What does it mean to be an Indian? First of all you have to be a warrior and to look like a warrior, to look “stoic”, secondly you have to be connected with Mother Earth by understanding the sound of nature and
what it wants to say, then you necessarily have to have visions, to ride horses and to hunt buffalos. This is what most of the people think when they say “Indian”. But Sherman Alexie ,in his volume “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” and then the movie Smoke Signals based on one story from this volume- Thus Is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona- try to present the image of the real Indian in the real life and work against this “formerly-held stereotypes to form a new, uniquely Spokane identity” all these in a humorous, ironic manner.
Alexie, in his volume tries to reinvent the way back to tradition of the modern Indians. They are people with double identity who don’t know how to report themselves to their traditions, how to react towards it, what is important and what is less important. Sometimes, in most of the cases, they make fun of their history and traditions and realize that now ,they are totally different and that they have to live in the real life although sometimes we sense a feeling of melancholy towards the past, because then ,the Indians had a role, a purpose, now , they have nothing “it is too late to be warriors in the old way. All horses are gone”. Now they have only stereotypes to face, alcohol to survive and broken dreams .”Alexie’s characters confront the dilemma of how to be “real Indians,” of how to find “their true names, their adult names” , of how to find a warrior dignity and courage when it is “too late to be warriors in the old way”, of how to ameliorate what Adrian C. Louis has termed “the ghost-pain of history” –that haunting sense of personal and cultural loss that generates a paralyzing” .(Jerome Denuccio)
The characters Alexie has created are aware of the stereotypes that are commonly associated with them and they are working to make fun of and unmask the traditional conception of the Indian character. In the end this is what Alexie wanted: to accomplish a criticism of the stereotypical portrayal of Indian life.
In an interview Alexie criticizes the traditional Native American literature and its writers who wrote “wish fulfillment books” .He even indicates N. Scott Momaday’ Pulitzer Prize winning “House Made of Dawn” .The struggles of his character are different from Abel’s –the main character on Momaday, and the solutions they find to understand their identity are also different because “they are Indians who do not fit the traditional mold of Indian character”.
We are shown the anguish the characters experience when Thomas-Builds-The-Fire compares time with skeletons. “Your past is a skeleton walking one step behind you, and your future is a skeleton walking one step in front of you.” Indians, thus, are always “trapped in the now.” But the skeletons are “not necessarily evil, unless you let them be.”
Because “these skeletons are made of memories, dreams, and voices,” and because they are “wrapped up in the now,” it becomes imperative to “keep moving, keep walking, in step with your skeletons.”( Jerome DeNuccio)) This comparison demonstrates that Alexie is trying to make their characters get out of the trap of the suspended Indian, the one with no connection to reality.
The story “This is what it means to say Phoenix, Arizona” presents the journey of Victor and Thomas to obtain the remains of Victor’s dead father. In the text Alexie subverts the stereotypes of Indians again with trikery and irony. The film, Smoke Signals is mostly based on the story and all the characters are interpreted by native American actors. ”The film is so relaxed about its characters, so much at home in their world, that we sense it’s an inside job”. While Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven was a series of discrete stories about a single group of characters, the film attempts to render them into one. “Alexie’s stories fictionalize a real life, a life of drunkenness, unemployment and basketball. Thomas’s narrative can be seen as a way not only of rationalizing the brutality of reservation life, but also of coping with it”. In Smoke Signals there seems to be pressure on Alexie and Eyre(the director) to conform to a Hollywood road movie format. What we don’t manage to see in the movie but we do see in the book is the cruelty of this isolated life in the reservation, a life without a future.
The film begins with the shot of the traffic reporter, who is also the radio dj in the reservation saying “It’s a good day to be indigenous”. After this he scrutinizes an intersection that doesn’t seem to be very used and he announces “A big truck just went by” and then we hear a chorus from a song about John Wayne’s false teeth. This is how the spectator is introduced to the reservation of these Spokane Indians.
The movie opens in Idaho on a significant day: the Fourth of July ,1976.It’s an important day for America ,but not for the Indians because in the end it was not their independence. In spite of that they celebrate it year after year. This year was a significant day also for the infant Thomas-Builds-The-Fire, who is saved from death by being thrown from the window when his house burns down. He is saved by Arnold Joseph, a neighbor with a drinking problem who has a son of the same age, Victor.
Thomas and Victor grow up together but Thomas has a flaw, in the eyes of the others: he is a storyteller. Although in ancient times, being a storyteller was a pride in the community, nowadays it has become a shame. Now he is “that crazy Indian storyteller with ratty old braids and broken teeth” as Victor describes him.
But Thomas is aware of the importance of his stories when he says: “We are all given one thing by which our lives are measured, one determination. Mine are the stories which can change or not change the world. It doesn’t matter which as long as I continue to tell the stories[…] I have no brothers or sisters. I have only my stories which came to me before I even had words to speak. I learned a thousand stories before I took my first thousand steps. They are all I have. It’s all I can do .”
Thomas, by his storytelling represents the old Indian, in connection with the past , but he is not the traditional warrior, savage, exotic. He is a kid mocked at and beaten up for his storytelling that brings everybody to exasperation. And this is because none of them has the ability to understand him. Their are confused about their identity, ashamed with their past of which want to get rid. As an adult ,Thomas’s life is filled with the same absence of friends and ridicule because the others see him and accept him as an oddity, rather than someone who can teach them about their past. But with this story Alexie(and in the movie) shows that in that reservation exists at least one person who notices his stories and their purpose for him as a person, and that is Victor.
We notice that Thomas is used as a source of humor but always with a role, to stress the wrong image the others have of Indians and tradition and to erase the stereotype. The first example is when Victor meets Thomas at the store, after his father died. ”Their conversation is an opportunity for Alexie to poke fun at the myth that Indians have a greater connection to the earth and can listen to the wind to tell the future.”
