Teaching smoke signals: fatherhood, forgiveness, and "freedom"

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Date: Spring 2008
From: Wicazo Sa Review(Vol. 23, Issue 1)
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 10,404 words

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   How do we forgive our fathers?
   Maybe in a dream
   Do we forgive our fathers for leaving us too often or
   forever when we were little?

   Maybe for scaring us with unexpected rage or making us
   nervous because there never seemed to be any rage there at all.

   Do we forgive our fathers for marrying or not marrying our mothers?
   For divorcing or not divorcing our mothers?

   And shall we forgive them for their excesses of warmth or coldness?

   Shall we forgive them for pushing or leaning, for shutting doors,
   for speaking through walls, or never speaking, or never
   being silent?

   Do we forgive our fathers in our age or in theirs or in their
   deaths, saying it to them or not saying it?
   If we forgive our fathers, what else is left?

   -- Dick Lourie, "Forgiving Our Fathers" (1)


These are the final lines from Smoke Signals, the Sherman Alexie--directed film (1998) that stars Adam Beach as Victor Joseph and Evan Adams as Thomas Builds--the--Fire. (2) Thomas recites this poem while Victor dramatically scatters his father's ashes and screams, pouring out his emotions. This is an extremely poignant scene because Victor hated his father (Arnold Joseph) for years. Why did Victor hate Arnold? He hated him because he was an alcoholic who hit him and his mother (Arlene). He hated him because he ran away and left them behind. He hated him because he made him hate all Indians, including himself. When Arnold, for example, drunkenly asks Victor, "Who is your favorite Indian," he defiantly replies, "Nobody, nobody, nobody." Despite this deep animosity, Victor, after much soul--searching and endless conversations with Thomas, not only forgives his father, he forgives himself for his own transgressions.

Forgiving--a parent, relative, minister, corporation, or political organization--is not easy. Retributive justice--disciplining and punishing people (through incarceration and/or death) for their misdeeds--remains much more popular today than restorative justice. The rapid expansion of the nationwide "prison--industrial complex," combined with the emergence of California's "golden gulag" (the state currently has more prisons than public universities) illustrates this point. (3) Echoing British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's famous dictum about there being no alternative to neoliberal capitalism, most voters and politicians seemingly feel there is no alternative to the carceral state. (4) Today's hegemonic logic is clear and concise--"lock them (prisoners) up and throw away the key." Based on this reasoning, forgiving a person for mentally or physically abusing children, torturing human rights activists or "detainees," or systematically targeting and killing a whole group of people seems unjust and immoral. People must be prosecuted and punished; they cannot simply walk away "scot--free" because if they do, more criminal activity will surely take place. The same thing could be said about massacres and genocides--we must never forgive the people responsible for those actions nor must we ever forget the victims--because if we do, history will supposedly repeat itself.

Forgiveness thus has been largely demonized within the United States, which is fairly ironic since most people who reject it call themselves Christian and evidently ignore or overlook well-known biblical exhortations such as "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34) and "you shall forgive them seventy times seven" (Matthew 18:22). Several prominent Christians, including Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King, and Desmond Tutu, in contrast, have embraced forgiveness, nonviolence, and liberation theology or a "preferential option for the poor." (5) During Romero's penultimate homily, for instance, he ordered Salvadoran soldiers to "stop the repression." The next day he was assassinated. He previously stated that he would "forgive and bless" those who killed him because "a bishop may die, but the people will never perish."(6) King believed people should have the "strength to love" and forgive one's enemies--even those who beat and killed civil rights activists. (7) Tutu chaired the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the panel that was created to investigate human rights abuses during the apartheid era. (8) He claimed that there was no "future without forgiveness." Some South Africans adopted his words and forgave the people (police officers, antiapartheid guerrilla fighters) responsible for harming and killing their loved ones, while others could not do so. (9) Their pain was too great and they simply could not let such heinous deeds go unpunished. Several critics also noted that the TRC did not uncover the entire truth about apartheid and that it did not generate substantive social change. (10) Archbishop Tutu recognized the latter problem, stating (emphasis added), "Unless there is real material transformation in the lives of those who have been apartheid's victims, we might as well kiss reconciliation goodbye. It just won't happen without reparation." (11)

This statement indicates that even its most committed and well-known disciples realize that forgiveness has certain limitations. Forgiveness is not a magical panacea and those who forgive are not morally or ethically superior to those who do not. Forgiveness can potentially transform or free people from anger, hate, and rage, however. Painful memories, especially those based on insufficient or faulty evidence, can sometimes generate resentment and debilitate victims who sometimes maintain that they cannot "let go" or "move on." (12)

Victor exemplifies this process. Thomas bitterly told him he had been "moping around the reservation for ten years" until he finally discovered the truth about his father. The truth supposedly "set him free" (John 8:32), but did it really? Was Victor, a heterosexual, working-class Native American male living on an economically impoverished reservation in the late 1990s, truly free? That question sparked the following question from one of my students: "When Thomas asks, 'how do we forgive our fathers,' is he talking about our biological fathers or he is talking about our founding fathers?" This comment generated several more questions: "Is Alexie suggesting that Native Americans forgive the United States for conquest, colonization, and genocide?", "Is he saying that Native Americans should forget how they were treated for five hundred years and just move on?" He can't be suggesting that, can he?

These questions sparked more questions about alcoholism, denial, terrorism, the events of September 11, 2001, and social change. I passed these questions out and we discussed them during class, sometimes with great vigor, other times with apathy and general indifference. I also developed a politically risky (some said "one--sided") and emotionally sensitive assignment that asked students to write about their relationships with their fathers and whether or not they ever forgave them for any possible "trespasses" that they may have committed. (13) Many students courageously and rather surprisingly read from their papers, reopening old wounds and revealing extremely private information before their classmates (or "complete strangers" as someone put it). Some cried when they spoke and released deeply--held feelings, while others became resentful and remained silent. Several students even refused to complete the assignment, despite how that decision might negatively impact their overall grade.

