Since the 1990s, November has marked Native American Heritage Month, but the history of such a celebration goes back to the early 1900s. Dr. Arthur C. Parker, a Seneca Native, is credited with setting the moment in motion when he proposed the Boy Scouts of America set aside a day to recognize the impact Native American peoples have had in the United States. Efforts to create some holiday or period of celebration continued through the 20th century with American Indian Day coming into being in New York in 1916. Later, in 1986, President Ronald Reagan passed legislation written by Cherokee/Osage Jerry C. Elliott-High Eagle to make American Indian Week the last week of November. However, it wasn’t until 1990 when President George H. W. Bush, approved November as National American Indian Heritage Month. Throughout November each year, various museums and cultural institutions host events celebrating traditions, languages, and stories of Native American, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, and Island communities. In terms of popular mainstream media, however, Native American cultures are shockingly underrepresented and even the few feature-length films that have made their way into the public eye are often fraught with negative stereotypes or awash with colonial ideology. But never fret, this Native American Heritage Month, we’ve compiled a list of the top ten movies about Native American cultures made majorly by and for Native audiences. They range in genres from romances to thrillers, providing something for even the most diverse tastes.
1. Smoke Signals 1998
As the first feature-length film written, directed, and produced by Native Americans, Smoke Signals is perhaps one of the most famous films featuring Native Americans. Based on Sherman Alexie’s collection of short stories The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, the coming-of-age film follows a pair of boys, Victor Joseph and Thomas Builds-the-Fire who grew up in Idaho on the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation. When Victor’s father, Arnold, dies in Phoenix, Arizona, Victor and his next-door neighbor Thomas are tasked with traveling to Arizona to collect Arnold’s ashes. The film’s drama dwells on two’s perspectives of Arnold, which could not be more different. Because the man saved Thomas from the fire that killed the young boy’s parents, Thomas held Arnold in high esteem. On the other hand, because of Arnold’s abuse and eventual abandonment of his son, Victor’s view of his father is tainted and complex. On their road trip, Victor and Thomas grapple with their differences concerning how they interpret their own identities and their places in the world. Besides winning many awards including Best Film in the American Indian Film Festival in 1998 and the Filmmaker’s Trophy for director, Chris Eyre, and the Audience Award at the Sundance Festival, Smoke Signals was selected by the Library of Congress to be on the National Film Registry in 2018.
2. Gather 2020
Different from any of the other films on this list, Gather is a documentary that on a more basic level portrays the efforts of Native communities to retake their ancestral foodways. Specifically, it follows a range of scholars and entrepreneurs such as Chef Nephi Craig in his creation of Café Gozhóó, a restaurant that serves traditional Apache food and provides training for others to learn how to prepare the dishes. Besides just the preparation of these foods, the documentary also features traditional fishing, hunting, and crop cultivation of various tribes in different areas of the United States. On a deeper level, this documentary addresses the destruction of native lands that has taken place over the history of the United States and the types of discrimination that still exist all across the country. While Gather doesn’t shy away from addressing the struggles of bringing traditional practices into the modern world, it still has a positive outlook on the potential of reclamation and offers real practices and solutions. Overall, Gather has been incredibly well-received and among others, was awarded Best Documentary Feature at the Red Nation Film Festival Awards in 2020.
3. Dance Me Outside 1994
Based on W. P. Kinsella’s 1977 collection of short stories of the same name, Dance Me Outside takes place during a lazy summer on the Kidabanesee reserve in Northern Ontario. Silas Crow and his friend Frank Fencepost look to the future with trepidation and debate the possibilities of moving away from the rez to study engineering. Meanwhile, the wild and free spirited Gooch returns home from prison, necessitating a bar crawl as a celebration leading to the murder of a Native girl by a white boy. The local boys are enraged by the injustice of the meager sentence the white boy receives, and one year later, Gooch gathers Silas and the others to seek their own kind of justice. In a playful coming-of-age style, Dance Me Outside manages to create an entertaining film about personal identity and the trials and tribulations of young romance while also critiquing the systematic injustice Native Americans are faced with. Dance Me Outside was very well received, being awarded two Genie Awards as well as a recreation into a TV show, The Rez, in 1996. While it is one of the older films on this list, it still has maintained its classic film status to this day.
4. Powwow Highway 1988
Based on David Seal’s 1987 novel of the same name, Powwow Highway is a fun road trip comedy and one of the earlier films on this list. The plot follows two men from the Northern Cheyenne tribe in Lame Deer, Montana; Buddy Red Bow, a headstrong activist, and Philbert Bono, a man led by sacred visions. When Buddy opposes a strip-mining contract on the reservation, greedy developers hatch a plan to get him out of town for a while to keep him from voting on the issue. They wind up framing his estranged sister, Bonnie on drug charges in Santa Fe, making Buddy the only family member who can handle her bail. Without a ride to Santa Fe, Buddy calls upon his old classmate, Philbert who he was never close with but who has a car that could take them south. On the trip, the differences between Buddy and Philbert initially drive Buddy up the wall as Philbert is set on finding his ‘good medicine’ derailing their trip on multiple occasions. However, as the two spend more time together, they begin to respect and look out for each other as they explore their personal beliefs and heritage. Powwow Highway was very well received and won the Filmmakers Trophy at the Sundance Film Festival as well as three different honors at the Native American Film Festival including Best Picture and Best Director.
