. The burning forced the deer to descend into the low country where they could be more easily taken in deep snow. After 1700, the Coeur d'Alene began to use horses and switched their main game sources from deer and elk to the buffalo. They developed a wide flat bow about one meter in length. The bow string was made with 30 strands of sinew from the leg of a deer, attached with glue made from the skins of salmon. They wrapped the bow with twine made from the bark of the bitter cherry tree and made arrows from the wood of the serviceberry tree.

Horrific small pox epidemics devastated the Coeur d'Alene and other Native Americans of the Plateau beginning in 1780. The Coeur d'Alene population fell from an estimated 3,000 - 4,000 people in 1780 to just 300 - 500 in 1853. The population stayed in the 400 to 500 person range until the 1900s and began a slow increase. In 1994 the Bureau of Indian Affairs counted 1,216 members of the tribe. As of 2009, the tribe had more than 2100 enrolled members.

Training for the Coeur d'Alene young stressed proper behavior and self-control. Boys and girls coming of age sought guardian spirits by suppressing their emotions and concentrating on hopes of receiving a vision and a song. They sweated and bathed daily in cold water and they received tattoos of vision designs relating to their guardian spirits.

The name Coeur d'Alene is French for "heart like an awl." It was given to these Indians because of their reputation for sharp bargaining with early fur traders. In 1842, the Coeur d'Alene welcomed Jesuit missionaries. Many became Catholic. They were encouraged to farm and to learn English. By 1900, many Coeur d'Alene had become prosperous farmers and ranchers with large herds of horses and Victorian houses. Nonetheless, there was a continuing struggle for land and many Coeur D'Alene Indians have been limited to a reservation of about 345,000 acres.

In the 1960s, the Coeur d'Alene language was spoken by 100 people and, in 1997, by less than 20. Tribal authorities are trying to revive the language and it is now taught in the tribal grade school.

By the 1990s, the tribe had developed a large tribal farm, a shopping center, a medical center, tourist accommodations and a gambling casino. It was trying to enlarge its land base by buying land.

Additional Discussion Questions:

Continued from the Learning Guide...

5. Thomas says that Arnold cut his hair and never grew it out again. What might this mean in the context of this story? Suggested Response: Hair is important to Native Americans as Victor explains to Thomas on the bus when he says, "An Indian man ain't nothing without his hair," and shows this later when he cuts his hair in the trailer where his father died. By not growing his hair out again, Arnold is showing that he never stopped his grief and guilt over having caused the fire that killed Thomas' parents.

6. The film shifts often and quickly from present to past in order to reveal plot and develop character. Which flashback scene reveals the most in terms of showing the troubles affecting Victor? Suggested Response: Answers will vary. Students may note the heartbreak of seeing Victor as a young boy chasing after his father's truck when Arnold decided to "disappear" or they may note the time the boy threw bottles into the back of the truck as his mother and father were drunk inside the house. They may note various examples of Victor's cruelty in his treatment of Thomas.

7. There are several references to fry bread in the film. The references to fry bread become metaphorical when Victor's mother discusses how she learned to make the best fry bread on the reservation. Explain what is meant by the metaphor. Suggested Response: Victor's mother shows how she carried the recipe for fry bread down from her mother and grandmother and how she listens to what people tell her. She adds, in humor, that she watches Julia Child, an old school cooking show based on French cuisine. It becomes apparent that Victor's mother is talking about how to live a life, rather than just how to make fry bread.

8. What humorous aspects of the film poke fun at poverty? Suggested Response: Responses will vary. Thomas carries his money in a glass jar, fry bread is the most important element in a feast, the boys have to walk or ride a bus to travel, a car goes only in reverse, the broken weather vane at the crossroads is still of use. The attitude of the characters in regard to each of these examples adds to the humor.

9. When Thomas offers a story about Victor's father attending an anti-war demonstration in the 1960's in exchange for a ride to the bus station, he concludes that Arnold negotiated a plea bargain from assault down to "being an Indian in the 20th century." What irony can be found in this bit of humor? Suggested Response: There are several ways that this irony can be descdribed. One is that the irony here lies in the fact that surviving Native Americans are seen as criminals. Another is that they live a life of punishment for just be Indians. This is a bitter, yet somewhat humorous look at Native American history.