This paper examines these responses and the broader issues that Smoke Signals raises. I realize that this film can be interpreted from many different perspectives, but this one may be unique because no one has extensively analyzed how it explores the relationship between fatherhood and forgiveness. (14) While I realize that most Wicazo Sa Review readers have seen the film and some may have even read articles that the journal has previously published about it and other Sherman Alexie novels, I do not think that many readers have examined the film from this particular viewpoint. (15) This piece, therefore, retells some of Smoke Signals's basic plotline because I critically interrogate or "break down" certain scenes that have not been discussed within this or any other academic or popular journal. (16) I hope that this article opens up dialogue among scholars, activists, and teachers about the possibilities and limitations of forgiveness. I wrote it without using dense academic prose, hoping that it would find a wider audience, especially among those who seek to "teach to transgress," who have the "courage to teach," and who "teach for social justice." (17)


I usually show Smoke Signals in an upper-division undergraduate class called "Racism in American History." I have written about this class elsewhere and so I will not repeat that material, only to say that it closely follows Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States (2003). (18) That book's very first page includes an extremely disturbing passage from Columbus's own diary: "With fifty men we could subjugate them all [the Arawak people] and make them do whatever we want." (19) This is precisely what happened. On subsequent voyages, Columbus ordered all Arawaks over fourteen years old to "collect a certain amount of gold every three months." Those who collected enough gold were given a token to wear around their necks. Those found without the token had their hands cut off and they bled to death. (20) This policy, combined with plantation-like slave labor, literally wiped out the Arawaks. When Columbus first set foot on "Hispaniola" (modern-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic) in 1492, there were about eight million indigenous people living there. Four years later, there were four to five million people. In 1508, there were less than one hundred thousand; by 1518, less than twenty thousand; and by 1535, they were "extinct." (21)

Most people would probably call these actions "genocide." They would more than likely say the same thing about English Lord Jeffrey Amherst who deliberately provided several Indian nations with smallpox infected blankets in 1763. Amherst's action might be the most wellknown example of biological warfare in colonial North America, but historian Elizabeth Fenn contends there were many similar incidents of "biological terrorism" during that particular time period (1750-1800). (22) This is where classroom discussions often become rather heated--one supposedly cannot suggest that the United States has committed terrorist acts, historically or presently. This is something that "they" (read: Middle Easterners) do, not "us."

That latter sentiment has often been dubbed "American exceptionalism." Ever since Massachusetts Governor John Winthrop coined the phrase "a city on the hill" in the 1630s, (23) U.S. political and economic leaders have often claimed that the country and its people are infallible; that we always act based on moral principles (e.g. "civilizing backward peoples," "making the world safe for democracy," "stopping communism," "hunting down the evil-doers," etc.), not material ones. (24) Based on this logic, one could claim that England was responsible for biological terrorism and genocide, but not the United States. The United States, after all, was not established until 1789.

This perspective sounds perfectly reasonable, until one considers how Andrew Jackson, the "populist" champion of the white working class, broke treaty after treaty in the 1820s and 1830s, dislodging Indians from their homes. (25) The Trail of Tears is one egregious example of what later became generally known as Indian Removal. (26) One could go on and mention the Sand Creek massacre that took place in Colorado in 1864. (27) During this action, U.S. military commanders deliberately targeted Native American children, stating, "nits make lice." The "Indian Wars" finally ended in 1890 with the Wounded Knee massacre in South Dakota, when 350 unarmed Lakotas--mostly women, young children, and older people--were brutally killed. (28)

Churchill states that between 1492 and 1900, the North American indigenous population declined from twelve to fifteen million to less than two hundred fifty thousand--a 98 percent attrition rate. (29) In the Americas (North, Central, and South), about one hundred million (100,000,000) indigenous people perished during that same time period. These are shocking statistics. One could state that the (North) "American holocaust" was an aberration, but the historical and contemporary evidence suggests otherwise. (30) The list of wars and massacres that the United States has been involved with since 1776 is mind boggling.

Here are some examples: the United States--Mexico War; the Spanish--American War (six hundred thousand Filipinos died during that conflict); Hawaiian annexation; numerous U.S. military invasions in Cuba, Nicaragua, Mexico, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Panama, and Haiti between the 1890s and 1930s; Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the Korean War; CIA-backed coups in Iran, Guatemala, and the Congo; the Vietnam War; U.S. support for authoritarian governments in Indonesia (Suharto), the Philippines (Marcos), Chile (Pinochet), Somoza and the Nicaraguan Contras, Romero, El Salvador, and the School of the Americas; Grenada, Panama; the first Gulf War; Afghanistan; and now Iraq. (31) This list is, unfortunately, not exhaustive. Even so, the point is clear: the United States is "addicted to war." (32) This is no dramatic exaggeration. The United States has been at war nearly ever year since it was first established. Despite this reality and the grim fact that the United States has directly and indirectly killed millions of people inside and outside its borders, President George W. Bush rather shockingly stated several years ago, "Our country is the greatest force for good in history." (33) This comment is a "textbook example" of what psychologists usually call "denial."

When alcoholics and drug addicts are confronted about their behavior, they usually deny or refuse to admit that they have a problem. Politicians from both parties in the United States have done the same thing for more than two hundred years--they consistently deny that we have a "problem" or addiction. Thus, when terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001, many people asked, "Why do they hate us?" This is a profound but ultimately historical question when one considers how U.S. support for authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and terrorists like Osama bin Laden in the 1980s "blew-- back" and hit us in the face in the 1990s. (34) Ward Churchill directly addressed this issue:

   Why should "they" hate "us"? The very question is on its
   face absurd, delusional, revealing an aggregate detachment
   from reality so virulent in its evasiveness as to be
   deemed clinically pathological. Setting aside the wholly
   contrived "confusion" professed in the aftermath, as to
   who might be properly included under the headings "we"
   and "us," the sole legitimate query that might have been
   posed on 9-1-1 was-- and remains-- "how could they possibly
   not hate us"? (35)


Putting aside that challenging question for the moment, let us turn our attention back toward Smoke Signals. I think that Arnold Joseph's alco holism can be interpreted as a metaphor for the United States' addiction to war and the denial of Native American genocide. The film does not make this connection explicit, but one can infer this from Arnold's actions. When Arlene tells him "There is no more money" for alcohol, for example, Arnold hits her and storms out, walking down the porch stairs with the American flag waving in the background. Rather than admit that he has a problem, Arnold denies it and runs away. Our current president, a recovering alcoholic himself, did the same thing after the events of September 11, 2001, first bombing Afghanistan, then he ran away and bombed Iraq, and now it looks like Iran might be next. (36)

The similarities are there--Arnold, Victor's biological father, acts like our "founding fathers" did and how current "fathers" do today. These "fathers" first deny that they have a problem. They then make up stories or lies to cover up or rationalize their actions. Arnold performs magic tricks and makes jokes, believing he can charm people into overlooking his behavior. Former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and President Bush do the same thing today, smiling and laughing while making jokes about not finding "weapons of mass destruction." Upon being confronted, these fathers then run away, leaving behind destroyed lives and communities.

Victor is never told the "real" reason why his father left the Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation (where the film begins) and moved to an isolated place near Phoenix, Arizona. He assumes that Arnold took off because his mother and father quarreled over his drinking, but no one ever says anything about why his father started drinking. The movie never explores this issue. We only learn why Arnold presumably began drinking when he strikes up a conversation with Suzy Song, his neighbor. Arnold boldly asks Suzy, "What is the worst thing that you have ever done?" She hesitates initially before responding, "I once stole this old lady's pow-wow money, must have been couple hundred dollars." Arnold says, "That's pretty bad, but there must have been something worse." Suzy hesitates again before declaring, "I once slept with my best friend's boyfriend in college." Arnold states, "You must have broken some hearts that day." Suzy replies "Yes, three," to which Arnold surprisingly says, "Just like me."