“Victor, I’m sorry about your father” Thomas said.
“How did you know about it?” Victor asked.
“I heard it on the wind. I heard it from the birds. I felt it in the
sunlight. Also, your mother was just in here crying”.
Here Thomas is the image of the suspended Indian with no connection to reality and also an instrument of sarcasm.
The role of Thomas’s storytelling is also didactic because teach us and the one who listen to him many things about the life in the reservation. For example, the story told in a summer, when the two were kids, is a state of Indian reservation life and presents the lack of a role for the Indian boys to fulfill nowadays.
”There were these two Indian boys who wanted to be warriors. But it was too late to be warriors in the old way. All the horses were gone. So the two Indian boys stole a car and drove to the city. They parked the stolen car in front of the police station and then hitchhiked back home to the reservation. When they got back, all their friend cheered and their parent’s eyes shone with pride. You were brave, everybody said to the Indian boys. Very brave.”.
This is an amusing but at the same time a sad story of the inability of the boys to be warriors. The movie is interesting because we manage to see the faces and reactions of the real Indians, the Indians who are not victims of their culture, who don’t live in the past and define themselves by the crimes committed against their people. They are just ordinary people, trying to survive and to understand and discover themselves, not their ancestors; they are the next generation.
When his father is dead and he wants to go and pick up his ashes, Victor finds himself in the situation of not having enough money to go to Phoenix. But Thomas has this money and he offers to buy the bus tickets if Victor takes him along. This is not an easy decision for Victor who has never liked the “skinny, talkative Thomas”, being a quiet, proud man. Before leaving for Arizona Victor’s mother tells him that he should listen to the others too and that tradition is important. This can be an announcement of the fact that, till the end Victor will manage to discover himself and to understand the role of Thomas in his life.
“As they are on the way to Arizona ,the two characters talk and the dialogue becomes the heart of the movie”. At a certain moment, the reserved Victor, impatient with Thomas’s chatter accuses him of having learned most of what he knows about Indians by watching “Dances with wolves” and advises him to spend more time looking “stoic”. In order to be an Indian he says that he should look mean, like a warrior, to leave his hair free, not braided and to get rid of the suit.
Victor: “…I mean, how many times have you seen Dances with Wolves ?A
hundred? two hundred times?
…Oh, jeez, you have seen it that many times, haven’t you? Man, do
you think that shit is real? God. Don’t you even know to how to be a real
Thomas (whispering): I guess not
Victor (disgusted): Well, shit, no wonder. Jezz, I guess I’ll have to teach you
First of all, quit grinning like an idiot. Indians ain’t supposed
to smile like that. Get stoic…You got to look like you just got
back from killing a buffalo.
Thomas: But our tribe never hunted buffalo. We were fishermen.
Victor: What? You want to look like you just came back from catching fish? It
ain’t Dances with Salmon, you know? Man, you think a fisherman is
tough? Thomas, you got to look like a warrior.
“This scene plays with the notion of a stereotyped Indian identity and ends up confronting racism face to face. At the next stop Thomas returns from the toilet a different figure, his hair unbraided, his suit replaced by a “Frybread Power” T-shirt and jeans. He is happy and relaxed, only to find two rednecks have taken their seats. The deflation is palpable.”
The scene is also a good example of how Victor rejects stereotypes and at the same time embraces them .He is confused. He doesn’t know who he is, but till the end, when both of them will obtain the ashes, they will also obtain some wisdom, they will discover each other: “the taciturn, inward man who was abused as a child, and the orphan who, it is true, seems to have gotten his world view at secondhand through the media”.
The two boys represent the future, but Arnold, Victor’s father is the past. He is a more complicated person than his son imagines and he is able to inspire the respect of the woman he was living with in Phoenix. There are some flashbacks in the movie that help in the revealing of the true character of the man to his son who has only resentment against him. First of all he finds out that his father was the one who set the house on fire that day, but he saved his life and now he is “waiting for him”. After he “killed” his friends, the first thing he did was to cut his hair. In that moment a part of the Indian in him died. Then, he hid in the alcohol but he couldn’t bear living there anymore so he had to leave. And “when Indians leave, they don’t come back.”. He didn’t want to leave his son, but he had nothing else to do. But not a single day passed without having his son in mind. He talked with the others about him, he recalled his victories, he even told lies, all because he was so proud of his son. These were things that Victor didn’t know about his father but which helped him understand why he had chosen to live far from him.
On returning home, feeling that “he owed Thomas something” for helping fund their trip to Phoenix , Victor offers Thomas half his father’s ashes. Thomas accepts the gift and tells a story: “I’m going to travel to Spokane Falls one last time and toss these ashes into the water. And your father will rise like a salmon, leap over the bridge, over me, and find his way home. It will be beautiful. His teeth will shine like silver, like a rainbow. He will rise, Victor, he will rise.”
In the end Thomas and Victor manage to discover themselves and to surpass this confusion regarding their identity induced by the stereotypical image the others have of them. Thomas helps Victor to abandon the father who has abandoned him, and to think of his father in a cultural way , “to reinterpret his father as a cultural tie, a point of continuity with the past, a fusion of “historical memory and subjectivity” (Said 158) that never “stops,” that, like the mythic phoenix, will always “rise,” a continual story of self emerging “from the ash of older stories” (98).”( Jerome DeNuccio).
In the book Sherman Alexie managed to accomplish a criticism of the stereotypical portrayal of the Indian life more freely than in the movie which encountered the commercial pressure and both the director and the writer had to limit themselves in what they had to say.
Jerome DeNuccio, Critique (Atlanta, Ga.) 44 no1 86-96 Fall 2002