Native American Film Series: “Smoke Signals”

Public domain photo from

Public domain photo from

Film makers today are awakening to the use of Native American actors in Native films, and the wisdom of accurately portraying Native cultures as well as modern day lives of Indian people. In my next few posts, I will explore recent Native films that accomplish this. My first recommendation is Smoke Signals.

Smoke Signals is a story about the modern day lives of Native Americans. A story many young Native Americans experience on federal reservations today… The happiness. The sadness. The love. The loss. Smoke Signals is also a story about being human. It is about the relationship between father and son. It is about discovering ourselves through our relationships with others.

There is a gift so powerful that it has the ability to give life, take life, and transform life. The gift itself is a living thing. It is born, it breathes, it consumes, and it dies. This gift is within us, and yet it is a reflection of us. The gift is fire. And, fire is at the very heart of Smoke Signals.

Copyright Animation Factory, pub at

Copyright Animation Factory, pub at

Based on the collection of short stories by author Sherman Alexie in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Smoke Signals is a story about two men who face transformation by fire on the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation in Idaho. It was fire that linked these two young men together as infants.

At a house party on the Forth of July in 1976, while Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) and Thomas Builds the Fire (Evan Adams) slept as babies, their parents partied. Somewhere, as the party continued into the night, the fire started.

In the smoke, flames, and confusion, the young Victor and family escape the fire with the help of Victor’s father (Gary Farmer). Yet, Thomas is the only one from his family to make it out of the fire – his parents in a last ditch effort throw him from a second floor window only to be caught by Victor’s father.

In that moment, Victor’s father becomes a hero to Thomas. In that same moment, Victor’s father is driven to an unshakeable grief, the kind of grief that forces a man to leave his wife and only son. Thus, Victor has a radically different and conflicted feeling about his father. And Victor confronts the pain of his father’s leaving over and over in the many stories told about his father by Thomas, notorious for his storytelling.

Victor’s feelings grow even more complicated after learning of his father’s death in Arizona and the two young men journey there to settle his affairs. Throughout their journey, Victor is exposed to the human intricacies of his father’s life and choices. In learning more about the man his father was, and surprisingly with the help of Thomas’ stories, Victor discovers more about himself and the man he will become.


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