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Native American film ‘Smoke Signals’ next Common Read offering

When a movie starts out with the words "it's a great day to be indigenous," features a song about John Wayne's teeth and was written by Common Read author Sherman Alexie, it's bound to be good.

Sherman Alexie
Sherman Alexie

"Smoke Signals" will be shown in Room D of the Bailey Rotunda on the South Dakota State University campus at 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 18, as part of the SDSU Honors College Common Read program.

“We are delighted to offer the film “Smoke Signals” as part of the Common Read series,” said SDSU Honors College Dean Timothy Nichols.

“Participants will find similar themes between the film and “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” The film touches on many of the same themes and confronts some difficult issues, but also has some very funny, laugh-out-loud moments.”

"Smoke Signals" is likely the first movie written, directed, co-produced and, for the most part, acted entirely by American Indians. Starring Adam Beach and Evan Adams as unlikely duo Victor Joseph and Thomas Builds-the-Fire, the film uses a road trip to follow the men from their home reservation in Idaho down to Phoenix to collect the ashes of Victor's recently deceased father.

What makes the movie is the banter between Victor, hardened by the abuse he suffered as a child at the hands of his alcoholic father, and goofy, good-natured Thomas. When he’s told by Victor he ought to look more like a warrior, like he "just came back from killing a buffalo," Thomas points out that their tribe never hunted buffalo — they were fishermen.

The road trip’s destination will leave audiences sniffling and smiling. Gerald Peary of the Boston Phoenix puts it this way: "The movie climaxes in a truly universal flood of anguish, pain, anger, forgiveness, release. I've seen 'Smoke Signals' twice and, in its final moments, sobbed twice: big, gloppy, purgative tears."

"(Alexie) has a good ear for speech, and he allows his characters to refer to the real world," according to renowned critic Roger Ebert.

Alexie wrote the "Smoke Signals" screenplay based on his book "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven."

"So many people write outside their experiences,” Alexie said of the film. “Here, there's no emotional distance. It's who I am and what I know."