Victor hears about this discussion directly from Suzy. Before this moment, they had never met. The only reason why their paths crossed was Arnold's death. Suzy discovered his body and called Victor's mother, Arlene. Arlene then told her son about what happened and gave him some money to go and collect his father's remains. They don't have enough, however, until Thomas intercedes and pulls out his "cookie jar" in a reservation grocery store, telling Victor, "Hey, I can get you to Phoenix." Victor accepts Thomas's offer--on two conditions--that he cannot tell any stories and that he "Get rid of that silly suit." With sufficient resources, the two hop on a bus for Phoenix, but before they do that Thomas "barters" for a ride, telling a tale about Arnold beating up a National Guardsman in the late 1960s. The two Native American women in the car ponder whether or not they should give them a ride before one states, "I think that the story is a fine example of the oral tradition." This tongue-in-cheek comment is followed up when Thomas and Victor climb out of the car. One woman states, "I hope you two got your vaccinations; you're going into a whole new country."

This is where Smoke Signals turns into a classic "road-buddy" movie, but Victor and Thomas are not buddies. (37) Indeed, after Arnold leaves, the ever-present and slightly pesky Thomas shows up and asks Victor, "Why did your dad leave--does he hate you?" Victor replies with his fists, giving Thomas a bloody nose. Despite this pounding, (38) Thomas displays genuine concern and affection for Victor. He continually calls out, for example, "Hey Victor" with warmth and compassion. Thomas's cheerful and perhaps naive demeanor annoys Victor, however. He feels that Thomas is always acting like some "damn medicine man" and that he is not, therefore, a real or authentic Indian. Victor tells him that to be a real (male) Indian he must do the following--become stoic (be a "warrior"), free or unbraid his hair, and buy some new clothes. Thomas grudgingly embraces this advice, wearing a T-shirt that says "fry-bread power" with a stern look across his hair-swept face.

That "warrior look" does not work, however. Upon getting back onto the bus after a quick stop, Victor and Thomas come across two white men wearing cowboy hats who are sitting in their seats. Victor objects, but they remain seated, telling him and "super-Injun" that there is "Not a damn thing that they can do about it." This exchange prompts Thomas to say, "The cowboys always win." These scenes illustrate that Smoke Signals interrogates and critiques U.S. colonization--the stolen bus seats are a metaphor for stolen land. White folks not only stole our land, but they are still exploiting us today, stealing our seats. The conquest continues--this is the film's subtle message.

After reaching Phoenix, Victor and Thomas walk through scorching desert heat to get to Suzy's place. Thomas talks incessantly along the way, asking Victor, "Do you know how long it will take to get there?" Victor replies, "We'll get there when we get there," which prompts this insight from Thomas, "We've been traveling for years now--first Columbus shows up, then Custer comes in, driving down property values, then old Harry Truman drops the bomb." The first two names are clearly connected with conquest and genocide, but the third one is less well known perhaps. When Truman dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki he unleashed the "nuclear age." Over the next thirty years, nuclear bombs would be tested on native reservations (the world's most bombed nation is not Japan, it is the Shoshone nation, located in Western Nevada) and nuclear waste would also be dumped there. Ward Churchill and Winona LaDuke call these policies "radio active colonization." (39) The film thus once again "quietly" critiques U.S. militarism--the country's hidden addiction--through Thomas's character.

Victor and Thomas's "forced march" finally ends when they reach Suzy's trailer. She tries to hand Victor his father's ashes, but he pointedly refuses and so Thomas takes them. Thomas then tells several stories before falling asleep for the night. Suzy and Victor then talk about Arnold. Suzy mentions one story when Arnold and Victor beat two Jesuit priests in a pick--up basketball game. Arnold proudly proclaims that when Victor took the "winning shot" for one day the "Indians beat the Christians." Earlier, when Victor was younger, Arnold talked about waving his magic wand and making the white people and the reservations disappear--"poof, poof." These scenes remind the viewer that white Europeans not only colonized Native Americans through physical force, they rationalized their actions based on Christianity, claiming that they were God's chosen people and Indians were "uncivilized heathens." (40)

Victor did not make that game--winning basket, however. He tells Suzy that his father lied. He then asks her, "Did you love him?" She replies, "Yes, he was like a father." That statement, combined with Thomas's frequently and positively told story about how Arnold once took him to Denny's for the "grand slam" breakfast, pushes Victor over the edge. He says, "He had you fooled too," referring indirectly to Thomas. He then asks Suzy, "How do I know if you are telling me the truth?" She hesitates before telling him she knows how the Fourth of July fire started. Victor says, "The one that killed Thomas's parents? No one knows how it got started."

Suzy tells Victor that Arnold accidentally started the fire. He passed out drunk with a sparkler in his hand that first set the curtains and then the whole house ablaze. Arnold, therefore, was responsible for killing Thomas's parents--the "three hearts" that he talked about breaking were theirs and Thomas's. (41) Arnold ran back into the house, however, and saved not only Thomas but Victor too. Victor had never heard this story before. He had been told that Arnold saved Thomas but not him. Suzy's words thus leave him confused, not knowing if he should love or hate his father for what he did.

The film implies that Arnold felt guilty about killing Thomas's parents and so he started drinking more heavily before he ran away. Shame sparked Arnold's alcoholism and his eventual "disappearance" one could say, but he started drinking before the fire took place on "white people's independence day" (as Thomas calls July Fourth). This means that there must have been some other reason why Arnold started drinking. Some scholars and filmmakers suggest that conquest, genocide (cultural, physical, spiritual, etc.), and economic deprivation have generated hopelessness, despair, and alcoholism (along with other healthrelated issues) among Native Americans. (42) Native American alcoholism is a controversial subject; many people (based on Hollywood films like the Comancheros, which starred John Wayne) still harbor stereotypes about "drunk Indians" being passed out on reservations without thinking about how the alcohol first got there and why some Indians started drinking. (43) Sherman Alexie openly addressed this issue:

   When the book [The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven]
   was first published, I was (and continue to be) vilified in
   certain circles for my alcohol-soaked stories. Rereading
   them, I suppose my critics have a point. Everybody in this
   book [which the film is based on] is drunk or in love with
   a drunk. And in writing about drunk Indians, I am dealing
   with stereotypical material. But I can only respond with
   the truth. In my family, counting parents, siblings, and
   dozens of aunts, uncles, and cousins, there are less than a
   dozen who are currently sober and only a few who have
   never drank. When I write about the destructive effects of
   alcohol on Indians, I am not writing out of a literary stance
   or a colonized mind's need to reinforce stereotypes. I am
   writing autobiography. (44)

Churchill states that Indians have the "lowest annual and lifetime incomes of any group on the continent and the highest rates of unemployment. We also experience, by a decisive margin, the highest rates of infant mortality, death by malnutrition, exposure, and plague disease." (45) He continues, "These conditions produce the kind of endemic despair that generates chronic alcoholism and other forms of substance abuse among more than half the native population." One could say that Arnold started drinking, therefore, because he was hurting; hurting from centuries of conquest, colonization, and genocide. Alcohol made his pain temporarily disappear, but that "firewater" (as alcohol is sometimes called in Native American communities) never put out that "fire" (anger, shame, etc.) that burned inside him. In fact, the firewater (or "white man's wicked water") that he drank literally sparked (remember, in this scene, Arnold was holding a sparkler) the Fourth of July fire that killed Thomas's parents.

