The motion picture industry has long confined Native Americans to movies based purely on crude stereotypes of Plains Indian culture. Since Hollywood has been arguably more of an educator than the public school system, and certainly more popular, these stereotypes prevailed throughout the 20th century. Native artists continue to grapple with them today.
The first feature film to include a Native cast was Frank Moore’s Hiawatha, which was released in 1913. The role of Hiawatha was played by Seneca actor-turned-artist Jesse Cornplanter, a descendent of that 18th-century Seneca war chief. (He later fought with the United States Army in World War I.)
Soon-Goot, an unknown 17-year-old Indian actress, played Minnehaha. A critic from Moving Picture World described Hiawatha as “a breath of fresh air” because the film used real Indians, and not the made-up Hollywood variety (those actors were routinely subjected to paint-downs: covered head to toe in red paint).
For decades these anti-Indian Westerns dominated the movie market, but they finally waned in popularity by the 1970s. In 1976, Clint Eastwood’s portrayal of an independent anti-hero, The Outlaw Josey Wales, was one of the first Hollywood films to recognize the historical traumas endured by Native people. In a conversation with Ten Bears (played by iconic Native actor Will Sampson) Wales states: “I came here to die with you. Or live with you. Dying ain’t so hard for men like you and me, it’s living that’s hard; when all you ever cared about has been butchered or raped.”
In the 1980s, Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves became one of the first massive blockbusters to focus on the human side of Native culture. Though the historical accuracy of Wolves was less than 100 percent, the film’s cultural sensitivity was appreciated by most Native viewers.
Moving into the 21st century, techniques once restricted to filmmakers with millions of dollars became accessible to young Native talent armed with lightweight equipment, such as digital cameras. Native actors and filmmakers seized the opportunity to tell real Native stories, even though distribution of their films was often restricted to art houses and film festivals.
To celebrate this surge of Native talent, ICTMN has compiled 50 films of note for anyone living in—or interested in—Indian country. They are broken down into categories, and are listed in no particular order.
Please note: We realize that many of these films have historical inaccuracies; this list is not a validation of those inaccuracies, but merely a celebration of strong images of Native life and powerful performances by Native actors.
Evan Adams’ character, Thomas Builds the Fire, exclaims, “Hey, Victor!” repeatedly to Victor Joseph (played disarmingly by a young Adam Beach), and with those two words introduced a brand new, signature catchphrase into the contemporary Native American vernacular.
Smoke Signals is Chris Eyre’s adaptation of the Sherman Alexie novel of the same title—it focuses on Beach’s character as he sets out on a mission to retrieve his father’s ashes, leaving the Coeur d’Alene Reservation for the southwest. Smoke Signals is memorable for its honest and hilarious performances based on the realities of Rez life, and for its nearly all-Native cast.
Based on the book by Adrian C. Louis, Skins, directed by Chris Eyre, tells the story of two very different brothers, Rudy (a police officer played by Eric Schweig) and his twin brother, unemployed Mogie Yellow Lodge (Graham Greene). Yellow Lodge, his son, and Rudy all both live on the fictional Beaver Creek (Pine Ridge) Reservation in South Dakota.
Skins is a gritty and realistic film about the devastating effects of poverty and drug and alcohol abuse on reservations. Thanks to the unerring direction by Eyre, and an all-star cast that also includes Gil Birmingham, Chaske Spencer and Gary Farmer, the film adroitly addresses border town violence and profiteering off of Native people.
In one of the most critically acclaimed and widely known movies on this list, actors Daniel Day-Lewis, Russell Means, Wes Studi and Eric Schweig are members of rival tribes who side with opposing forces during the French and Indian War, the English and the French. The Last of the Mohicans is not for the faint of heart; although a heartbreaking love story is at the center of this tale, it unflinchingly depicts the brutality of war. Gorgeous photography of heavily wooded mountains of the northeast and an unforgettable score help this blockbuster soar.
