Native Americans have faced injustice in the film world since movies first hit the screens; the classic cowboy-Indian trope too often cheers for colonization of America’s frontier. In honor of Native American Heritage Month, here are some of the top movies by Indigenous directors that display their authentic experiences.
“Wild Indian” (2021)
Directed by Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr., this critically acclaimed film follows the traditional crime-drama genre while chronicling generational trauma on a Native reservation.
The story centers on a pair of Ojibwe boys who cover up a classmate’s murder in the 1980s. Decades later, one of them, Teddo (Chaske Spencer), is released from prison, and struggles to find employment due to his criminal record and facial tattoos. Meanwhile, the other, Makwa (Michael Greyeyes) has assimilated to white American culture and works a “respectable” office job.
Upon Teddo’s release, Makwa — who has changed his name to “Michael” — is simultaneously confronted with the past that he’s attempted to forget and a crime that has left him guilt-ridden for years.
“Wild Indian” can be streamed through a Hulu subscription or rented on Vudu, Apple TV or Amazon Prime Video.
This thriller is set in Tulsa, Oklahoma in a community of homeless Native Americans. When Mekko (Rod Rondeaux) is released from prison after 19 years, he assimilates into this community and grows wary that one member is a witch on the hunt for him.
Harjo manages to intersect the inequalities that Native Americans experience with spiritual folklore in this vignette of Native Oklahoma.
“Mekko” can be streamed via an Amazon Prime subscription or free on Tubi.
“Drunktown’s Finest” (2014)
This film first premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival and is directed by Sydney Freeland, who was born in New Mexico and raised on a Navajo reservation. It follows three young Navajo people of different circumstances, who are connected through their dreams of escaping the hardships of living on a Native American reservation.
College-bound Nizhoni (Morningstar Angeline), who was adopted by a white Christian family, seeks to uncover her past. Felixia (Carmen Moore) is a transgender woman and aspiring calendar model. Finally, SickBoy (Jeremiah Bitsui) struggles to learn how to care for his future child. Although their backgrounds vary, they are united through their heritage; both their appreciation of it and resentment of the reservation’s limitations.
“Drunktown’s Finest” can be streamed through subscriptions to Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV or Vudu.
“Older than America” (2008)
Directed by Georgina Lightning, of the Samson Cree Nation, this suspense drama portrays the generational impacts of Catholic boarding schools for Native Americans. It stars Lightning, Adam Beach, Bradley Cooper and Wes Studi.
Similar to “Drunktown’s Finest,” this film follows three intersecting tales on the Fond du Lac Reservation in northeastern Minnesota. The unanswered questions of each storyline trace back to the history of child abuse and colonization at one of these schools.
“Older than America” can be streamed free on YouTube and Tubi, and purchased through Amazon Prime and Apple TV.
“Smoke Signals” (1998)
This coming-of-age comedy drama was critically acclaimed and selected in 2018 for the Library of Congress National Film Registry as culturally significant. Directed by Chris Eyre, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes, and adapted from a screenplay by writer Sherman Alexie, who grew up on the Spokane Reservation. The screenplay is based on Alexie’s short story collection “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.”
The story follows the Coeur d’Alene Reservation’s Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) and Thomas Builds-The-Fire (Evan Adams) on a cross-country road trip. On the way, they attempt to reconcile their opposing views on their culture and on Victor’s recently deceased alcoholic father, Arnold, whom Thomas saw as a father figure and hero. They journey to Phoenix together to retrieve Arnold’s (Gary Farmer) ashes and clash along the way.
“Smoke Signals” can be streamed through a Showtime, Hulu or Paramount+ subscription.
This article was edited by Bailey Hobbs, Zoe Bell, Patricia McGee and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis and Luna Jinks.