Most people seemingly believe that we live in a "color-blind" society today in the United States. (46) African Americans are no longer lynched and Native Americans are no longer massacred. This is basically true, but this does not mean that racism has disappeared. As many scholars have noted, racism has taken on more subtle forms. (47) Some claim, for example, African Americans are still being lynched today with so many black women and men embedded in the ever-growing "prison-industrial complex."(48) One could similarly argue that Native Americans are still being massacred today, except now, the film sug gests, they are killing themselves and their own people. Didn't Arnold kill Thomas's parents?

This is the message one gets from observing the cover of Ward Churchill's book A Little Matter of Genocide (1997). The cover includes two pictures--the top one is a photo from the Wounded Knee massacre (1890) and the bottom one shows a Native American man sleeping in the street. That latter image is little bit ambiguous--is the person homeless, is he drunk, or is he both? I think that he is probably both and that Churchill is implicitly suggesting that alcoholism is a modernday form of genocide. What makes today's genocide different and thus possibly more insidious is that white folks look like they are not responsible for it, even though they first introduced the "firewater" and the reservation system. That's the real "magic trick" (forget Arnold's hidden coin tricks)--racism ironically exists today without racists. (49)

Victor, quite naturally, does not reflect upon all these issues, but Suzy's story about the fire makes him think that maybe his father was more complicated than he previously assumed. Victor's "fire" or anger toward Arnold is too great, however, and so when Thomas says, "You've got it all wrong Victor, maybe you don't know who you are--you've been moping around for ten years and what do you have? Nothing. You make your mother cry because sure your dad left, but you left her too," he starts speeding and gets into an accident. A drunk driver, ironically, blames Victor, but he is not responsible. Victor runs off (this action, the film implies, mimics a "sweat lodge" experience, with him running and literally sweating--purging his mind, body, and spirit of his painful childhood memories) trying to help two people who were injured in the crash, but he collapses before he can do so.

When he wakes up, Thomas is driving Victor around in a wheelchair inside a hospital. For the first time, Victor sounds contrite, telling Thomas he is sorry for getting them into that wreck. Thomas replies, "Actually, we were in two wrecks last night," talking about the actual accident and the verbal conflict that they got into. Before leaving the hospital, the local (white) sheriff stops them for questioning about the accident. He says, "I have a statement here from a witness that says Victor Joseph was responsible and that he had been drinking." Victor responds, "That's bullshit. I've never touched a drop of alcohol in my whole life." The sheriff then asks, "Just what kind of Indian are you," stereotypically implying that all "real" Indians drink.

Victor and Thomas state they are Coeur d'Alene Indians and the sheriff lets them go, knowing the accident was the drunk driver's fault, not Victor's. Before leaving his office, the sheriff says, "I know this is a basketball, but what is this (touching the jar with his father's ashes)?" Victor says, "That's my father." This marks the first time he has called Arnold his father. Just before they start up Arnold's truck and Suzy lights his trailer on fire with sage, Victor tells Thomas, "Let me hold

Dad," another symbolic gesture that shows how the accident helped transform him. Arnold's "accident" (the Fourth of July fire) made him run away; Victor's accident, in contrast, makes him see his father, himself, and even Thomas differently and so he runs (drives) back home.

When they arrive, Victor thanks Thomas and gives him some of Arnold's ashes. They talk about scattering them into Spokane Falls (Washington) and Victor drives off, but before he does, Thomas says one more time, "Hey Victor!" "Do you know why your dad really left?" he asks. Victor replies, "He didn't mean to, Thomas." Thomas then surprisingly smiles because he apparently knew all along that Arnold killed his parents. Despite this fact, Thomas never displays any anger or hostility toward Arnold; he always spoke positively about him. Arnold, after all, saved Thomas and he essentially became his surrogate father. Thomas thus forgave Arnold.

That decision undoubtedly influenced Victor. One could argue that Thomas was Victor's "conscience" who helped him see that his fire toward his father held him back, emotionally, spiritually, and even politically. Victor, even though he never "touched a drop of alcohol in his life," acted like an alcoholic or "dry-drunk" throughout the entire film. (50) He was a bitter, angry young man who hated nearly everyone around him, except his mother. He especially hated Thomas, but his love and Suzy's love for Arnold slowly transformed Victor. When he got into that accident and ran for miles looking for help, something snapped inside Victor. He experienced a spiritual and emotional "conversion," which made him see that holding grudges and making quick judgments about his father were counterproductive. The fire that was burning inside his heart nearly consumed him. What saved him was learning the truth about the Fourth of July fire and how remorseful his father was for starting it. The fact that truth (or "wisdom") came from Suzy, a Native American woman, is particularly symbolic because many religions (most notably, Christianity) have marginalized or simply omitted the prophetic and central role women have played within them. (51)

Smoke Signals implies the truth set Victor "free." When he scatters his father's ashes and passionately screams in the film's last scene, Victor is essentially saying, "It's time to let go; it's time to forgive my father and move on with my life." With this act, Victor finally puts out the fire and he presumably starts healing. In the film's first few scenes, Thomas's grandmother states that Victor's name means "he's going to win." In the final scene, those words look incredibly prescient--Victor "wins," but does he really? Dick Lourie's haunting poem asks, "After we forgive our fathers, what else is left?" Victor could become, in Herni Nouwen's memorable phrase, a "wounded healer," ministering and working alongside the "least of these," who are suffering from personal or political traumas, but the film never suggests this or any other option for Victor. (52) I respect this open-ended conclusion, but I wish that

Alexie and director Chris Eyre would have openly said, "What is left after forgiving our fathers, is reparations--meaning, returning lands that the United States stole so long ago. Saying 'sorry' isn't enough. (53) Victor won't be completely free until that day comes."


These particular interpretations often spark spirited discussion within the classroom. Some students question, while others outright reject, the notion that Arnold Joseph and the United States are similar. They don't see the connection between Arnold's alcoholism and the United States's addiction to war. They also don't see the connection between Victor's hatred toward his father and widespread hatred toward the United States. Those hatreds stem from denial--Arnold denies he has a "problem" (drinking) and never tells the truth about the fire, just like the United States denies it too has a problem (militarism) and never tells the truth about Native American genocide, the Vietnam War, Chile and the CIA-backed coup in 1973, the School of the Americas, Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction," and so on. Based on these actions, one should not be surprised why Victor hated Arnold and so many people from all over the world hate the United States today.