No list of this type would ever leave off this treasure, which follows the exploits and travels of Philbert Bono (Gary Farmer) and Buddy Red Bow (A. Martinez) as they travel from the Cheyenne reservation in Montana to Santa Fe after Buddy’s sister is arrested. The film, directed by Jonathan Wacks, is one of Indian country’s most popular modern classics. Pow Wow Highway won the Sundance Filmmaker’s Trophy and three Native American Film Festival Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.
A recurring theme in Pow Wow Highway relates the conflict of traditional and contemporary realities as exemplified by Buddy, who is a Native activist, and Philbert, a spiritual man guided by visions. At one point, a character in the film addresses the spiritual wisdom stereotype hilariously when she says, “I get sick of being asked for good old Indian wisdom. I’ve got none. So get the hell out of here!” Wise words, indeed.
Clint Eastwood, who launched his career by appearing in Westerns, shares the screen with such Native greats as Will Sampson and Chief Dan George in this mainstream pic. Set during the end of the American Civil War, anti-hero Josey Wales (Eastwood), an ex-Confederate soldier, treks across the country from Missouri seeking revenge on Union soldiers who murdered his family. His travels lead him to many encounters with Native tribal people.
One of the most memorable quotes is voiced by George’s character when he relates advice he and a group of disenfranchised Indians received from a federal bureaucrat, who told them their best course of action was, “Endeavor to persevere.”
“And when we had thought about it long enough,” George remembers, “We declared war on the Union.” ‘Endeavor to Persevere’ resonated with American Indian activists at the time, as the fortunes of Indians had not changed much in the ensuing 100 years.
Set in Kansas, The Only Good Indian, directed by Kevin Wilmott, tells the story of a teen-aged Native American kid (Winter Fox Frank) who is taken from his family in the early 1900s. He is then forced to attend a distant Indian boarding school so he will assimilate into white society. Wes Studi plays Sam Franklin, a bounty hunter of Cherokee descent hired to find and return the young Native boy to the institution after he flees.
The film is a dramatic and unnerving representation of Colonel Richard Pratt’s philosophy (and national boarding school policy of the time), “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”
Based on Wilma Mankiller’s campaign to provide clean water for her people, The Cherokee Word for Water is elevated by Kimberly Guerrero’s compelling portrayal of the woman who would become the first modern female Chief of the Cherokee Nation. The film won a Western Heritage Award in 2014.
Considered one of the top 10 Canadian films of all time, the film is based on a 500-year-old story. Told in a traditional style and rich with stunning vistas, it vividly portrays the peoples of the Eastern Arctic and a warrior who strives to battle an evil spirit. Directed by Zacharias Kunuk and starring Natar Ungalaaq and Sylvia Ivalu, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner was the first film to be written, directed and acted entirely in Inuktitut.
Native actors Wes Studi and Adam Beach, under the direction of Chris Eyre, team up as police officers to investigate the mysterious being known as a skinwalker (according to Navajo legend, a witch or shapeshifter).
Studi’s portrayal of the seasoned cop Joe Leaphorn, coupled with Beach’s depiction of a newly graduated FBI agent, and their investigations of a mysterious killer of medicine men makes for delicious fun. The film originally appeared on TV, and was the highest rated program on PBS in 2002.
In Frozen River, the late actress Misty Upham runs into a series of problems on the St. Regis Mohawk reservation. Nominated for two Academy awards, the drama incorporates border crossings, smuggling and more on the New York-Canada border. Upham soon finds herself over her head in the quest to evade capture by Canadian, U.S. and Tribal authorities. The film is a subtle and unnerving thriller.
Featuring the late Chief Dan George, this 1970 classic starring Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway tells the fictional story of Jack Crabb, a white child raised by a Cheyenne Chief, who eventually tricks Custer into his defeat at Little Bighorn. Due to the comical portrayal of a Native chief by George, Little Big Man has long been cherished for undoing harmful stereotypes of the “stoic Indian.” Even after all these years, it still holds up.
