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: 83.93%
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: The unavoidable synopsis -- two young American Indians leave the reservation to resolve their problems and to find themselves --... [More]
Directed By: Chris Eyre

#19
Adjusted Score: 93.258%
Critics Consensus: Compelling human drama and stunning cinematography make The Fast Runner an absorbing experience.
Synopsis: This sweeping epic features a cast of Inuit actors and is based on one of their ancient legends. Natar Ungalaaq... [More]
Directed By: Zacharias Kunuk

#18

Trudell (2006)
33%

#18
Adjusted Score: 33.17%
Critics Consensus: John Trudell has led a fascinating life -- unfortunately, Trudell the documentary largely fails to translate it into a compelling viewing experience.
Synopsis: John Trudell is a poet, musician, actor, and political activist who has been speaking out on behalf of the Native... [More]
Directed By: Heather Rae

#17
Adjusted Score: 47.664%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: An Inuit boy and his beloved grandmother struggle to survive the Arctic wilderness.... [More]

#16

Reel Injun (2010)
88%

#16
Adjusted Score: 51.637%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Native American and Aboriginal peoples have long played a part in Hollywood filmmaking, but the picture presented of them was... [More]

#15

On the Ice (2012)
67%

#15
Adjusted Score: 42%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Shot entirely on location in Barrow, Alaska, On The Ice is the engrossing and suspenseful feature film debut by filmmaker... [More]

#14
#14
Adjusted Score: 0%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: An examination of Treaty 9, the 1905 agreement between the First Nations and the Canadian government.... [More]
Starring: Alanis Obomsawin
Directed By: Alanis Obomsawin

#13

Mekko (2015)

#13
Adjusted Score: 0%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Mekko paints the portrait of a homeless Native American parolee in Tulsa, Oklahoma. As he struggles to find his way... [More]
Directed By: Sterlin Harjo

#12

Angry Inuk (2016)
86%

#12
Adjusted Score: 25.751%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: This documentary examines the controversial Canadian commercial seal hunt protests by animal rights activists, which negatively impact remote Inuit subsistence... [More]
Starring:
Directed By: Alethea Arnaquq-Baril

#11
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Starring:
Directed By:

#10

Out of State (2017)

#10
Adjusted Score: 0%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Shipped thousands of miles away from the tropical islands of Hawaii to a private prison in the Arizona desert, two... [More]
Starring:
Directed By: Ciara Lacy

#9
Adjusted Score: 92.1%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Life is moving fast for whip-smart high school senior Deidra (Ashleigh Murray) and her younger sister Laney (Rachel Crow). Graduation... [More]
Directed By: Sydney Freeland

#8
Adjusted Score: 92.063%
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: RUMBLE: The Indians Who Rocked the World brings to light a profound and missing chapter in the history of American... [More]

#7

Empty Metal (2019)
83%

#7
Adjusted Score: 23.283%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Set in the abusive police state of the contemporary United States, EMPTY METAL follows five groups of characters, each emblematic... [More]

#6

Edge of the Knife (2018)
100%

#6
Adjusted Score: 23.182%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: Edge of the Knife is a feature length Haida language film about pride, tragedy, and penance. Adiits'ii, the lead character... [More]
Starring:

#5

Fukry (2019)

#5
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Directed By: Blackhorse Lowe

#4

Blood Quantum (2020)
90%

#4
Adjusted Score: 93.482%
Critics Consensus: Blood Quantum blends bloody horror with sociopolitical subtext, taking a fresh bite out of the crowded zombie genre in the bargain.
Synopsis: The dead are coming back to life outside the isolated Mi'gMaq reserve of Red Crow, except for its Indigenous inhabitants... [More]
Directed By: Jeff Barnaby

#3
Adjusted Score: 32.727%
Critics Consensus: No consensus yet.
Synopsis: On August 9, 2016, a young Cree man named Colten Boushie died from a gunshot to the back of his... [More]
Starring:
Directed By: Tasha Hubbard

#2
Adjusted Score: 97.683%
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: Two Indigenous women from vastly different backgrounds find their worlds colliding on an East Vancouver, B.C. sidewalk when brutality and... [More]

#1
Adjusted Score: 94.941%
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.
Synopsis: Jared (Joel Oulette) is an Indigenous teen struggling to keep his dysfunctional family above water. When Jared starts seeing strange... [More]

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

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