10. What is the "oral tradition" referred to in the movie? Suggested Response: The history of many indigenous peoples across the globe was not written; it was passed from one generation to the next in stories. Many native tribes did not develop writing, yet retained full awareness of their history, religion and cultural rules through word-of-mouth over many generations.

11. Victor and Arnold are asked if they have passports as they are leaving the reservation. One of the women in the only-in-reverse car comments that they are going to a whole different country and that the U.S. is as foreign as it gets. What irony lies in this statement? Suggested Response: The reservation is literally within the U.S. in terms of geography; the entire land belonged to the Native Americans before the conquest by Europeans and their ancestors.

12. Several times in the film there are references to magic. What special meaning does the term seem to have? Suggested Response: Usually in references by Arnold or about Arnold, magic is mentioned as a way to explain behavior or to communicate feelings. For example, Arnold says he is feeling extra-magical and he can make all the white people disappear. His wife says he was a magician in his ability to hurt her and her son. Suzy also says that Arnold was a magician, noting how he could make others care for him in spite of his troubles.

13. After Thomas comes back to the bus with his hair down, looking closer to the image that Victor told him was important for Indian men, two white men were seated where Victor and Thomas had sat earlier. They show disrespect for the Indians and Thomas tells Victor his warrior look doesn't work every time. Victor responds with the song about John Wayne's teeth. What is his purpose here? Suggested Response: Since John Wayne was a popular actor who played cowboy heroes and often defeated his Indian opponents, the song pokes fun at the entire image of white superiority. It was a way for Victor to assert himself in the face of racist disrespect.

14. Suzy tells Victor about how his father had started the fire that killed Thomas' parents. She says he didn't mean to die in Phoenix and that he always wanted to go home. Victor finds a photograph of his family among Arnold's things with the word "home" written on the back. Can you suggest any reasons that Arnold never made the trip back home? Suggested Response: Answers will vary. Some students will say that Arnold's guilt was too great or that he could not deal with the constant reminders of his mistakes that he would find back home. Some may suggest that he was punishing himself and that he deserved his self-imposed exile. Others may suggest that the self-imposed exile was undeserved. Still others might suggest that Arnold didn't believe he would be welcomed home.

15. Why would Arnold lie to Suzy about the basketball game in which Victor was said to have scored the winning points? Suggested Response: Arnold was said to be a magician; a magician can change the perception of an action to deceive the observer. Arnold lied to fit his own perception of his son and of the power of the moment in the competition with the Jesuits. The lie shows Suzy his true feelings rather than the truth.

16. As Victor and Thomas leave Phoenix, they begin to argue. Thomas tells Victor that he has been moping around the reservation since his father left; that, like his father, he left his mother. What does Thomas mean by this? Suggested Response: Because he was always despondent after his father left, Victor was no longer the son he had been before. He did as great a disservice to his mother through his sullen mood as Arnold did by actually leaving home.

17. Once they are back on the reservation, Thomas asks Victor if he knew why his father really left the reservation. Victor says, "He didn't mean to, Thomas." What is important about this line? Suggested Response: These words are an echo of what Arnold had said when Thomas' grandmother thanked him for saving the baby. Victor is suggesting that just as Arnold did not mean to start the fire, he did not mean to break the hearts of his family members when he left. He didn't mean to hurt the people he hurt.

18. Why did Victor share his father's ashes with Thomas? Suggested Response: Arnold had saved Thomas in the fire and had been an important part of Thomas' life, as well as his stories. Thomas and Victor were like brothers, both fathered, in a sense, by the man named Arnold Joseph.

19. When Victor mentions getting in the accident on the way home, Thomas says he thinks they were in two wrecks that night. Later Victor apologizes to Thomas for all the wrecks. What does he mean by this? Suggested Response: Victor had been cruel to Thomas when they were growing up. He is asking to be forgiven for his actions.

See also Discussion Questions for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.

Social-Emotional Learning Discussion Questions


1.   Victor's father was abusive to him on occasion. But when his father left home, Victor tried to stop him. Can you explain how a young boy, 10 or 12 years old, would not want his father to leave home even if the father was abusive? Suggested Response: Having a father who was occasionally abusive was what having a father meant to Victor Joseph. Certainly, in the young boy's mind, this was better than complete abandonment. Very, very few children will want their fathers to leave.