The Revenant (2015)
Oscar winner Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu directed this Native-themed, adventure-thriller with Leonardo DiCaprio starring as Hugh Glass who, with his half-Native son (Forrest Goodluck), ventures into harsh backcountry of the northwest during a brutal winter in 1823. The story of murder and revenge shows Glass witnessing atrocities against Native peoples in horrific detail.
It’s a riveting look at colonial intrusion and Native hardship. Somehow, the bleak, far-ranging landscapes seem beautiful despite the vivid realities onscreen.
When DiCaprio accepted a Golden Globe for Best Actor, he thanked the First Nations people involved with the movie, a gesture of goodwill praised throughout Indian country.
Directed by and starring Kevin Costner, Dances with Wolves won the Academy Award for Best Picture Oscar, and was added to the Congressional National Film Registry for being “culturally significant.” The film stars Costner as First Lieutenant John J. Dunbar, who travels to the American frontier to rebuild a military post in close proximity to Lakota Indians.
Dubar befriends a playful wolf and gets named ‘Dances with Wolves’ by the Native people he befriends. The film, which features a wide array of Native actors speaking Lakota or Pawnee, has garnered a lot of appreciation in the Native community due to the respect paid to languages and appropriate regalia—despite a few scenes that make Natives cringe.
Based on the events leading up to the capture of Geronimo (Wes Studi), Geronimo is memorable if only because it shows U.S. Army soldiers feeling empathy for Native warriors during their capture and en-route to imprisonment. Studi was backed by some big stars in this one — Gene Hackman, Robert Duvall and Matt Damon. It’s one of several cinematic vehicles for Natives that were produced following the box-office success of Dances with Wolves.
The screen adaptation of the well-known poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow tells the story of Hiawatha (Gary Litefoot Davis) and his love for the Native woman Minehaha (Irene Bedard).
The movie is an enjoyable romp through the traditional story, and several Native actors deliver strong performances, including Graham Greene, Sheila Tousey and Russell Means.
In Thunderheart, directed by Michael Apted, Val Kilmer plays a mixed-race (Native and white) FBI agent investigating a murder on the Sioux Reservation. This thriller is intense. Native visionary John Trudell steals some memorable scenes as supporting cast member. His ‘freedom speech’ features the choice lines, “It’s in our DNA,” and “We choose the way of earth.”
Suicide Squad a Native movie? Not even close. But it’s among the significant milestones for American Indian performers who traditionally are typecast and stereotyped in Native-only roles. Released in August 2016 by DC Comics and Warner Bros., Suicide Squad features a short but noteworthy performance by Adam Beach, who plays Slipknot. An assassin for hire who can scale any surface or speedily tie up his enemies, Slipknot isn’t in the movie very long. However, his role is a huge leap for Native actors in the world of blockbuster superhero movies.
Using CGI blue aliens to represent Native Americans and other Indigenous Peoples, director James Cameron introduced millions of filmgoers to the Native perspective on colonization. Not that he said so explicitly, but the message is clearly there if you pay attention. Watch it again if you’re inclined; it has plenty of talking points for savvy viewers of Native films.
In this fantasy directed by Frank Oz, Gary Litefoot Davis portrays Little Bear, a toy that comes to life and befriends a boy. The story delves into Iroquoian history and includes references to the French and Indian War, as well as a historically accurate depiction of a longhouse of the Iroquois. It’s a great movie for kids and adults as well. Davis’s performance is crucial to pulling off what could have been a wildly fantastical story.
Adam Beach, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, gives a stellar performance in Flags of Our Fathers. He convincingly portrays the legendary Ira Hayes, one of the U.S. soldiers who raised the American flag at Iwo Jima. While not as well-known as the sympathetic 1961 biopic about Hayes, The Outsider, which features non-Native Tony Curtis in the lead role, Flags is certainly the more critically-accomplished film.
Will Sampson has to be one of the most underrated Native American actors in the Indian country pantheon. In the 1970s, he helped power such classics as The Outlaw Josey Wales, The White Buffalo and more. His performance as Chief Bromden in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest alongside Jack Nicholson is one of the most iconic performances in film history. It’s impossible to watch his final scenes of the movie without crying and cheering all at once.
