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A Response to Smoke Signals
by Glenn Morison

Smoke Signals DVD coverART WILSON, A Wolf Clan Chief of the Gitxsan First Nation, described aboriginal spirituality with these simple words: “knowing who you are and where you fit in.”

He added, “If the sweat lodge helps you do that then go to the sweat lodge, if reading the Bible helps then read the Bible.” While one could make the broader claim that Wilson’s definition might work for all human spirituality, it certainly is as succinct and powerful a description of native spirituality that I have come across.

Smoke Signals (1998) can be seen through the lens of this definition. Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) and Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams) are both on a quest towards a better understanding of who they are and where they fit in. While they both have very different ways to go about the work, they do it side by side. Growing up together on a Coeur d’Alene reserve in northern Idaho and then traveling together to Arizona on a trip gives the movie its structure and place.

The movie is very funny. I have watched it four times and only once have I seen it where I wasn’t the minority white guy in a group of Indians. The movie always produces lots of laughter whether it is the crazy ways of the characters that are only tangential to the story or the ironic wisdom of those around whom the plot revolves. Indeed the humour finds its genesis in everything, including John Wayne’s teeth, Julia Child’s cooking, and the offbeat weather reports on the reservation radio station.

The humour never loses sight of the context of severe brokenness experienced by native people, both on and off reserve, across our continent each day. And the spiritual teachings held within are rooted in the pain of dealing with unemployment, poverty, alcoholism, physical abuse and other related social problems. Any venture into “native spirituality” that enters through a window of romanticized history and values held outside the context of the actual lives of native people seems both false and, in a final sense, empty. Native spirituality finds its value in lifting people up and through the challenges they face, not in whisking them away and out of sight of the problems that the world poses.

Most literature on the film is quick to point out that it is the first feature in North America to be written, directed, co-produced and acted by Indians. Roger Ebert adds that “it hardly seems necessary to announce that: The film is so relaxed about its characters, so much at home in their world, that we sense it is an inside job.” In this way the movie becomes a gift, albeit a challenging one, from one culture to another.

The story of the relationship between Victor and Thomas takes place in the present but includes flashbacks that span all their years. Their search for meaning has been (and will be) a life long pursuit.

Who are you and where do you fit in? These are broad questions that must take in the exploration of land (both political and geographic), the plants, the creatures of the ground, air and water, indeed all that has being in the universe. But for many, the questions begin with our parents. It is Victor’s trip to Arizona to find his father who left the family home years earlier that allows him to deal with this and other broken relationships in his life. This is why I believe this show merits our deep attention.

Questions are posed before the movie ends which may be more obvious for some to ask than others, including whether we ought to forgive or not forgive our fathers for leaving or for not leaving, and what do we do after we have forgiven our fathers. But, if we are going to follow the path set out by Art Wilson, to truly discover who we are and where we fit in, then we may have found a good place to start. Each of us cannot help but hear the invitation to find connections between Victor’s story and our own. As we seek to make this connection I dare say we equip ourselves to better love God, our neighbour and ourselves.

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