See also the Additional Discussion Questions above. These will help students gain access to important themes of the film relating to relations between fathers and sons.


See Handout on Alcohol and How it Affects Us

2.  Why are Native Americans and Australian Aborigines particularly susceptible to alcoholism? Suggested Response: There are at least two separate reasons. 1) there appears to be a genetic component in that their cultures did not have alcoholic beverages and resistance to alcoholism was not bred into their genes; and 2) their cultures were crushed and destroyed.


See the Additional Discussion Questions above. These will help students gain access to important themes of the film.

Moral-Ethical Emphasis Discussion Questions (Character Counts)
( is a Character Counts "Six Pillars Partner"
and  uses The Six Pillars of Character to organize ethical principles.)

Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.

CARING (Forgiveness)

(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)

See Discussion Question #1 in the Learning Guide.

Additional Assignments

Continued from the Learning Guide

4. Psychologists find that some of their patients who have been injured by a close family member who has died or become inaccessible through imprisonment or otherwise, can gain insight and find release by writing a letter to the person who injured them, a letter that might or might not be sent. Students can be assigned to write a letter from Victor to his father at the end of the film, after Victor picks himself up off the bridge, in which Victor tells Arnold: 1) how Victor is doing in his life; 2) how Arnold hurt Victor and how much pain he caused Victor, using as much detail as possible; and 3) how Victor feels about Arnold now, stressing forgiveness. Students should be given the option of writing a letter to a loved one who has hurt them or from a loved one that they have hurt, imagining what the person would say to them. Students should be told that the letters relating to their personal lives will be held in confidence. [Teachers should note that in some states descriptions of child abuse must be reported to the police and child protection authorities, as required by law.]

5. Sherman Alexie wrote the collection of short stories entitled The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven from which many of the characters and episodes in Smoke Signals can be found. Students can be asked to research and write a brief biographical essay on Mr. Alexie describing his heritage, education, the title of books and screenplays he has authored and providing examples of his poetry.

6. There are several chapters in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven which can be read aloud or assigned as reading. After either hearing or reading these chapters, students can write about how the written story has been modified for inclusion in the film. The following chapters are especially significant for this assignment:
  • Because My Father Always Said He Was The Only Indian Who Saw Jimi Hendrix Play "The Star-Spangled Banner" at Woodstock;
  • This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona;
  • Imagining the Reservation;
  • The Approximate Size of My Favorite Tumor;
  • Indian Education; and
  • The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.

7. Students can be asked to read Alexie's most recent novel, The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian which has won praise throughout the literary establishment. The novel is a first person account of the experiences and the thoughts of an adolescent Indian who lives on the reservation and wants to attend a good school in a nearby white community. The book is funny, touching and in several places echoes the events and ideas shown in Smoke Signals. Teachers who read the book aloud to the class a chapter or two at a time have noted that the "oral tradition" is experienced in hearing the stories Alexie tells in the novel. Through reading journals or brief essays that respond to the ideas or events the central character shares, students can show their ability to understand, analyze or empathize with Alexie's writing.

See also Additional Assignments for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction.

Bridges to Reading:

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and The Absolutely True Story of a Reservation Indian both by Sherman Alexie.

Links to the Internet:

Selected Awards, Cast and Director:

Selected Awards:1998 Sundance Film Festival: Audience Award; filmmakers Trophy; 1998 Tokyo Film Festival: Best Artistic Contribution Award; 1998 Sundance Film Festival Nominations: Grand Jury Prize; 1999 Independent Spirit Awards Nominations: Best Debut Performance (Adams); Best First Screenplay (Alexie); Best Supporting Actor (Farmer).

Featured Actors: Adam Beach; Evan Adams; Irene Bedard; Gary Farmer, Tantoo Cardinal.

Director: Chrys Eyre.


In addition to websites which may be linked in the Guide and selected film reviews listed on the Movie Review Query Engine, the following resources were consulted in the preparation of this Learning Guide:

  • Encyclopedia of North American Indians, Frederick E. Hoxie, Editor, Houghton Mifflin Company (1996);
  • Handbook of North American Indians: Plateau Deward E. Walker, Editor, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, 1998.

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Study Guide: Sherman Alexie, Smoke Signals

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


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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