Following a Native lacrosse team that has to fight its way through a competitive prep school league tournament, Crooked Arrows was directed by Steve Rash and stars Brandon Routh, Crystal Allen and Gil Birmingham. In it, the team’s coach helps bring his rez into the modern age by taking on prep schools—but that doesn’t mean his Native players have to forgo training in traditional ways. It’s a great film to inform the growing number of lax fanatics across the country of what true passion for the Creator’s Game is all about.
Windtalkers highlights how the Navajo code talkers were critical to America’s success during World War II. It’s a story that just can’t be told enough. The stellar Adam Beach plays the lead code talker in a big-budget John Woo film that also stars Nicolas Cage.
Directed by Sterlin Harjo, Barking Water is a tale of quirky love between Frankie (Richard Ray Whitman), who has been diagnosed with cancer and his ex-wife Irene (Casey Camp-Horinek). Frankie asks Irene to travel with him through Oklahoma’s Native American communities in a quest to make amends with his daughter and granddaughter.
Another Sterlin Harjo film, Mekko is the story of as Native man (Rod Rondeaux) who lives on the streets of Tulsa. He runs into a troublesome character (Zahn McClarnon) and must confront his inner demons. The film played at a plethora of festivals to rave reviews for its realistic portrayal of poverty and drug and alcohol abuse by Native peoples.
Clearcut is an intense thriller, directed by Ryszard Bugajski, in which a lawyer representing a First Nation’s tribe is unable to block a logging company from clear-cutting tribal lands. When the lawyer and logging company manager are kidnapped by a tribal member, havoc ensues. In a turn of poetic justice, the manager is tortured over the abuse of tribal lands by the logging company. The violent scenes serve as a metaphor for the degradation of tribal lands.
In a hilarious film by well-known visual artist Stephen Paul Judd, Wes Studi plays the title character, a man ill-equipped to take on the mission of babysitting his neighbor’s children for a day. Ronnie Bodean is a joyful homage to Billy Jack and 1970s exploitation films. It also goes a long to skewering the sort of John Wayne-style westerns that were riddled with Native stereotypes.
Imbued with a noirish Pulp Fiction vibe, Chasing the Light tracks screenwriter Riggs (Blackhorse Lowe) through several misadventures as he struggles to finish a script. Riggs’ sorry attempts to get to work land him in a series of houses, bars, bus stations, and streets, starting in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Chasing the Lightis perhaps not for kids due to the adult themes and language, but it is funny and thought-provoking.
Produced by the Chickasaw Nation, this feature film shines a light on the remarkable life of the Chickasaw storyteller best known by her stage name, Te Ata, which means ‘Bearer of the Morning.’
Directed by Nathan Frankowski and produced by Paul Sirmons, the film features several award-winning Native actors, including Q’orianka Kilcher as Te Ata and Gil Birmingham as Te Ata’s father, Thomas Benjamin (T.B.) Thompson.
Set in Alaska and directed by Alaskan Andrew Okpeaha MacLean, On the Ice is based on the struggle of two Intuit boys who must contend with their lives after a terrible accident. It’s an unforgiving take on the challenges faced by Alaska Native youth today, including peer-pressure, hard drug use, depression and ennui. While the elders and parents are grounded in reality, it’s up to the young men and women to decide how they will face their grim realities.
Winter in the Blood is an adaptation of a 1974 James Welch novel. Directed by twin brothers Alex and Andrew Smith and associate-produced by Sherman Alexie, the film presents an early story of alcohol abuse by Native people, particularly its effects on the livelihood of a Blackfeet Indian named Virgil First Raise, convincingly played by Chaske Spencer.
Full of intriguing characters and endearing wit, She Sings to the Stars has one particularly memorable character, an illusionist with a black top hat. When he winds up at a Native grandmother’s house looking for water, the magic begins.
