Movies to watch on Native American Heritage Day

WTOP's Jason Fraley salutes Native American cinema (Part 1)

This Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, is officially Native American Heritage Day.

WTOP is marking the occasion by examining Native American representation in cinema.

For decades, Native Americans were depicted as savages in the Westerns of the 1930s and 1940s, which started to change when “Broken Arrow” (1950) and “The Searchers” (1956) began to address racial prejudice.

In the 1970s, Dustin Hoffman starred in “Little Big Man” (1970), while Marlon Brando skipped his Oscar speech for “The Godfather” (1972), instead sending Sacheen Littlefeather to speak about negative native stereotypes.

By the 1990s, Hollywood finally began depicting Native Americans as heroes in “Dances With Wolves” (1990), “The Last of the Mohicans” (1992) and even Disney’s “Pocahontas” (1995), but while these Oscar-winning stories were told with good intentions, they were still largely told through the lens of white filmmakers.

“I encourage audiences to get out there and watch films made by native people,” Native Media Strategies President Joely Proudfit told WTOP. “We’ve all seen examples of inaccurate cultural portrayals of native peoples, which has really contributed to marginalization and dehumanization. … It’s all of our responsibility to change that narrative. The best way to do that is by seeing native peoples as they choose to see themselves.”

What are the most important films on the Native American experience?

Proudfit offers 10 must-see movies below (in no particular order):

‘Smoke Signals’ (1998)

Director: Chris Eyre

“It was only recently in 2018 inducted into the Library of Congress National Film Registry recognizing director Chris Eyre’s enduring debut feature. … It’s a beautiful story about self discovery. The two characters, Victor and Thomas, live on the Coeur D’Alene reservation in Idaho, and they go on a road trip. Through this road trip, they discover this enduring partnership and friendship and their love for their native heritage, but also in contrast with popular cultural stereotypes.”

‘Drunktowns Finest’ (2015)

Director: Sydney Freeland

“This was her feature debut. She humanizes the struggles that Native Americans face on some of these reservations, especially with issues like stereotypes, broken families, chronic unemployment, alcoholism, criminal behavior. … She works really hard to dispel those stereotypes by spinning it into this really moving human drama. It’s just a beautiful film set on the Navajo reservation. It was executive produced by Robert Redford.”

‘A Thousand Roads’ (2005)

Director: Chris Eyre

“‘A Thousand Roads’ was done, actually, for the opening of the National Museum of the American Indian. It’s a 40-minute film that’s just a beautiful overview of indigeneity. … It looks at the lives of four Native Americans as they confront their own issues or crises in one single day.”

‘Barking Water’ (2009)

Director: Sterlin Harjo

“Who doesn’t love a film about true love? He tells the story of these two characters. It centers on Frankie, played by Richard Ray Whitman … who is dying from cancer, and his ex played by Casey Camp Horinek, who is this amazing actress and activist. … He wants to see his families and his relations before he passes on, so they take a journey and they rediscover themselves. They laugh and they cry. It’s just a nice human story about feelings and emotion and it’s just a lovely way to see native peoples. “

‘Edge of America’ (2003)

Director: Chris Eyre

“I’ve been teaching native cinema for 26 years, and this is a favorite of students everywhere. … ‘Edge of America’ presents this classic Cinderella story of a sports team with a unique native twist. It’s a basketball team at a Native American High School on a reservation in the Southwest, and it has a new coach who happens to be African American. …  A lot of what we see in native cinema are tragic tales, but this really shows the three-dimensional characters. … It earned Chris Eyre a DGA win for this film, so it’s a great, uplifting family story.”

‘On the Ice’ (2011)

Director: Andrew Okpeaha MacLean

“It’s about two teenage boys who’ve grown up like siblings. They go about in their life in this isolated, small Alaskan town. … One day, they go on a seal hunt with another teenager, which is typical for that region, and an argument happens between the boys and an accident happens. … There’s a bond of a secret and what these young boys do to survive and the lasting impact this has on them, so it’s a really good dramatic film and pretty moving. I would highly recommend this.”

‘Mekko’ (2015)

Director: Sterlin Harjo

“It’s a dark story in many ways because of the character played by Zahn McClarnon. … Sterlin’s storytelling and the way he uses light and memory and flashbacks to tell the story reels audiences in. Zahn is an audience favorite and an actor that people will know from ‘Westworld.’ …  but to see him portrayed in this film in such a dark way, using black and white images, a ghost town, it’s just a very interesting way to bring this story to life. … I think it was one of Sterlin’s best projects, but it’s a good story and I highly recommend it.”

‘Little Chief’ (2020)

Director: Erica Tremblay

“This film came straight out of Sundance. … Erica Tremblay is somebody to watch. She is planning on making this into a feature narrative. It’s just a moving, powerful narrative short that explores the life of a native woman and a little nine-year-old boy over one day, a school day on a reservation. She’s a teacher and it’s just a really haunting movie. … For a short, it leaves you wanting more and wanting to know the rest of the story.”

‘Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World’ (2017)

Director: Catherine Bainbridge

“‘Rumble’ is a documentary made by Catherine Bainbridge, who’s nonnative, but it’s produced by Stevie Salas, who is a Native American rock ‘n roll star. … ‘Rumble’ is the guitar instrumental recorded by Shawnee guitarist Link Wray in 1957. It’s an instrumental that was deemed not able to be played on the radio for fear of inciting violence. … Martin Scorsese is in it, Iggy Pop is in it, Robbie Robertson, so I think audiences walk away with like, ‘I had no idea how influential American Indians are in rock ’n’ roll.'”

‘Warrior Women’ (2018)

Directors: Elizabeth Castle and Christina D. King

“It’s a documentary about mothers and daughters, in particular about Madonna Thunder Hawk, who is a member of the American Indian Movement, and her daughter, Marcy. In the early 1970s, Madonna along with some other mothers started a survival school and wanted to instill cultural tradition into their children and teach them how to be strong, warrior women. It’s a really great insight into the role that women play in the American Indian Movement, but also motherhood, the relations between mothers and daughters, it’s funny, it’s just a wonderful unveiling of the female perspective of history.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley salutes Native American cinema (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

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