Smoke Signals: the Importance of Oral Tradition in Native Culture

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Smoke Signals: The Importance of Oral Tradition in Native Culture

Smoke signals are one of the oldest forms of long-distance communication. The Native American tribes of North America have long used smoke signals to signal danger, transmit news, and gather people to a common area. In this way, it is unsurprising to find that in the movie Smoke Signals, directed by Chris Eyre with a screenplay by Sherman Alexie, communication is a central theme. Through the use of two very contrasting characters, emphasis is put on two different types of communication and their impact on the culture they originate from. Thomas, with his fondness for intimate storytelling, strongly represents the Native culture of the Oral Tradition, whereas Victor, however part of the Native culture himself, doesn’t fully embrace this practice, and is reluctant to engage in verbally sharing his feelings and memories of his father. As Tonto and the Lone Ranger set out on a journey to Arizona, two strangers in a land of Written Tradition, Victor must learn to accept the Oral Tradition as his own, as well as begin to understand his father’s unconditional love for him.

In line with the Oral Tradition, Smoke Signals begins with a story. After a night of celebration and drinking, a fire breaks out. Arnold, Victor’s father, becomes a hero when he saves two babies from the flames. One of those babies is his own son, Victor. The other baby, Thomas, loses his parents in the flames. It is told that after that night, Arnold is never quite the same again. In mourning, he cuts his traditionally long hair and never grows it back. An alcoholic, Arnold eventually leaves his wife and son to start a new life in Arizona. He is never seen again.

As the first scene of the movie, the story of the fire establishes Thomas’s roots in storytelling. With his parents gone, stories are all he has left. It is something he is very passionate about, and he believes in the healing power of it. I think Thomas’s voice...
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