With nearly an all-Native cast—including Jeremiah Bitsui, Carmen Moore, Morningstar Angeline and Kiowa Gordon—and composed by Navajo writer and director Sydney Freeland, Drunktown’s Finest has been one of the most well received Native films on the global film festival circuit.
Three Native American teenagers are struggling to find their way. Though they all vary in temperament—one is a soon-to-be dad, contrary-as-hell; another is a religious girl striving to do good; the last perhaps one of the most unusual and tantalizing characters on film, a highly-sexual transgender woman—they are all striving to escape the hardships of life on their Indian reservation. Drunk Town, for better or worse, is slang for Gallup, New Mexico, and the movie is evocative of the area’s all too familiar street-life.
Maina is an adventure film set 700 years ago, when a violent clash between the Innu First Nation and the Kuujjuaq Inuit people leads to the two groups eventually struggling to get to know each other’s traditions and cultures. The film stars Roseanne Supernault (Metis Cree), who is supported by co-stars Graham Greene, Tantoo Cardinal and Natar Ungalaaq.
Having grabbed a slew of awards, including Best Canadian Feature Film at the Toronto International Film Festival and a Best Actress honor for star Cara Gee at the American Indian Film Festival, Empire of Dirt by First Nations filmmaker Jennifer Podemski is justifiably a critical hit. The storyline revolves around a young single First Nations mother (Gee) struggling to bridge the generation gap with her daughter Peeka (Shay Eyre) and her mother Minerva (Podemski). Who can’t relate to that?
Kent Nerburn (Christopher Sweeney) embarks on a bizarre road trip with two Native Americans, Lakota elder Dan (Dave Bald Eagle) and his friend Grover (Richard Ray Whitman) in a quest to unravel a mysterious Native family history. Directed by Steven Lewis Simpson, the film has strong performances by Roseanne Supernault, Tatanka Means, Zahn McClarnon and Harlen Standing Bear.
Think of it as a fun science fiction excursion into Navajo territory. Directed by a non-Native, Holt Hamilton, the film features a mostly-Native cast, and features 15 minutes of the Navajo language spoken by Navajo actors, and takes place on the Navajo Nation. Legends From The Sky tells the story of a combat veteran who is forced to search for his missing grandfather after an “Unknown Federal Organization” takes over his ancestral land. Spooky.
Starring New Zealand actor-director Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, this spoof on the lives of vampires won many awards for its comedic rendering of the vampiric undead. Watch it for fun, but note that it marks the coming-out-party for the mainstream filmmaking career of Waititi, who went on to be tapped to direct the third movie in the blockbuster Marvel comic Thor series.
Featuring first-time actors from Pine Ridge in a film that boasts a mostly-Native cast, the debut feature film by Beijing-born director Chloe Zhao is certainly ambitious. Songs My Brothers Taught Me was also produced by Forest Whitaker and Irene Bedard (who also appears in the film), and covers the emotionally wrenching story of a young Native man who desires to strike out for a career in Los Angeles after his father dies. However, his departure would mean leaving behind his younger sister and single Native mother. The film received accolades at Sundance and positive reviews from Hollywood publications.
Celebrating the idea that Native American women are reclaiming their rightful place in the modern world, this documentary by Silver Bullet Productions tells the story of strong Native women who are tied to their cultures as well as to the thousand ancestral voices that preceded them. A Thousand Voices features interviews with women from the Navajo Nation, Mescalero Apache Tribe, Jicarilla Apache Tribe, Kiowa Tribe, Pueblo de Cochiti, Ohkay Owingeh, and Pueblos of Acoma, Laguna, Jemez, Santo Domingo, Pojoaque, Santa Clara, Taos, Nambe and San Ildefonso.
Our Spirits Don’t Speak English is a documentary produced by Steven Heape that explores the Native American perspective on Indian boarding schools. The film exposes the history of the U.S. government policy of taking Indian children from their homes, and relates its tragic consequences.
