Smoke Signals


They say when Indians go away, they don't come back.

Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) has not seen his father in a decade. The last time was Fourth of July, 1988, when Victor's parents, Arlene (Tantoo Cardinal) and Arnold (Gary Farmer), threw the largest Independence Day party in the history of Idaho's Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation. Arlene and Arnold spent most of that night in a drunken daze while twelve-year-old Victor only wanted to find some escape. In the party's aftermath Victor destroyed his father's beer stash, a violent act that shattered Arlene's heart and forced her to issue an ultimatum to Arnold: No more drinking. Unwilling to stop, Arnold jumped into his famous yellow pickup and left his family for destinations unknown.

Ten years later, in 1998, Arlene and Victor receive the news that Arnold has died of a heart attack in a tiny trailer home in Phoenix, Arizona. Arlene is distraught by her husband's death, but Victor, having grown into a handsome and popular young man of twenty-two, shows no signs of vulnerability in front of his family and friends, a category which does not readily include Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams). Thomas, a bespectacled and braided oddball whose talent for storytelling issimultaneously his greatest gift and liability, knows that Victor does not have enough money to travel to Phoenix to pick up his father's remains. Because Arnold saved the newborn baby Thomas from the house fire that killed his parents, Thomas is willing to give Victor the money to travel to Phoenix, but only if Victor takes Thomas with him.

Having no other options, Victor reluctantly agrees and the two Indian men embark on a nostalgic and bittersweet journey.

During the journey, Victor is forced to listen to Thomas's endless stories about Arnold Joseph. Thomas's stories careen from humor to tragedy, from fact to fiction, from small detail to passionate embellishment, and open an old wound for Victor. In return Victor lashes back at Thomas, telling him to act "like an real Indian", like a hostile warrior. Victor believes that acting like a silent and stoic warrior will earn respect, but Thomas knows it will never heal Victor's wounds.

At Arnold's trailer in Phoenix, Victor and Thomas meet Suzy Song (Irene Bedard), a young Indian woman whose fondness for Arnold surprises and pains Victor. Taking the storytelling torch from Thomas, Suzy reveals a terrible secret that changes Victor forever.

Returning to Idaho in Arnold's father yellow pickup, with an urn filled with Arnold's ashes, Victor and Thomas are forced to confront their fears and their memories. Victor learns the value of laughter and the power of stories, and Thomas learns the value of silence and the power and "looking like a warrior".

In the end, on a bridge high above the Spokane River, Victor scatters his father's ashes into the rushing water, weeping for a man he barely knew and can barely forgive


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