The students that challenge this viewpoint are not only politically conservative; in fact, some are quite radical and critical toward how the United States has treated Native Americans historically and presently. Some feel, however, that the "movie is just a movie" and that Arnold and the United States have two distinctly different addictions (I never claim that alcoholism and militarism are the same exact thing but suggest the former is a metaphor for the latter). Arnold's addiction is "externally imposed" (meaning that Europeans introduced alcohol into native communities and exploited them so badly that many turned to self-medication), one student says, making it easier to forgive him. She then dramatically adds, "I can forgive Arnold, but I can't forgive the United States. How can we forgive the United States? Our leaders know what they are doing and they do it over and over again. They never apologize or admit their mistakes, so why should we forgive them?"

I have no response for this question (54) but suspect those students who speak out most forcefully against forgiveness--on a micro or macro level--have had troubled relationships with their fathers--biological or otherwise. This assumption is partially borne out during class when I ask students to write and speak about their fathers and whether or not they have ever forgiven them for any possible transgressions.

This request usually generates some opposition from students who feel that the assignment should be more academic or less intrusive. One student says, "I can't write about this, it's too painful." I tell her that I understand and that she does not have to share her testimonio (testimony) with the class. I ask for volunteers and sit down, waiting for the first student to raise his or her hand. That waiting period often lasts a minute or two before someone gathers the courage to "go tell it on the mountain." (55)

The first few testimonios are usually a little bit dry and reserved, but as time passes, more students start opening up and sharing some very intimate issues with the whole class. (56) The one student, for instance, who said she could not do the assignment, tells her classmates how her father verbally and physically abused her for years, causing her to almost commit suicide. Another student mentions that her father beat her and her siblings and locked them inside a bedroom closet. Several others stated that their fathers had alcohol or drug-related problems and extramarital affairs. On a different note, one student said that she hated her father for years because he showed too much affection. She discussed how the line, "and shall we forgive them for their excesses of warmth" from Dick Lourie's poem especially touched her and how she hopes that her father will forgive her one day for pushing him away.

These comments fill the classroom with tremendous emotion. Students cry while sharing their testimonios or listening to their classmates' stories. For one brief moment, the class is transformed into large circulo (talking circle), with sage and candles burning in the background. Such intensity generates solidarity and community within that physical space--barriers start breaking down and "complete strangers" begin seeing each other as friends (companeras/os). "Another classroom," one based on social justice and the axiom that "great love requires great risk," slowly emerges from this process. (57) Not everyone feels this way, of course. Some students feel alienated because they have positive ties with their fathers or express anger because they feel that the assignment manipulated their emotions and created "forced solidarity." One student even said, "He [the professor] must have serious issues with his father."

This latter comment saddened and angered me, but it also made me reflect on why I created this assignment. I did not create it because I have issues with my father or because I see myself as some amateur therapist. Far from it. (58) I created this assignment because so many people, including myself, are carrying cargas ("baggage") that are weighing them down today--someone hurts them and that person never apologizes for what they did. This situation produces anger and resentment. Forgiveness seems impossible under these circumstances because the offending party has admitted no wrongdoing nor shown any remorse. (59) Many students during class say something like this, "My father must take the first step because if I forgive him and he does not admit that he did anything wrong, what will stop him from doing it all over again?"

I cannot answer that question. This is a real possibility and so the question becomes, "How long should someone wait before taking that first step themselves?" Victor waited too long. His father died before he could personally forgive him, but he started his healing process and pushed aside his anger when he released Arnold's ashes. Rage Against the Machine lead singer Zach de la Rocha once sang, "Anger is a gift," a line possibly borrowed from Sex Pistols and Public Image Limited front--man Johnny Lydon (Rotten) who repeatedly and hauntingly cried, "Anger is an energy, anger is an energy." (60) They were both right--anger can fuel one's fire and spark positive action (personally and politically), but it can also precipitate bitterness and burnout.

Arnold's fire and hostility toward the United States sparked the fire that killed Thomas's parents. One could say, therefore, that fire begat fire. Seen from this perspective, alcohol ("firewater") served as gasoline--more fuel for the fire. Arnold's fire sparks one fire that consequently started another one inside his son, Victor. So fire (Native American genocide) beget fire (Arnold's drinking and the Fourth of July fire) begets fire (Arnold runs away and Victor becomes angry). (61)


How can this vicious cycle be broken? Victor's actions are instructive here. Victor could have remained angry and never really progressed emotionally, politically, or spiritually, but he took what M. Scott Peck once called the "road less traveled" and forgave his father. (62) Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is based on the well-known twelve-step program. (63) The first step toward recovery is to admit that one has a drinking problem or is an alcoholic. Arnold never took this step, but his son ironically did. Rather than carry cargas, Victor chose to "move on" with his life and start healing his wounds. That phrase "move on" infuriates some people and rightly so because it implies one should forego the struggle for social justice and forget what happened--genocide, slavery, war, and so on.

I disagree with those who make this argument. I think that one can forgive, "remember rightly," and still work for justice. (64) Martin Luther King, Archbishop Romero, Desmond Tutu, Gandhi, and many others did all three things--they forgave and sometimes even blessed their enemies while working for justice based on faith and nonviolence. (65) Ward Churchill provocatively maintains that nonviolence or "pacifism" is pathological, however, because it actually reinforces, rather than undermines, the status quo. (66) I partially agree with this perspective, but feel his alternative--"armed struggle"--is equally pathological, if not suicidal, given U.S. military power. (67)

That is the United States' problem--militarism. U.S. leaders have rarely (President Eisenhower being one exception with his infamous farewell speech about the "military--industrial complex") acknowledged this addiction, however. (68) This makes the United States like Arnold, but the analogy is not perfect. Arnold's alcoholism largely stemmed from conquest, colonization, and genocide, which does not excuse, but helps explain, his wretched behavior (e.g. domestic violence, child abuse, abandonment).

Arnold's "problem" thus makes some sense, but where do the United States's problems come from? Richard Hughes contends that our problems stem from the ever--popular myth that we are an "innocent nation" (some call this "American exceptionalism"). (69) That innocence was expressed after the events of September 11, 2001, with the question, "Why do they hate us?" That question, as Churchill's earlier quote indicates, is delusional; it perfectly illustrates our national denial. Examples of our national denial include U.S. support for authoritarian governments in the Middle East for sixty years; a CIA-backed coup in Iran that toppled a democratically elected government and installed a hard-line monarch and his secret police force; luring the Soviet Union into Afghanistan and then funding "freedom fighters" like Osama bin Laden; providing Saddam Hussein with chemical weapons that were later used on the Kurds (more biological terrorism--from Jeffrey Amherst to Donald Rumsfeld who shook Hussein's hand and sealed the deal for the mustard gas); placing military bases in Mecca and Medina, Islam's two holiest sites; backing United Nations sanctions that killed five hundred thousand Iraqi children; and steadfast support for Israel and its suppression of Palestinian independence. (70) These actions could be seen as one large "fire." That fire generated "blow--back," sparking a new fire on September 11, 2001. (71) That fire sparked new fires in Afghanistan and Iraq, which sparked new ones in Spain and England in 2003 and 2005. Like Smoke Signals suggests--fire begets fire begets fire. When will this madness end? How many more people will die before the flames are finally put out?

