If you have a look around the net searching Smoke Signals, you’ll learn very fast the above sequence is the most popular in the film. And rightly so. It is great fun and Adam Beach and Evan Adams do a fantastic job of it. Sherman Alexie himself tells in the book of the screenplay that he had a great time devising this scene.
And what is the scene about? Stereotypes.
Because I like Alexie, not only I read his books and watch his films, I also search the net for interviews, articles and analysis of his work. So I’ve come across people who criticize him for using stereotypes, critiques that come from both within and without Indian Country.
Well, yes, he does use stereotypes. Some people may think this is bad because they think stereotypes are inherently lame if not downright harmful. In fact the stereotype is a rhetorical figure, a tool of argumentation, and if used cleverly, it can be a powerful storytelling tool.
When Sherman Alexie uses stereotypes, he never does so lazily. Most of the time, I’ve seen him use them so to deconstruct them, as he does in this scene. Here, he speaks stereotypes through Victor’s words in an affirming way, but these are countered by reality through Thomas’s words. In this way, the true nature of the stereotype is exposed, and the resulting unbalance is used to make fun of the stereotype itself (“This ain’t Dances with Salmons, you know.” – which is in itself a deconstruction of a stereotype, spoken by a character who’s actually affirming stereotypes. I’m afraid if you’re looking for a simple portrayal of reality, you won’t find it in Alexie’s stories).
The interesting fact is that by the mixing and clashing of the stereotype with the real thing, a new reality emerges: Thomas’s new look may seem like the stereotyped image Victor had depicted, but looking more closely you see it isn’t. While at first glance he looks stoic, with flowing long hair and has abandoned his old-looking clothes as Victor urges, in the end Thomas smiles while putting on his glasses – and please note the Fry Bread Power t-shirt.
Besides it’s also true that while it’s Victor who deconstructs the stereotype in the same discourse he upholds it, Thomas, who upholds a truer image of themselves (“But our tribe never hunted buffalos, we were fishermen”), unwittingly adheres to the stereotypes, because “How many times have you seen Dances with Wolves. One Hundred? Two hundred? Jeez, you have seen it that many times.”
It’s a very complex discourse, the way stereotypes play in the lives of people (there are tribes of Indians who did hunt buffalos and that’s not a stereotype for them), and the way the individual adheres or refuses that way of representing them.
This also plays with the dichotomy appearance/reality. Victor makes fun of Thomas because he acts like “a damned medicine man”, when in Victor’s opinion Thomas doesn’t even look like a real Indian. But in fact the film subtly suggests that Thomas might indeed be a medicine man no matter whether he looks like one or not (though one may wonder what exactly a medicine man looks like – outside of the stereotype).
So, you see a stereotype? Don’t automatically assume the author is being lazy or is upholding a falsity, but do try to watch what’s behind the use of it.
What do you think about stereotypes?