In his short story entitled “This is What it Means to say Phoenix, Arizona,” Sherman Alexie tells the story of two Native-American boys, Victor and Thomas Builds-a-Fire, who live on an Indian reservation and take a trip together to Phoenix in order to collect the assets of Victor’s recently-passed father. Alexie was born in the Spokane Indian Reservation on October 7, 1966 (Grassian 1). In 1998, Alexie worked with Chris Eyre to produce the movie Smoke Signals. According to an article written by Julien R. Fielding, both men are American Indians writing about tribal identity. They believe that Indians have been portrayed in America as something they are not. Julien writes, “For decades Hollywood films have cast the American Indian as the savage, the medicine man and the noble warrior, stereotypes that either demonize or romanticize a people. Ritual and religion rarely receive much better treatment” (“Native American Religion”). With this idea in mind, both Alexie and Eyre set out to focus more on “contemporary issues – life on the reservation and questions of identity” (Fielding, “Native American Religion”). In both the short story and the film, elements are seen that show the struggle of finding a Native American identity in modern day America. Examples can be found through characters’ voices and actions along with the way the community works together during such a confusing time.
Hollywood movies like Dances With Wolves tend to romanticize the American Indians as savage creatures who dance around the fire each night, yelping loudly and smoking their pipe. In “This is What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” however, we do not get that picture at all. Instead, we see a nearly-average community of Native Americans who have assimilated into a typical American identity. This community gets together to watch the fireworks on the Fourth of July, celebrating America’s independence from England, just like any average American would do. The children ride bikes together and the adults go about their usual business. Victor, one of the main characters of the story, has done a good job assimilating himself into this new version of American Indian culture. Thomas Builds-a-Fire, however, has not. Thomas, like the original pre-Columbian Natives, is a story-teller who believes in the qualities of visions and the natural world. For example, in the story when the boys are watching the fireworks together, Alexie writes, “‘You know,’ Thomas said. ‘It’s strange how us Indians celebrate the Fourth of July. It ain’t like it was our independence everybody was fighting for’” (PAGE NUMBER). This quote shows that it is clear that Thomas is torn between two cultural identities: that of the original American Indian and that of the assimilated American Indian. Victor, on the other hand, seems to hold no loyalty to the past. He replies to Thomas’s comment saying “You think too much… it’s just supposed to be fun” (PAGE NUMBER). Clearly, Victor is less caught up in the past than Thomas is.
After the fireworks show, Victor asks Thomas to tell him a story. Seeing as this art was his specialty, Victor tells the story of two Indian boys who wanted to be warriors. However, he claims that “it was too late to be warriors in the old way” (PAGE NUMBER). Instead, the two boys in the story steal a car and drive it into town, parking it in front of the police station. This story again portrays the two different cultural identities of American Indians that existed in this time.
Later in the story, we learn that Victor and Thomas grew apart as friends, mainly because of Thomas’s tendency to tell the same stories over and over again. Victor became embarrassed to be around Thomas because of this fact. In the film version, Victor is quite cruel to Thomas, saying “I mean, you just go on and on talking about nothing. Why can’t you have a normal conversation? You’re always trying to sound like some damn medicine man or something” (Smoke Signals). This quote shows that Victor is likelier to side with the rest of the community rather than try to understand the identity that Thomas chooses. Scholar James Keegan calls this tendency to assimilate the “externally enforced nature of the reservation for Native Americans” (115). After all, the American Indians were forced onto these reservations by white men who wanted to take over their land. In a way, they were forced to assimilate by factors outside the reservation.
Despite their differences, Victor and Thomas decide to work together in their shared mission to collect Victor’s deceased father’s assets. Though Thomas manages to embarrass Victor on the plane, by the end of the story the two boys manage to find a common ground. First, they both show concern for “killing the only living thing in Nevada” (PAGE NUMBER), a nature-loving quality expressed by the American Indians of the past. Later, they both agree on what they should do with Victor’s father’s ashes: they plan to disperse them into the river. Though Thomas sees this action as a chance for the ashes to become a Salmon, following the tradition of a spirit that carries on after death, Victor sees it more as “cleaning the attic” (PAGE NUMBER). Regardless, the last few lines of prose suggest that the two were able to find common ground through the relationship they each had with Victor’s father. Instead of showing either identity side as the “right” one, Alexie and Eyre are able to show that today’s Native American reservations consist of a rather mixed or blended identity of the two, a depiction far from the representation of these people found in popular modern-day Hollywood films.
- Fielding, Julien R. “Native American Religion and Film:.” Journal of Religion and Film 7.1 (2003): n. pag. Print.
- Grassian, Daniel. Understanding Sherman Alexie. Columbia: South Carolina UP, 2005. Print.
- Keegan, James. “Y’all Need to Play Songs for Your People:(P) Reservation Versus Assimilation and the Politics of White-Indian Encounter in Sherman Alexie’s Ficton.” Revista Canaria De Estudios Ingleses 39 (1999): 115-34. Print.
- Smoke Signals. Dir. Chris Eyre. Perf. Adam Beach, Evan Adams, and Irene Bedard. Miramax, 1998. Film.