I think that the United States should do what Victor did--forgive our "enemies." Before doing that, the United States should, however, "come clean"--first admitting its addiction and then telling the truth about its historical and contemporary actions in the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, Asia, and within its very own borders. As Gregg Grandin and Thomas Klubock recently suggest, perhaps now is the time for a U.S. Truth Commission to uncover and document all the atrocities the U.S. government has been involved with since our country was established over two hundred years ago. (72) Having admitted its addiction (AA Step 1), made a list of all the nations and peoples it had harmed (AA Step 8), the next move would be "making amends" to all (AA Step 9). This is where conversations about forgiveness get complicated. I am not suggesting that the United States make amends to al--Qaeda, but we should repair the damage we have created in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere in the Middle East. These actions could help put out the "fire" that we sparked. The United States should, moreover, symbolically, if not literally, return stolen Native American land. (73) This is "what is left" after forgiveness--reparations. Archbishop Tutu, Martin Luther King, South African TRC official Pumla Gobodo--Madikizela, and other supporters of forgiveness all realize "saying sorry isn't enough." (74) Old Testament prophet Isaiah (61:1-4) noted this too when he said, "They shall rise up and restore the ruined cities."

The United States will probably never take any of these three steps. President Bush was once asked (paraphrasing the original question), "Name the biggest mistake you have made during your time in office." He did not answer, indicating that he apparently believed he had not made any mistakes (like the war in Iraq) while serving in the Oval Office. Stubborn denials like this one make it more than likely that the "chickens will continue to come home to roost." (75) This is tragic because the United States should have shed its innocence after the events of September 11, 2001. Cornel West claimed that the United States had the "blues" post-9/11. (76) He pointedly asked, "What can a blues nation learn from a blues people?" African Americans have been oppressed for more than four centuries in the United States, but very few have responded with violence. Most responded creatively, with art, culture, music, sit-ins, and mass protests. Some even prayed for and forgave those who oppressed them. The United States could have continued this rich tradition, but it did not, fighting fire, instead, with fire.

The road ahead thus looks rather bleak. President Bush will never forgive the "evil-doers" (which includes him and his cabinet officials) nor admit any mistakes; so the age--old question must be asked again, "What is to be done?" I believe that a U.S. Truth Commission should be established. This commission should investigate and document all atrocities that the U.S. government and corporations have committed since 1776. The United States should acknowledge its addiction, make a list of the people it has harmed, and repair the damage it has caused. Having done that, those who have been hurt or wounded should consider forgiving the United States. Forgiveness should not occur before remorse is expressed and reparations are made. Victor forgave Arnold when he learned the truth about his father, but he still wasn't completely free. Freedom may only come with substantial reparations, which may require fundamentally restructuring the U.S. economy. This is a remote possibility, but if we "let justice roll like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream," (77) the fire will go out and the cycle will be broken.


(1) Reprinted from Ghost Radio, copyright 1998 by Dick Lourie, by permission of Hanging Loose Press.

(2) The film is based on Alexie's book, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (Brooklyn, N.Y.: Hanging Loose Press, 1993).

(3) For more on the prison--industrial complex, see Angela Davis, Abolition Democracy: Beyond Prisons, Torture, and Empire (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005); Alan Elsner, Gates of Injustice: Crisis in America's Prisons (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice-- Hall, 2006); Ruth Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2007); Tara Herivel and Paul Wright, Prison Nation: The Warehousing of America's Poor (New York: Routledge, 2002); Christian Parenti, Lockdown America: Police and Prisons in the Age of Crisis (London: Verso, 2000).

(4) For the "classic statement" on the carceral state, see Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage, 1995). For more on Margaret Thatcher and the rise of global neoliberalism, see David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford, 2005).

(5) For more on liberation theology, see Robert McAfee Brown, Liberation Theology: A Introductory Guide (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster Knox Press, 1993); Gustavo Gutierrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1988); Clara Sue Kidwell, Homer Noley, and George Tinker, A Native American Theology (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2001); Kwok Pui-lan, Postcolonial Imagination and Feminist Theology (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster Knox Press, 2005).

(6) Oscar Romero, Voice of the Voiceless (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1985).

(7) Martin Luther King, Strength to Love (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1981).

(8) The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) actually investigated human rights abuses from 1960 until 1994. Apartheid was established in 1948, although its roots can be traced back to the early 1900s. In 1960, the Sharpeville massacre, which left sixty-nine people dead, took place. That event marked the beginning of the country's "spiral of violence" between the apartheid government and the African National Congress (ANC). For more on apartheid and the TRC, see Terry Bell and Dumisa Buhle Ntsebeza, Unfinished Business: South Africa, Apartheid, and Truth (London: Verso, 2003); Alex Boraine, A Country Unmasked: Inside South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Alejandro Castillejo-Cuellar, "Knowledge, Experience, and South African Scenarios of Forgiveness," Radical History Review (Winter 2007): 11-42; Pumla GobodoMadikizela, A Human Being Died That Night: A South African Woman Confronts the Legacy of Apartheid (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003); Deborah Hoffman and Frances Reid, A Long Night's Journey into Day (New York: Iris Films, 2000); Antjie Krog, Country of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow, and the Limits of Forgiveness in the New South Africa (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2000); Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom (Boston: Back Bay Books, 1995); Fiona Ross, Bearing Witness: Women and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa (London: Pluto Press, 2003); Gillian Slovo, Every Secret Thing: My Family, My Country (London: Little, Brown, 1997); Desmond Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness (New York: Doubleday, 1999); Charles Villa-Vicencio and Wilhelm Verwoerd, eds., Looking Back, Reaching Forward: Reflections on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa (London: Zed Press, 2000); Nigel Worden, The Making of Modern South Africa: Conquest, Segregation, and Apartheid (London: Blackwell, 2000).

(9) For more on the TRC and forgiveness see Castillejo-Cuellar, "Knowledge, Experience, and South African Scenarios of Forgiveness"; Gobodo-Madikizela, A Human Being Died That Night; Hoffman and Reid, A Long Night's Journey into Day; and Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness. The Castillejo-Cuellar article sharply challenges Hoffman and Reid's widely acclaimed documentary film, A Long Night's Journey into Day.

(10) Bell and Ntsebeza, Unfinished Business; Castillejo-Cuellar "Knowledge, Experience, and South African Scenarios of Forgiveness."

(11) Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness, 229.

(12) For more on how painful memories can generate resentment and "redemptive violence," see Miroslav Volf's provocative book, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006).

