Native American Movies: A View Into America’s First Settlers & The Magic That Makes Us…One
There is a battle of two wolves inside us. One is evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, lies, inferiority and ego. The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy and truth. The wolf that wins is the one you feed. -Native Indian Proverb, Cherokee
When most people think of Native American movies, there are many images that immediately flood our senses.
Cotton candy clouds floating across Egyptian blue skies, painted with streaks of burnt orange, butterscotch gold and watermelon red.
Majestic mountains flowing into emerald green fields mixed with patches of dirt trails and the thunderous echo of wild stallions running free.
And Native American warriors sitting erect on their faithful steeds while adorned in kingly, multi-colored feathers and faces painted to match the visions of their elders.
Native American culture has been romanticized in books for centuries, but the reality of their history is sometimes a painful juxtaposition. When Native American lands were taken, many tribes were expunged with the surviving tribes forced onto reservations that were a mere shell of the plains that they once owned and roamed free.
Native Americans are often left out of the conversation when it comes to issues in this country, most recently the controversy involving the Keystone Pipeline in North Dakota.
Hollywood also has a track record of intentionally disregarding American Indians.
There has been a controversial past when it comes to Native American movies and the portrayal of Native Americans in film and television.
Many films and shows have featured actors from other nationalities in Native American roles, and storylines have been crafted around stereotypes and tropes that have been perpetuated for decades.
In the midst of this shameful truth, Hollywood continues to address this painful scab on American History. There are a number of really great films that stand out and have raised the bar for films about the Native American culture. While films like The Last of the Mohicans and Pocahontas are in the front of the American moviegoers conscious, these Native American movies don’t always portray the most realistic view of their life.
Hollywood has paid homage to the great history of Native Americans and some of the films were blatant propaganda, while many others beautifully honored the rich and diverse cultural history of a proud and beautiful people.
This blog presents both sides of Native American movies.
First up are films that were made by Native American filmmakers and feature a Native cast as beautiful, talented and diverse as the various tribes they represent. Second, we’re showcasing Hollywood films that break free from stereotypes and elevate Native Americans to their rightful place in history and modern society.
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Native American Movies Made by Native Americans
Movie title: Naturally Native
Directors: Jennifer Wynne Farmer, Valerie Red-Horse
Writer: Valerie Red-Horse
Cast: Valerie Red-Horse, Yvonne Russo, Irene Bedard
What It’s About: Three Native American sisters attempt to sell a line of cosmetics based on their heritage. On their journey to find success and their place in the world, the sisters are forced to battle business people who uphold racially divisive views regarding Native Americans and the true definition of beauty.
Why It’s Important: While our first entry in our Native American movies list is a little rough around its cinematic edges, it makes up for it in its valiant effort to redefine the essence of what makes a person beautiful. I believe that the heart of the film is the conflict the filmmakers raise when it comes to battling business models that hesitate to invest in anything that is different from the cosmetic norms based on European standards of beauty. These sisters want to make a business out of their heritage, but the world around them refuses to take the time to understand the heritage. It’s a fight that many people of color can relate to and are still facing.
Movie title: Barking Water
Director: Sterlin Harjo
Writer: Sterlin Harjo
Cast: Bebe Harjo, Gabriel Pelayo, Frederick Schroeder
What It’s About: It’s a deeply introspective film that tackles a serious subject without being overly didactic and maudlin. The story spotlights a dying man who sets out on a road trip to visit his family. He doesn’t make the trek alone, but rather takes along a former lover who hasn’t forgiven him for his past. This emotional conflict in the middle of him also facing his own mortality makes for moments of heartbreak and true movie bliss.
Why It’s Important: This film is important because you don’t have to be Native American to empathize with its themes of love, understanding, forgiveness, and confronting the past. Instead of playing up on Native American stereotypes, this film shows that people are people; and when it comes to matters of love, everyone’s heart can be broken, no matter the origin.
Movie title: Mekko
Director: Sterlin Harjo
Writer: Sterlin Harjo
Cast: Jamie Loy, Scott Mason, Zahn McClarnon
What It’s About: After 19 years in prison, title character Mekko has nowhere to go but a homeless Native community. After encountering an evil man whom he believes is a witch doctor, he sets out to rid the community of this evil presence. While fighting the witch doctor, Mekko is forced to face his own demons and hopes of redemption.
