Smoke Signals

(Photo by Courtesy the Everett Collection)

20 Essential Indigenous Movies From North America

For over a century, Native Americans have been the objects of film, their likeness projected onto screens, capturing the world’s attention with their buckskinned form, and giving John Wayne something to do with his career. But it wasn’t until they moved behind the camera, becoming producers, writers, and directors, that they truly became subjects of great works of cinema.

Films about North American Indians (or Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island) have often said little about Indigenous people, yet they speak volumes about the lack of relationship the film industry had to them. For most of the history of cinema, the world has known the Hollywood Indian stereotype – sometimes a white person in redface. But now Indigenous creators have stepped in to tell their own stories, wiping off the war paint, dropping the loin cloths, and filling movie screens with stories and characters that convey the complex nature of living as an Indigenous human being.

In 2019, Indigenous talents were finally recognized as major players in the American movie industry, with Academy Awards given to long-time actors like Wes Studi (Dances with Wolves, Hostiles, and 103 other movies), and screenwriters and directors like part-Maori Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Jojo Rabbit). Netflix, Apple TV+, CBC Gem, The Sundance Channel, and many other streaming platforms are taking more works by Indigenous talent to global audiences. It’s been said that we are currently experiencing an Indigenous renaissance; regardless what you call the present moment across Indian country, it makes for amazing cinema.

In celebration of Native American Heritage Month, the following list features some of the top films from the past 30 years made by Indigenous people (Native American, First Nations, Inuit, and Métis) from across Turtle Island. We also included one series. The list runs the gamut, spanning genres from horror (Blood Quantum) and binge-worthy thrillers (Trickster), to documentaries (Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World, Trudell) and critically acclaimed classics (Smoke Signals, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner). You’ll also find lesser-known but well-loved indie flicks (Empty Metal, The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open), and our guide will cross colonially imposed borders, reaching far north into Inuit territory (On the Ice, Angry Inuk), and southwest to Navajo and Seminole country (Mekko, Fukry).

However, this is only a very small taste of what’s out there, and truly, the best is yet to come. Some titles to watch for in the not-too-distant future include the coming-of-age-in-the-time-of-Oka-story Beans by director Tracey Deer; the stunning and timely documentary Akicita: The Battle of Standing Rock by director Cody Lucich; and Danis Goulet’s science-fiction thriller set in a North American dystopian future, Night Raiders

The following list of 20 includes some of the most heartbreakingly beautiful, hair-raising, hilarious, and innovative entertainment that you will find anywhere – ordered chronologically. And you won’t even miss the buckskin. – Kerry Potts

Kerry Potts (Ojibway of mixed heritage) is a college professor who teaches Indigenous film and media, and has spent the last 20-plus years working for Indigenous arts organizations, including the imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival.

#20

Smoke Signals (1998)
83%

#20
Adjusted Score: 84234%
Critics Consensus: Smoke Signals tells a familiar story from an underrepresented point of view, proving that a fresh perspective can help subvert long-established expectations.
Synopsis: Arnold (Gary Farmer) rescued Thomas (Evan Adams) from a fire when he was a child. Thomas thinks of Arnold as... [More]
Directed By: Chris Eyre

#19
Adjusted Score: 92851%
Critics Consensus: Compelling human drama and stunning cinematography make The Fast Runner an absorbing experience.
Synopsis: A depiction of the Inuit people of the Canadian arctic, telling the story of a crime that ruptures the trust... [More]
Directed By: Zacharias Kunuk

#18

Trudell (2005)
33%

#18
Adjusted Score: 33318%
Critics Consensus: John Trudell has led a fascinating life -- unfortunately, Trudell the documentary largely fails to translate it into a compelling viewing experience.
Synopsis: Filmmaker Heather Rae documents the life and work of American Indian activist John Trudell. In the late 60's, John and... [More]
Directed By: Heather Rae

#17

Before Tomorrow (2008)
81%

#17
Adjusted Score: 53022%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: As two isolated families meet for a celebration two of their relatives wait on an island to be picked up.... [More]

#16

Reel Injun (2009)
88%

#16
Adjusted Score: 59753%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: The evolution of First Nations people in film.... [More]
Starring:
Directed By: Neil Diamond

#15

On the Ice (2011)
67%

#15
Adjusted Score: 49585%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Two teenage best friends cause a tragic accident with another boy and weave a web of lies to avoid taking... [More]

#14
#14
Adjusted Score: -1%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Documentarian Alanis Obomsawin delves into the history of Treaty 9, the 1905 agreement between the First Nations and the Canadian... [More]
Starring:
Directed By: Alanis Obomsawin

#13

Mekko (2015)

#13
Adjusted Score: -1%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Mekko, released from prison after a 19-year sentence, has nowhere to go and sleeps on the streets. When he is... [More]
Directed By: Sterlin Harjo

#12

Angry Inuk (2016)
86%

#12
Adjusted Score: 30705%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: The central role of seal hunting in the lives of the Inuit.... [More]
Directed By: Alethea Arnaquq-Baril

#11
Adjusted Score: -1%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: In a remote woodland community, a young Cree mother and her son find themselves on the run in the wake... [More]

#10

Out Of State (1970)

#10
Adjusted Score: -1%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: ... [More]
Starring: Unknown Actor
Directed By: Unknown Director

#9
Adjusted Score: 91262%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Two sisters (Ashleigh Murray, Rachel Crow) turn to train robbery to make ends meet after their mother is arrested and... [More]
Directed By: Sydney Freeland

#8
Adjusted Score: 92419%
Critics Consensus: RUMBLE shines a long overdue spotlight on key contributions to the American musical lexicon, satisfying rock scholars while offering a fascinating -- albeit sobering -- primer on the foundations of a genre.
Synopsis: Filmmaker Catherine Bainbridge examines the role of Native Americans in contemporary music history. She exposes a critical missing chapter, revealing... [More]
Directed By: Catherine Bainbridge

#7

Empty Metal (2018)
83%

#7
Adjusted Score: 36403%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Privacy is a fleeting but precious commodity in a world filled with mass surveillance and pervasive policing.... [More]

#6

Edge of the Knife (2018)
100%

#6
Adjusted Score: 32376%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: A tragic accident causes an anguished man to retreat deep into the forest where he is transformed into a "wild... [More]

#5

Fukry (2019)

#5
Adjusted Score: -1%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Fukry is a screwball stoner rom-com set in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The film follows Ching Yazzie, a longboard craftsman, and... [More]
Directed By: Blackhorse Lowe

#4

Blood Quantum (2019)
90%

#4
Adjusted Score: 95834%
Critics Consensus: Blood Quantum blends bloody horror with sociopolitical subtext, taking a fresh bite out of the crowded zombie genre in the bargain.
Synopsis: A zombie virus decimates all of Earth's population except the Mi'qmaq community of Red Crow.... [More]
Directed By: Jeff Barnaby

#3
Adjusted Score: 45327%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: ... [More]
Starring:
Directed By:

#2
Adjusted Score: 98331%
Critics Consensus: The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open uses an encounter between two strangers as the catalyst for a thoughtful drama as poetic as its title.
Synopsis: After a chance encounter on the street, a woman encourages a pregnant domestic abuse victim to seek help.... [More]

#1
Adjusted Score: -1%
Critics Consensus: Trickster's intelligent horror interrogates the impacts of intergenerational trauma, crafting a creeping mystery that will get under your skin and stay there.

Thumbnail: © Array Releasing, © Shudder, courtesy Everett Collection

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