(13) Several students always challenge this particular assignment. Some who have had very loving, positive, and nurturing relationships with their fathers feel like they have "nothing to write about," while those who generally agree with U.S. foreign policy decisions and the notion that racism has essentially disappeared feel the assignment is too critical of the United States. I try (at times rather poorly, but hopefully not) to give students the space to write from their "hearts and souls"--if they feel uncomfortable writing something negative or positive about their fathers, then they don't have to. They also don't have to write about their fathers at all; they can primarily focus on the film and how it explores fatherhood and forgiveness, addiction and healing, and other related themes. I also mention that they can contend that the United States isn't responsible for committing genocide against Native Americans and that this country isn't "addicted to war." Students can make these arguments, but they must cite empirical evidence that substantiates those claims. 14 For one exception, see Tracy Wagner, "Forgive and Remember," Rethinking Schools 18, no. 1 (Fall 2003). This piece, while extremely creative and inspiring, does not exhaustively examine the relationship between Smoke Signals, fatherhood, and forgiveness.

(15) Ronald McFarland, "Teaching Sherman Alexie's Reservation Blues," Wicazo Sa Review 16, no. 2 (Fall 2001): 139-47; John Mihelich, "Smoke or Signals? American Popular Culture and the Challenges to Hegemonic Images of American Indians in Native American Film," Wicazo Sa Review 16, no. 2 (Fall 2001): 129-37.

(16) See Heather Anne Miller, "Tonto and Tonto Speak: Indigenousbased Film Theory," (Master's Thesis: Montana State University, 2006); John Miles, "Not Corn Fallen or Eagle Feathers: Native American Stereotypes and Identity in Sherman Alexie's Fiction," (Master's Thesis: North Carolina State University, 2004).

(17) For more on these pedagogical practices, see William Ayers, Jean Ann Hunt, and Therese Quinn, eds., Teaching for Social Justice (New York: Teachers College Press, 1998); bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress (New York: Routledge, 1994); Parker J. Palmer, The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher's Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998)

(18) For more on this particular class, see Ralph Armbruster-Sandoval, "Is Another World Possible? Is Another Classroom Possible? Radical Pedagogy, Activism, and Social Change," Social Justice 32, no. 2 (2005): 34-51.

(19) Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States (New York: Harper Perennial, 2003), 1.

(20) David Stannard, American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 71; Zinn, A People's History of the United States, 4.

(21) Stannard, American Holocaust, 74-75.

(22) Elizabeth Fenn, "Biological Warfare in Eighteenth-Century North America: Beyond Jeffrey Amherst," Journal of American History (March 2000): 1552-80.

(23) John Winthrop helped orchestrate, incidentally, the elimination of Pequots during this time period. For more on his role, see Ward Churchill, A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas, 1492-Present (San Francisco: City Light Books, 1997), 152. President Ronald Reagan's speechwriters routinely invoked the "city on a hill," conveniently overlooking Winthrop's involvement with genocide and mass murder. One could contend that Reagan's support for death squads in Guatemala and El Salvador in the 1980s simply and rather tragically mirrored Winthrop's actions.

(24) Richard Hughes, Myths America Lives By (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003).

(25) Robert Remini, Andrew Jackson and His Indians (New York: Penguin, 2002); Anthony Wallace, Long Bitter Trail: Andrew Jackson and the Indians (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993).

(26) John Ehle, Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation (New York: Anchor Books, 1997); Gloria Jahoda, Trail of Tears: Story of American Indian Removals, 1813-1855 (New York: Wings, 1995).

(27) Churchill, A Little Matter of Genocide; Jerrome Greene and Dwight D. Scott, Finding Sand Creek: History, Archaeology, and the 1864 Massacre Site (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006); Stan Hoig, The Sand Creek Massacre (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1974).

(28) Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: Indian History of the American West (New York: Owl Books, 2001).

(29) Ward Churchill, "Life in Occupied America," Speech recorded in Berkeley, California (April 23, 1993) (compact disk; Oakland, Calif.: AK Press, 2003); Churchill, A Little Matter of Genocide.

(30) The term "American holocaust" is borrowed from the title of Stannard's (1992) book.

(31) Joel Andreas, Addicted to War: Why the United States Can't Kick Militarism (Oakland, Calif.: AK Press, 2002); Stephen Kinzer, Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq (New York: Times Books, 2006); Vijay Prashad, The Darker Nations: A People's History of the Third World (New York: New Press, 2007).

(32) Andreas, Addicted to War.

(33) Quote taken from Chalmers Johnson, Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004), 1.

(34) I am deliberately borrowing, here, Chalmers Johnson's book title, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2000).

(35) Ward Churchill, On the Justice of Roosting Chickens: Reflections on the Consequences of U.S. Imperial Arrogance and Criminality (Oakland, Calif.: AK Press, 2003), 13-14. Churchill has been long associated with controversy and "scandal." He was recently fired from his position at the University of Colorado for plagiarizing sources and information that appeared in On the Nature of Roosting Chickens. See Wicazo Sa Review 22, no. 1 (Spring 2007) for more on this still-evolving and quite polarizing incident.

(36) President Bush never admitted he was an alcoholic; he merely stated he was a "heavy drinker." For more on this issue, see Thomas Frank, Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of President Bush (New York: Harper, 2004).

(37) Sherman Alexie somewhat jokingly called Smoke Signals a male, Native American--oriented version of Thelma and Louise (1991), the "feminist road buddy" film that starred Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon. See Dennis West and Joan M. West, "Sending Cinematic Smoke Signals," Cineaste 23, no. 4 (1998): 28-32.

(38) Victor not only hits Thomas with his fists, he hits him with words and looks that pierce Thomas's spirit, but he maintains his resilient outlook and always tries to make Victor see Arnold from a more nuanced perspective.

(39) Ward Churchill and Winona LaDuke, "Native North America: The Political Economy of Radioactive Colonialism," in M. Annette Jaimes, The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization, and Resistance, 241-66 (Boston: South End Press, 1992).

(40) Vine Deloria Jr., God Is Red: A Native View of Religion (Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum Publishing, 2003); Hughes, Myths America Lives By.

(41) This comment could also mean that Arnold broke three more hearts that day--his, Arlene's, and Victor's.

(42) For more on this topic, see Peter Mancall, Deadly Medicine: Indians and Alcohol in Early America (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997); Chante Pierce and Gary Rhine, The Red Road to Sobriety: The Contemporary Native American Sobriety Movement (film: Los Angeles, Calif.: Kifaru Productions, 1995); Richard Thatcher, Fighting Firewater Fictions: Moving Beyond the Disease Model of Alcoholism in First Nations (Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press, 2004); William Unrau, Wicked White Man's Water: The Alcohol Trade and Prohibition in Indian Country, 1802-1892 (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1996). Some of these texts maintain that Europeans deliberately and consciously introduced alcohol into Native American communities to facilitate land dispossession (Mancall, Deadly Medicine; Pierce and Rhine, The Red Road to Sobriety), while others allege alcoholism arose from that very dispossession (Unrau, Wicked White Man's Water). Thatcher's study on Native communities in Canada suggests that alcoholism is associated with chronic unemployment and poverty.