Why It’s Important: My observations and takeaway from Native American movies such as this one were the sad irony (and truths) that a large population of Native Americans are actually homeless in a land that they once nurtured and inhabited for centuries. It’s painful to think about how their native homeland was taken by force from their ancestors and never really reconciled in a way that seemed fair. In many ways, Mekko’s journey could be seen as a metaphor for the daily (and historical) psychological horrors that Native Americans face every time they remember the honor of their dishonored past.
Movie title: Reel Injun
Directors: Neil Diamond, Catherine Bainbridge, Jeremiah Hayes
Writers: Neil Diamond, Catherine Bainbridge, Jeremiah Hayes
Cast: Adam Beach, Chris Eyre, Russell Means
What It’s About: A searing documentary that explores the sometimes distorted portrayal of Native Americans as seen through the lens of the American film industry.
Why It’s Important: Like every documentary that leaves an impression on me, this film both entertains and educates. It gives us a bird’s-eye view on how Hollywood has stereotyped the Native American culture for years in media. Native American movies like this is needed to help change the age-old practice of casting non-Native actors in Native American roles.
Movie title: Smoke Signals
Director: Chris Eyre
Writers: Sherman Alexie (book), Sherman Alexie (screenplay)
Cast: Adam Beach, Evan Adams, Irene Bedard
What It’s About: A young man’s actual and introspective journey to forgive his dead father during the road trip to receive his remains.
Why It’s Important: I believe that comedy is always a great way to start a conversation about the harshest realities in our society. This Native American movie does just that as it takes a light and comedic approach to dealing with loss and other contemporary issues affecting the Native American community.
In addition to the Native American movies listed above, there are several commercially successful Hollywood films that honored the beautiful and diverse legacy of Native American culture. Their subject matter masterfully pays tribute to the stories and spirit of the Native people’s history and their gloriously diverse tribes.
Native American Movies Made By Hollywood (That Got it Right):
Movie title: Geronimo: An American Legend
Director: Walter Hill
Writer(s): John Milius, Larry Gross
Cast: Wes Studi, Matt Damon, Robert Duvall, Gene Hackman
Theme: An entertaining but revisionist version of the 1885 campaign to capture Geronimo, the iconic Apache leader and warrior. This movie covers the two-year battle with Geronimo and his band of fearless Apache fighters who decided to fight for their land rather than give up peaceably and be subjected to the humiliation of forced settlement on a reservation. Although the movie mostly centers on the white cavalry men assigned to capture the rogue Apaches, the heart of this film beats like war drums with the spirit of Geronimo,
Cultural Significance: It masterfully displays the moral dilemma that many of the white soldiers faced balancing their orders to track down and in many instances, kill these warriors who were merely defending their own land and honor. On the one hand, the soldiers were duty bound to follow orders, but deep in their hearts, they developed a great respect (and admiration) for Geronimo’s fearlessness, intelligence and dedication to his people. By the time Geronimo surrendered, the movie had conveyed a great sense of historical remorse for capturing these proud warriors and subjecting them to cultural genocide. On a larger scale, Native American movies, such as Geronimo, show the possibilities of how America might have been re-invented if Native Americans had been approached as friend rather than foe. PBS also chronicled Geronimo and his fierce band of Indian warriors in the five-part documentary, We Shall Remain.
Movie title: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee
Director: Yves Simoneau
Writers: Daniel Giat, Dee Brown
Cast: Aidan Quinn, Adam Beach, August Schellenberg.
Theme: A broad and detailed history of the Native American journey in the 1860s and 1870s, from their origins as free land dwellers to forced settlement living on reservations.
Cultural Significance: The movie was based on a bestselling 1970 book of the same name written by novelist and historian Dee Brown. Brown was not of Native ancestry, but he was born in Arkansas to a family that had deep ties to frontier life. In the book, Dee gives unflinching firsthand accounts of tribal decimation. Dee speaks with displaced Native Americans from such tribes as the Dakota, Ute, Sioux, Cheyenne, and others to recount the torture, massacres and broken treaties that illustrate how the West was truly won. The author certainly had a deep respect for Native American culture and so did the movie adaptation. I think to understand and be tolerant to cultures that aren’t our own, we need empathy, and this film gave me the full picture of the Native American struggle and that of cultural assimilation. Many of the other films are slices of Native American life, but this one brings together four eye-opening perspectives: Charles Eastman (born Hakadah and later named Ohiyesa) a mixed-race, college educated physician who serves as proof that assimilation is “possible”; Sitting Bull, the Sioux chief who refuses to surrender his sacred land; U.S. Senator Henry L. Dawes whose sole mission is to end tribal governments and take their land; and Red Cloud, leader of the Oglala Lakota, who ultimately decides to transition his people to reservation life.
