When we think about the Native American experience and film, we must acknowledge that that relationship has always been complicated. For many years, Natives were represented in film as a caricature of the actual cultures, or even a lack of understanding that no one culture is considered “Native American” — that these are in fact 573 individual cultures, creation stories and languages. A select number of films have portrayed our reality well, though — films showcasing the complexities of our relationship to settlers, and our resiliency. Some documentaries have focused less on our survival and more on our reclaiming of our traditions. It is my hope that I can give you a short list of some films I know to tell some of our stories in a way that is truthful, and not tokenizing.
Dances With Wolves (1990)
While some would say that director and star Kevin Costner’s film is older and outdated, it was done extremely accurately for a film that came out in 1990. Most of the film is spoken in Lakota, translated by my brother-in-law’s relative, Albert White Hat. Albert White Hat was chair of the Lakota Language Department at Sinte Gleska University in Rosebud, South Dakota, where I live. This film is about as accurate as it gets when depicting much of the Lakota experience at contact. Understanding the pains and transitions of this early meeting period and the tensions that linger even today is important when understanding the Lakota experience.
Watch it here: Dances With Wolves, on Hulu
Indian Horse (2017)
This film is about a young Canadian First Nations boy who becomes a champion hockey player, but truly it’s about his experience using hockey as an escape from the boarding schools. If you haven’t heard about boarding schools, known at the time as Indian residential schools, and how they were created to strip Natives of our culture, the film might be shocking to you. Watching it as a Native woman was difficult, mostly because I have heard many elders speak quietly of these times, and of the pain they endured. It’s an emotional film, to be sure.
Watch it here: Indian Horse, on Netflix
Wind River (2017)
Taylor Sheridan’s film was released around the same time Savanna Greywind went missing, which later sparked the creation of Savanna’s Act. The film is about a Native woman who is killed, and whose death is investigated by a federal agent who realizes very quickly the red tape that keeps many Native women’s cases from being solved. This movie is an excellent look into the movement and fear that surrounds MMIW, or missing and murdered Indigenous women. I highly recommend it.