One unforgettable moment features Andrew Windy Boy, who talks through his tears to recount the horrendous physical abuses he endured from teachers when he dared to speak his language to his fellow classmates.
With his comprehensive look at Native Americans in film, Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond exposes the film industry’s stereotypical portrayal of Native people since the inception of moving images. Reel Injun was snubbed at the Oscars, which isn’t surprising after seeing how Hollywood has treated Natives for more than 100 years.
Touching on the vast history and contribution of Black Indians and narrated by James Earl Jones, Black Indians: An American Story presents the rarely-told story of the racial fusion of Natives and African-Americans. It is a story that begins with the birth of America, carries through the Seminole War (where runaway slaves joined Seminole warriors in Florida in armed conflict against the invading U.S. Army) and explores the expulsion of the Cherokee Nation with the infamous Trail of Tears march.
By Blood addresses the complicated saga of the Cherokee Freedmen, a term first applied to former slaves of American Indians who, following the Civil War, were given tribal citizenship in new treaties signed by the Five Civilized Nations—Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee Creek and Seminole. In modern times, efforts have been made to expell the freedman; most recently a Cherokee Supreme Court ruling in 2011 rebuffed efforts to have a Cherokee Nation Constitutional Amendment that disenrolled them overturned. Still, the controversy continues in federal court. This film delves deep into the heartache and cultural that has roiled the Cherokee Nation for years.
Presented by Wes Studi and narrated by James Earl Jones, Trail of Tears Cherokee Legacy addresses President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830 and the forced removal of the Cherokee Nation to Oklahoma in 1838. Nearly a quarter of the Cherokee Nation died during the Trail of Tears, arriving in Indian Territory with few elders and even fewer children.
Directed by Hannah Macpherson, with the assistance of co-directors Shay Eyre and Amber Midthunder and executive producers Chris Eyre and Angelique Midthunder, #NightsLikeThese is the disturbing account of two teen Native girls who are desensitized to the traumas of life due to social media.
The importance of running to Hopi and Navajo cultures can’t be overrated. Over the course of two years, the cross-country running experiences of five teens on the Navajo and Hopi reservations get personal, thoughtful examination in Racing the Rez. Emphasis is placed on pride and honor in the perennial competitions between the high school teams of Chinle and Tuba City, as these young runners pour out their hearts and souls and leave nothing behind in the challenging canyon country of the Southwest.
The Seventh Fire gives voice to Rob Brown (White Earth Ojibwe), a former drug-using gang member, from the small town of Pine Point on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota. Having spent nearly half of his life incarcerated, Brown is the key figure in a gripping documentary about Native American gang life. Brown also appears along with then 17-year-old Kevin Fineday. It is a sobering, grim view of the havoc wrought by drugs and cultural upheaval.
Telling the story of four Inupait teens, Children of the Arctic is about the trials of living in the small community of Barrow, Alaska. The film addresses the struggle to maintain culture in 2016 in a community that is influenced by Christianity yet traumatized by suicides. The villagers’ strength is in their whale harvest, from pursuit of the whale to its butchering and distribution, which the film captures in riveting detail.
Directed by Sheldon Wolfchild, The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code brings the work and insights of author and ICTMN columnist Steve Newcomb to the screen, specifically how Papal Bulls of the 15th century established the “legal” basis for genocide and colonization of Turtle Island. These documents issued by the Vatican purported to grant rights to Europeans to claim dominion domination, in perpetuity, over non-Christian lands and their inhabitants.
The film also examines how the views of ancient Christians continue to shape relationships between Indigenous Peoples and descendants of European settlers today.
Red Lake, directed by Billy Luther (Navajo, Hopi and Laguna Pueblo), looks at the aftermath of a deadly shooting at an Indian school in Minnesota in 2005. The film addresses the events surrounding the only mass shooting on an Indian reservation, and shares the stories of three of the survivors: math teacher Missy Dodds, and two of her former students – Ashley and Jeff. It’s an emotional journey as we witness the pain and suffering of people who are left to sort out for themselves the effects of the worst type of tragedy.