SUBJECTS — U.S./1991 to Present; Diversity (Native American), & Idaho;

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Father/Son; Grieving; Alcohol and Drug Abuse; Child Abuse;

MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Caring (Forgiveness).

AGE; PG-13 (for some intense images);

Drama; 1998; 89 minutes; Color. Available from

*In this Guide, the terms “Native American”, “American Indian” and simply “Indian” are used interchangeably. Native Americans often refer to themselves as “Indians” without any deprecating intent.


One of the Best! This movie is on TWM’s short list of the best movies to supplement classes in United States History, High School Level.

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TWM offers the following movie worksheets to keep students’ minds on the film and to focus their attention on the lessons to be learned from the movie.

Film Study Worksheet for ELA Classes and

Worksheet for Cinematic and Theatrical Elements and Their Effects.

Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Movies as Literature Homework Project.


Victor Joseph is a Native American in his late teens who lives on the Coeur d’Alene Indian reservation in Northern Idaho. On a road trip to retrieve his dead father’s ashes, he learns how to forgive his abusive father and the nature of true friendship. The film is adapted from Sherman Alexi’s short story collection, Tonto and the Lone Ranger Fistfight in Heaven.


The film enriches student awareness of the modern Native American cultural experience. It illuminates the nature of forgiveness in a lesson applicable to all. Smoke Signals is the first movie written, produced and co-directed by Native Americans and as such it helps viewers to see Native American culture through the eyes of people from that culture.

Students will gain insight into the experience of Native American culture. Through suggested assignments at the film’s end, students will exercise research and writing skills as they gain knowledge about the problems of alcoholism on reservations and the universality of grief and guilt. The movie can serve as a bridge to reading the highly regarded novels of Sherman Alexi.


Minor: There is one incident of parent on child violence, scenes of alcohol abuse and the stereotyping of white racism.


Parents may want to discuss issues of alcoholism as they affect families of both Native American and mainstream culture.


Introduction to the Movie:

It’s strange when you think about it but in the U.S. we live with a conquered people, the Native Americans, relegated to reservations scattered in various parts of the country. When the Native Americans lost the wars with the whites, their culture was shattered. The media has presented a lot of myths about Native Americans. This movie had a Native American producer and co-director. It was based on a book written by a Native American.


After the film has been watched have the class read the poem How Do We Forgive Our Fathers? by Dick Lourie which is heard in voiceover at the end of the film. Then ask the following question:


1. The poem was recited by Thomas in voiceover at the end of the film as Victor rages and finally assumes a fetal position on the bridge. It clearly relates to the dominant theme of the story. There is a question asked at the end of the poem. From Victor’s point of view, what is the answer to this question?

Suggested Response:

Answers will vary. All thoughtful answers should be acceptable. Some may suggest that what is left is an individual with his own identity ready to go on with his life reborn and without the burden of anger and resentment that is relieved by forgiving those who have caused offense. People who forgive others for grievous offenses often say that by releasing anger the act of forgiving allows the person who forgives to move on. Others may suggest that what is left is forgiving ourselves for our anger at our fathers or for something offense.


2. In the voiceover at the film’s beginning, Thomas says: “There are some children who are pillars of flame that burn everything they touch and there are some children who are just pillars of ash that fall apart when you touch them. Me and Victor, we were children born of flame and ash.” Thomas is using metaphors, pillars of flame and ash, to describe character traits. What do you see in Thomas and Victor that show them to be as Thomas has described?

Suggested Response:

Thomas is like flame in his brutal honesty; he is like ash in his gentle, soft nature. Victor is like flame in his anger; he is like ash in his underlying pain. Students may choose other ways to express this. Anything that captures the sense of the metaphor is a valuable response.


3. In a flashback Suzy and Arnold share the worst things they have ever done. Arnold gives no more details than that he “broke three hearts, too.” To what is he referring?

Suggested Response:

Arnold may be referring to the fire in which Thomas’ parents died; hearts broken that day could be his own, Thomas’ grandmother’s and Thomas’. Arnold could be referring to the fact that he abandoned his family, breaking the hearts of his wife, his son and himself.


4. Thomas, the film’s narrator, is a storyteller, an individual responsible for carrying on the oral tradition of the tribe. What stories does he tell that seem to carry more meaning than what appears on the surface?

Suggested Response:

Answers will vary. Thomas begins the film by telling about the fire in which his parents were killed; he tells about how Arnold took him to Denny’s for breakfast; he tells about how Arnold was once a hippy arrested at an anti-war demonstration. In each story, Thomas is addressing the character of Arnold, enabling Victor to see his father in a new, more comprehensive and compassionate light.


Any of the discussion questions can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include:


1. Research the commonly held belief that Native Americans and Aborigines from Australia are particularly susceptible to alcoholism. Write an expository essay on the validity of and reasons for this belief. Posit historical consequences of intolerance to alcohol on the part of conquered people overrun by those who are better at tolerating this potent drug.


2. Grief and guilt are major emotional issues faced by most everyone at some time in his or her life. Look at the effects of these two powerful emotions in the film and analyze the efforts of Arnold in his attempt to surmount guilt and Victor in his efforts to surmount grief. In your essay, make clear whether or not you think each character was successful in moving past the burden of grief and guilt.


3. Write an essay on character growth dealing with the changes in both Thomas and Victor. Begin your essay with what the boys were like as kids and then show them as late teens. Be clear about how the road trip matured these two young Native Americans.

This Learning Guide was written by Mary RedClay and James Frieden. It was last updated on August 23, 2012.

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