(43) Victor and Thomas, perhaps not so ironically, sing an improvised song called "John Wayne's Teeth" on the bus to Phoenix. Wayne's picture later appears on the wall of the sheriff who arrests them.

(44) Alexie, The Lone Ranger, xvii-xix.

(45) Churchill, A Little Matter of Genocide, 247.

(46) Michael Brown et al., Whitewashing the Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005).

(47) Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States (Boulder, Colo.: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003).

(48) Davis, Abolition Democracy; Gilmore, Golden Gulag.

(49) This is the title of Bonilla-Silva's book.

(50) The term "dry drunk" is most often used in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and literature, although it has been widely used outside those circles. A dry drunk is someone who has given up drinking but who still exhibits alcoholic behavior (R. J. Solberg, The Dry Drunk Syndrome [Center City, Minn. Hazelden Publications, 1983]). Dry drunks are often impatient, irresponsible, angry, impulsive, and depressed. Victor exhibits some of these traits--even though he never started drinking. President Bush has also been labeled a "dry drunk" for his policy decisions and "either-or" thinking, see Katherine van Wormer, "Dry Drunk Syndrome and George W. Bush," Counterpunch (October 11, 2002).

(51) Some Christian-oriented scholars and theologians contend that "Sophia" is the "lost goddess of wisdom" who was excluded from the church's official teachings by high-ranking male authorities. For more on Sophia and sexism within Christianity, see Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (New York: Harper One, 1995); Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women's Liberation (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993); Caitlin Matthews, Sophia: Goddess of Wisdom, Bridge of God (Wheaton, Ill.: Quest Books, 2001).

(52) Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer (New York: Image Books, 1990).

(53) Roy Brooks, ed., When Sorry Isn't Enough: The Controversy over Apologies and Reparations for Human Injustice (New York: New York University Press, 1999).

(54) The question reminds me of Luke 23:24, when Jesus says, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do." Jesus utters those lines despite being brutally tortured and crucified. While his words are deeply moving, let us consider this fact-those who executed him knew what they were doing. Those who gave Native Americans smallpox-infected blankets knew what they were doing and those who are funding an unjust war while bridges, levies, and schools break and fall apart in the United States know what they are doing today. The question thus is, "how do we forgive those who deliberately harm people, who more often than not are people of color, women, queers, and those who speak truth to power?" Moreover, how do we forgive when the perpetrator has admitted no wrongdoing or shown any remorse? GobodoMadikizela (A Human Being Died That Night) contends these two traits are essential for forgiveness.

(55) This phrase is borrowed from the title of James Baldwin's famous novel, Go Tell It on the Mountain (New York: Dell, 1985).

(56) Students are provided with information about on-campus counseling services during this exercise.

(57) Armbruster-Sandoval, "Is Another World Possible?"

(58) In Teaching Community (New York: Routledge, 2003), bell hooks writes, "Teachers are not therapists. However, there are times when conscious teaching--teaching with love--brings us the insight that we will not be able to have a meaningful experience in the classroom without reading the emotional climate of our students and attending to it" (133). Incidentally, like most people, I have had quarrels with my father about various issues, but overall, I believe that I have an open and loving relationship with him. I hope that one day that I can be as good a father to my two children as he has been to my sister and me.

(59) See note 54.

(60) The Rage Against the Machine song with this lyric is called "Freedom" (1992), and the Public Image Limited song is called "Rise" (1985).

(61) For more on intergenerational violence, see Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart and Lemyra DeBruyn, "The American Indian Holocaust: Healing Historical Unresolved Grief," American Indian and Alaska Native Mental Health Research 8, no. 2 (1998): 60-82.

(62) M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled (New York: Touchstone, 2003).

(63) For more on the twelve-step program, see www.alcoholicsanonymous.org.

(64) Yale Divinity School Professor of Theology Miroslav Volf (in The End of Memory) rather surprisingly suggests that victims should forgive their abusers and that painful memories should eventually be forgotten. He claims that too often people remember "wrongly," justifying new atrocities based on painful memories. 65 King, Strength to Love; Michael Nojeim, Gandhi and King: The Power of Nonviolence (Westport, Conn.: Praeger Publishers, 2004); Romero, Voice of the Voiceless; Tutu, No Future without Forgiveness. While these luminaries have all embraced forgiveness, some have neither accepted nor rejected it. In one famous case, Simon Wiesenthal, who was a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp at the time, was asked by a dying SS soldier for forgiveness. He said nothing. See his book, The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limitations of Forgiveness (New York: Shocken, 1997) for more on this exchange and how other scholars, theologians, and activists would have responded had they been in the same situation.

(66) Ward Churchill, Pacifism as Pathology: Reflections on the Role of Armed Struggle in North America (Oakland, Calif.: AK Press, 2007). Peter Gelderloos makes a similar and even more sustained critique, claiming that nonviolence is "patriarchal and racist" as well. For more on these views, see his new book, How Nonviolence Protects the State (Boston: South End Press, 2007).

(67) Former political prisoner, Ed Mead, who was involved with the George Jackson Brigade and spent nearly twenty years behind bars for bombing various government buildings, agrees with this view, stating, in the introduction in Pacifism as Pathology (32-33), "In my opinion, peaceful tactics comprise the only form of political agenda that can be sustained during this particular historical period. Armed actions would not further the struggle for justice at present, but they could plainly hurt it. I suspect that when the situation changes, everyone will know it, and the time clearly ain't now."

(68) Eugene Jarecki's excellent documentary film, Why We Fight (2005), examines Eisenhower's quote, along with U.S. imperialism in the post--World War II era.

(69) Hughes, Myths America Lives By.

(70) Robert Fisk, The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East (New York: Knopf, 2005); Johnson, Sorrows of Empire.

(71) The term "blow-back" comes from Johnson's (2000) book.

(72) Gregg Grandin and Thomas Miller Klubock, "Introduction: A U.S. Truth Commission?" Radical History Review (Winter 2007): 99-101. This hypothetical commission would presumably investigate abuses that involved mostly Native Americans and African slaves that took place before the nation was created in 1789.

(73) I understand that this is extremely unrealistic, but I believe something this dramatic is needed.

(74) Brooks, When Sorry Isn't Enough.

(75) Churchill, On the Justice of Roosting Chickens.

(76) Cornel West, "Bush versus Kerry," Speech recorded in Boston, Massachusetts, for Tikkun magazine and aired on Pacifica Radio, Democracy Now, July 27, 2004. West wasn't claiming the U.S. ruling elite had the "blues," but rather that mass society--particularly white folks--were "blue" and depressed about the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. He brilliantly contrasted how most African Americans nonviolently responded to terrorism and brutality (e.g. lynchings, police brutality, segregation, etc.) versus how many white people urged the U.S. government to react--with violence and calls for revenge.

(77) Amos 5:24.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|A177943041