5. The Cherokee Word for Water 2013
Based on the true story of Wilma Mankiller and the Bell Waterline Project, The Cherokee Word for Water features a rural Cherokee community in Oklahoma during the 1980s. In this area, many of the homes didn’t have access to running water and struggled financially. Wilma enlists the help of Cherokee organizer Charlie Soap, to empower the community to come together following the traditional Cherokee idea of “ᎦᏚᎩ/gadugi”, or uniting to solve a problem and install water pipes. The resulting project, the Bell Waterline Project not only laid over 20 miles of waterpipes but also led the community to become closer-knit and trust each other more. Afterward, Wilma Mankiller was elected the first female principal chief of the Cherokee Nation in 1983 where she supported other similar self-sufficient projects and social justice movements in the Nation. This empowering film shows the importance of community and what can be done if we stand together for change. The Cherokee Word for Water was voted the best American Indian film made in the past forty years in a survey done by the American Indian Film Festival.
Retelling the traditional Inuit legend, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner takes place at the beginning of the first millennium. When an evil spirit wreaks havoc on a celebratory gathering, the leader and shaman, Kumaglak, is killed, leaving his cruel son, Sauri to lead the people. The infant Atanarjuat and his family are left outside of the community to mostly fend for themselves. Despite this, Atanarjuat and his brother Amajuat grow into very capable young men. However, tensions become strained when the brothers provoke the son of the chief, Oki. Atanarjuat obtains the favor of Oki’s promised wife and the two are wed, causing him to seek revenge. Oki sets out to kill the brothers in their sleep, but Atanarjuat escapes, running across the ice to eventually be rescued and nursed back to health by a couple who had also been excluded from the cursed tribe in the past. While the story in Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner is intriguing, it is also the first film to ever be exclusively produced, directed, and acted in the Inuktitut language. It was both a critical and commercial success from the very beginning, taking home the Caméra d’Or (Golden Camera) at Cannes, six Genie Awards, four honors at the American Indian Film Festival, and many others. On any list of films about Native cultures, Atanarjuat can’t be excluded.
7. Skins 2002
Based on Adrian C. Louis’s 1995 novel of the same name, Skins follows a pair of Lakota Sioux brothers; tribal police officer Rudy Yellow Lodge and his alcoholic brother, Mogie on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Juggling the duties of the law with keeping his older brother out of trouble while also taking care of his nephew, Rudy is faced with a string of moral challenges ranging from a liquor store in the bordering town profiting off alcoholic Native Americans to punishing young criminals. While this might not be the most cheerful film on the list, it is still an entertaining and enlightening watch. It shines a light on many social issues and challenges that often exist in life on the reservation. Particularly, alcoholism is a major theme in this film, manifesting itself in multiple characters, most notably Mogie, and the impact it disproportionately has on Native American communities. Even still, myths and traditions from the Sioux tribe such as the Iktomi, or the trickster spider that makes many appearances throughout the film, keep the narrative genuine. Their presence as well as the significant critiques on Western expansion and colonialism help this film maintain its status in the Native American canon.
8. Songs My Brothers Taught Me 2015
Serving as Chloé Zhao’s feature film directorial debut, Songs My Brother Taught Me is an indie film that follows a pair of siblings, Jashaun and Johnny Winters, growing up on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation with their mother. The family struggles financially so Johnny assists by selling alcohol illegally to others on the reservation. While he is dedicated to his mother and sister, Johnny still wants to get away and secretly plans to move to LA with his girlfriend after graduation. However, when Johnny and Joshaun’s absentee father is killed in a house fire and the pair suddenly meet all twenty-three of their half-siblings at the funeral, the air gets a bit more charged with both Johnny’s resolve to get away and the pressure of his responsibility as a brother and a son. This emotional coming-of-age movie highlights the lives of young people on reservations and touches on many important themes like personal responsibility, the idea of home, and familial love, particularly between siblings.
9. Te Ata 2016
Produced entirely by the Chickasaw Nation, this film follows the true story of Mary Thompson Fisher, later Te Ata, a Chickasaw woman who would overcome racial barriers to become a famous storyteller. Te Ata grew up in the Chickasaw Nation in Oklahoma during the late 1800s to the early 1900s, a time when the Code of Indian Offenses made performing ceremonial dances and rituals illegal. Despite this, during her time at boarding school far from home, Te Ata was inspired to reach back to her roots and bring the traditional stories of her people to life. This dream takes her far, eventually leading her to perform on Broadway in New York and even to the White House. Filmed entirely in Oklahoma where Te Ata spent most of her life, Te Ata pays a lovely tribute to an incredibly inspiring figure who became an ambassador for Chickasaw culture.
10. Fukry 2019
A sweet romantic comedy that follows a group of friends over a long weekend in Albuquerque, New Mexico. When longboard craftsman Ching Yazzie confesses his feelings for aspiring performer, Dawn Wilsonin, it takes her completely by surprise. During this one crazy weekend before Dawn sets off for new opportunities in California, the two address their history and all the other ups and downs of love in modern society. Something great about Fukry is that it feels very personal and very human. The whole friendship is made up of various artists and each of their relationships with their art forms is all very unique and shows the struggle to create something beautiful in a world that feels against them. While it is one of the least explicit films in regards to relating to Native American culture, the attitudes of the characters and the struggles that they face with prejudice and systematic racism are still evident, letting the film still serve as a critique. The emotions portrayed by Ching and Dawn are relatable and down to earth, calling the audience to relate to their struggles and laugh along with them on the rollercoaster they have found themselves on.