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8 Essential Films of the Native American Experience

Step beyond stereotype and toward truths with these dramas, documentaries and comedies

spinner image A girl and a woman picking flowers and plants in the documentary Gather
A scene from "Gather," a documentary by director Sanjay Rawal.
Renan Ozturk/Illumine

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While some would say that director and star Kevin Costner’s film is older and outdated, it was done extremely accurately for a film that came out in 1990.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.

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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.

Watch it here: Wind River, on Amazon Prime

Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015)

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Written and directed by Chloé Zhao, Songs My Brothers Taught Me showcases the harsh realities Native families face on the reservation. It follows the lives and relationship of two siblings living on Pine Ridge in South Dakota. Living as a Native in a postcolonial world is about survival, and this film captures the emotions and the pains many of us go through who live and survive on reservations today.

Watch it here: Songs My Brothers Taught Me, on Filmatique

RELATED: 12 Latinx Directors You Need to Know

Smoke Signals (1998)

This classic comedy is iconic for many reasons. It is a film we in the Native community reference and joke about in almost every family setting. If you don’t know what it means to yell “Hey Victor!” at anyone named Victor, you need to watch this movie. You’ll understand many of our jokes then. This film was written, directed and acted by Natives (including the screenplay by well-known poet and novelist Sherman Alexie)! That’s a huge deal.

Watch it here: Smoke Signals, on YouTube

Gather (2020)

Sanjay Rawal’s new documentary follows Indigenous people as they reclaim traditional foods and put into practice their sovereignty. Being in control over one’s traditional foods and ways of eating and living is a practice that is slowly coming back to our peoples. This film showcases the journey of several Native peoples as they journey down that road of reclamation.

Watch it here: Gather, on Amazon Prime

Basketball or Nothing (2019)

This Netflix docuseries follows the Chinle High School basketball team on the Navajo Nation in Arizona. Basketball is a huge sport in Indian Country, and I remember when this series first came out, how all my Navajo friends felt seen! Natives across most of the U.S. follow the basketball scene very closely, and this series specifically focuses on the Native side of the sport.

Watch it here: Basketball or Nothing, on Netflix

RELATED: 14 Movies to Fill the Sports Void

Shouting Secrets (2011)

This film, directed by Korinna Sehringer and featuring the Canadian actress Tantoo Cardinal, is about a young and successful Apache novelist who’s left the reservation but has to return when his mother falls ill, and it accurately captures what Native families in today’s world look like. Since there are many different representations of the modern Native family, this is a good contrast to Songs My Brothers Taught Me. It’s important to keep in mind that Natives are not monoliths. We are all different and evolving, as in this film.

Watch it here: Shouting Secrets, on Amazon Prime

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