The Dawes Act of 1887 left 90,000 Native Americans landless, which is about two-thirds of their land-base at the time (or 90 million acres).
Movie title: Winter in the Blood
Director: Alex Smith, Andrew J. Smith
Writers: Alex Smith, Andrew J. Smith
Cast: Chaske Spencer, David Morse, Gary Farmer
Theme: When a man returns home to find his wife gone, he sets out on a journey to find her, only to find himself when it’s all said and done.
Cultural Significance: The cinematic history of Native American movies is filled with mystical figures like ghost warriors or phantom wolves conjured by medicine men who are always ready to help their Native brothers and sisters. In other film folklore, Native American men will also have superhuman powers, including the ability to overcome death. This particular film takes its cue from that Hollywood perspective and the fantasy element speaks to the folklore that surrounds many of the Native American stories that I have enjoyed over the years. To me, it’s what makes a Native American film specific and personal.
Movie title: Thunderheart
Director: Michael Apted
Writer: John Fusco
Cast: Val Kilmer, Sam Shepard, Graham Greene
Theme: An FBI agent (Kilmer), of Sioux heritage, is assigned to investigate a murder on a Native American reservation.
Cultural Significance: The fact that the film is loosely based on the Wounded Knee incident in 1973, makes it a more riveting watch for me. Historically, there were two (2) major incidents that happened at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota. In 1890, U.S. military troops and Lakota Sioux Indians fought, resulting in the deaths of close to 300 Sioux men, women and children. It was the last major battle of the Indian Wars of the late 19thcentury. The 1973 Wounded Knee incident took form at the same place where the massacre of 1890 happened. This time, 200 Oglala Lakota American Indians gathered to protest civil rights issues as well as the failure of the U.S Government to fulfill treaties with Native American people. The movie shines a light on a Native American incident that you rarely hear about when it comes to the history of America.
Movie title: Dances With Wolves
Director: Kevin Costner
Writers: Michael Blake (screenplay & book)
Cast: Kevin Costner, Mary McDonnell, Graham Greene, Rodney A. Grant, Floyd “Red Crow” Westerman
Theme: Kevin Costner’s directorial debut is a beautiful, sweeping epic that garnered 7 Oscars, including Best Picture, making it one of those most lauded Native American movies on our list. This cinematic blockbuster centers on Union Civil War soldier Lt. John Dunbar (Costner) and his life-changing relationship with a Sioux community in South Dakota. After living among this peaceful tribe of Sioux families, Lt. Dunbar realizes that everything he had been taught about their savagery was a lie. When he overcomes his battle with depression and self-discovery, he takes on the name “Dances With Wolves”. His life continues to evolve and he falls in love with a white woman who had been raised by the band of Sioux Indians that helped him find his way back to sanity. When Union soldiers wage war against the Sioux and attempt to take their land, Lt. Dunbar – now “Dances With Wolves” – chooses to fight on the side of his conscience and the Native Americans.
Cultural Significance: This film is epic in its nature, but the theme that makes it universal is love – in the midst of chaos. In many ways the Native American experience as a whole can be summed up with the word “chaos”, but finding love in a the last place you expect can be cathartic.
Native American movies have an important place in Hollywood. They represent the historical preservation of an important part our history as well as the very essence, heartbeat and foundation of our great nation. Their tribal names preserved on celluloid like bronze memorials hanging in a museum: Choctaw, Shawnee, Cherokee, Sioux, Cheyenne, Blackfoot, Comanche, Navajo, Chippewa, Arapaho, Hopi, and Crow to name a few.
While there is no way to truly absorb and identify with the horrific brutality that Native Americans have suffered for centuries, just remember that the name “Geronimo” was used as the code word for the capture of Bin-Laden, signaling that the legacy and spirit of these great tribes and their fearless warriors will always be a rich and proud part of the American experience.
Our hope is that this list of Native American movies will unveil long-standing truths of Native American culture whose vast riches can open our eyes, lift our hearts and erase the ignorance that blinds us from their soaring inspiration and infinite wisdom.
“Give me knowledge, so I may have kindness for all.” -Indian Proverb