TAGGED AS: movies
(Photo by Courtesy the Everett Collection)
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.
Thumbnail: © Array Releasing, © Shudder, courtesy Everett Collection