Calling all film enthusiasts: If you're searching for a captivating cinematic experience that dives into the Indigenous American culture, look no further!
While Native people and their stories are historically underrepresented in television and film, we are seeing more portrayals and storylines recently pop up in the media. Despite a general lack of representation, the classic Indigenous favorites everyone loves continue to be in the spotlight. These remarkable films weave together powerful narratives. They also shed light on historical struggles, showcase modern resilience, and celebrate the diverse heritage of Indigenous communities.
So grab your favorite snack and get comfy. Let’s take a trip down memory lane for those who are familiar with them, or for those who are newbies to Native film, let’s introduce the top ten favorite Indigenous American movies.
Powwow Highway (1989)
Who doesn’t love a heartfelt adventure? Go on a wild road trip with two Native American friends, Philbert and Buddy. Armed with humor and determination, they set out in a dilapidated car to rescue Philbert's sister from an unjust arrest. Along the way, they encounter quirky characters, engage in spiritual quests, and confront the challenges of contemporary Native life, making this film a unique blend of adventure, humor, and cultural exploration.
Important Native themes in this movie include identity and spirituality.
Powwow Highway has a 7.2/10 on IMDb reviews, and 96% of Google reviewers liked this movie – this sounds like a winner!
One 10/10 reviewer says, “This film has a lot of heart. Gary Farmer's character is one of the most likable in recent memory. His dignity, kindness, and spirituality are inspiring and endearing. Few films work so subtly to create such an indelible, sympathetic, and wholly uplifting message. Set amid the vile conditions faced by Cherokee reservation natives, the movie has much to say to all about responsibility, justice, and above all, love. Can't recommend this film highly enough!”
Dances with Wolves (1990)
If you still haven’t seen Dances with Wolves, you are missing out! Kevin Costner directs this epic western and plays a disillusioned Civil War soldier who immerses himself in the Lakota Sioux tribe and befriends a wolf (Two Socks), symbolizing the Sioux culture. As he learns their ways, he develops a deep bond with the tribe and finds himself torn between loyalty and the forces of colonization. This visually stunning film challenges conventional narratives, offering a captivating exploration of cultural understanding and the clash of civilizations.
Embrace the themes in Dances with Wolves, which include loyalty, love, and healing.
Dances with Wolves has an 8/10 on IMDb reviews, and 91% of Google reviewers enjoyed this classic movie.
A non-Native reviewer shares one reason why they gave the movie a 10/10:
“One of the main reasons why I loved “Dances With Wolves” is not just because it's a great movie, but because it's a very realistic movie. For the first time in a long time–or probably ever–we are shown what Native Americans were really like. Throughout history, Native Americans have been shown as barbaric savages with no intent but to murder and kill. But this movie shows that they were nothing at all like that, and it is correct. Native Americans were people, just like us. They only killed when they deemed it necessary: self-defense, protection of their land, beliefs, and so on. And it shows that just like us, they can hate, love, laugh, and cry. This movie also shows that Native American societies had both good and bad in them, no different than us.”
The Last of the Mohicans (1992)
Do you remember reading the novel of this classic adventure, originally published in 1826? If not, you can watch the movie tonight. It is set during the French and Indian War. It follows Hawkeye, a rugged frontiersman, as he teams up with the Mohican tribe and falls in love with Cora, the daughter of a British officer. Packed with breathtaking action, beautiful landscapes, and a passionate romance, this film immerses you in the turmoil of war and the unforgettable characters.
Native themes in this movie include the natural world, resilience, escape, pursuit, and rescue.
The Last of the Mohicans has a 94% rating on Rotten Tomatoes – and we all know if Rotten Tomatoes likes it, then we all need to see it!
Here is a 10/10 reviewer who didn’t expect this movie to be a favorite – but it turned out to be:
“This was one of those movies I didn't expect that much when I first saw it, so I was pleasantly surprised. Since then, it has skyrocketed to nearly the top on my list of all-time favorite films. I can't think of too many other adventure films that are better. Just a great, great movie.”
Stream on Amazon Prime Video
Smoke Signals (1998)
Here is another easygoing adventure movie for you and the family. In this comedy-drama, we follow the journey of Victor Joseph and Thomas Builds-the-Fire, two young Native American men from the Coeur d'Alene reservation. Their goal is to embark on a road trip to retrieve the ashes of Victor's estranged father. The adventure becomes much more than they expected it to be, making it a must-watch cinematic gem.
Identity and forgiveness are necessary lessons learned throughout the film.
Rotten Tomatoes gives Smoke Signals a fair 81%, and 86% of Google reviewers liked it.
This review comes from someone who believes Smoke Signals is more than fair:
“Smoke Signals is one of the most unique movies I have ever seen. From the combinations of stories, characters, and filmmaking. The acting in this movie was witty, funny, serious, and heartbreaking all at the same time. Even though this is a movie about Native American culture, it is a movie that talks to everyone, no matter what their ethnic background may be. I am of Italian heritage, but this movie still got to me. It tackles issues of family, culture, and tradition, as well as friendship.”
Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001)
If you’re looking for something different – maybe a longer movie or one with more depth, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner might be what you’re looking for. This visually stunning Inuit film will transport you to a remote Arctic community. Set in a time of ancient legends and tribal conflicts, the film follows Atanarjuat, a skilled hunter, as he navigates life. With breathtaking landscapes and an engaging narrative, this film will immerse you in the world of Inuit folklore and traditions.
Native themes in this movie include love, betrayal, and survival.
This movie is another winner if you follow Rotten Tomatoes – they give it a whopping 91%.
An IMDb reviewer shares their remarkable opinion:
“Perhaps the word that best describes this film is ‘remarkable.’ It is remarkable that it was made at all by an Inuit film company, remarkable that it was shot on location in the High Arctic in conditions of winter and summer, remarkable for its absolute authenticity, for its faithfulness both to its subject and to the Inuit culture, which transcends remarkable.”
You may have heard of the story before – Windtalkers is based on the true story of Navajo code talkers during WWII. It follows Joe Enders, a Marine assigned to protect the code talkers who use their native language to transmit vital messages. As the chaos of war intensifies, Joe must grapple with the moral complexities of his mission and forge an unlikely bond with his Navajo comrade.
Loyalty and sacrifice shine throughout this film.
This movie didn’t do too well on Rotten Tomatoes or IMDb, but that doesn’t mean you can’t watch it and see for yourself!
Despite only giving Windtalkers an 8/10, this reviewer acknowledges the strength and determination of the Code Talkers from history:
“I hadn't considered the possibility of a Code Talker being put in a combat situation, and yet this movie made clear how vital their efforts were even on the battlefield. We also got to see how risky it was to be a Code Talker in this situation since the Japanese somehow knew about these people and would find them valuable. Yes, the possibility of the code being revealed to the enemy has a tragic consequence. Many hard decisions were made here.”
The Business of Fancydancing (2002)
Interested in watching something unique and powerful based on a collection of poems? This is the movie for you – but get out the tissue first! When a successful Spokane Indian poet returns to his Native American reservation for a funeral, he grapples with his place in the community and reconnects with an old friend. This thought-provoking film dives into the complexities of cultural heritage, creativity, and the search for meaning in an ever-changing world.
Native themes in this movie include exploring identity, art/culture, and friendship.
The Business of Fancydancing has a 6.6/10 on IMDB reviews, but this less-than-average review shouldn’t stop you from enjoying it.
This reviewer shares how inspiring The Business of Fancydancing was to them:
“I have been a fan of Sherman Alexie's for many years and really wanted to see his directorial debut. FANCYDANCING did not fail to disappoint. The acting was powerful, the writing was strong, and the images were beautiful and haunted me for days following my first viewing of the film. Specifically, the character of Mouse from the Spokane reservation of Polatkin's birth, with his beautiful and painful renditions of TEN LITTLE INDIANS and THE STARSPANGLED BANNER chilled me to the bone. Also, the subtle references to culture, literature, and humor commonly found in Alexie's writing were done in a way unique to any film I have ever seen.”
Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (2007)
This historical (some say not enough truth in it) drama is based on the 1970s non-fiction book Dee Brown wrote. The movie unveils the tragic events surrounding the Native American struggle for survival in the late 19th century. With a star-studded cast and powerful storytelling, the film brings to life the heartbreaking journey of the Sioux tribe, shedding light on the devastating impact of colonization.
Native themes in this movie include colonization, resistance, and resilience.
The audience score on Rotten Tomatoes is 78%, with mixed reviews on IMDb. The majority of low scores come from those who describe the film as incomplete and more of an adaptation.
Someone who enjoyed Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee says:
“I have no idea whether this is historically accurate, or, if I were a member of (Canada's) First Nations, to embrace or be offended by this portrayal of the time period, which, though the story of one Americanized Indian, is (given the title) really about the plight of America's first peoples and obviously told from a 21st Century perspective. Unlike Clint Eastwood's “Letters from Iwo Jima,” it is truly a “white man's” perception. But, like Eastwood's “Outlaw Josey Wales,” I was happy to embrace the intended sympathy for the characters. As a Canadian, I was also proud to see Adam Beach and Canada's Prairies represent an American history lesson. And I must mention that, in addition to excellent cinematography, writing, and direction, what really made the movie for me was the soundtrack by George S. Clinton.”
Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015)
Looking for an award-winning (multiple!) movie to watch? Songs My Brother Taught Me is the one. Set on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, this coming-of-age film delves into the bond between a Lakota Sioux brother and sister as they face the challenges of their surroundings. Not only do the siblings need to navigate the complexities of modern Indigenous life, but also their lives as growing teenagers. This movie offers poignant storytelling and breathtaking cinematography.
Daily struggles, exploration, and the natural world as a healer are important themes throughout this film.
Rotten Tomatoes for the win! They give Songs My Brother Taught Me a 94%!
This IMDb reviewer gives a beautiful critique:
“This is a stunningly true-to-life and tender movie. I had just watched Sky, in which Native Americans and their connections with a white woman were portrayed through the lens of a European romantic fantasy about NA life in America. Songs was the opposite – unsentimental, unsparing, and filled with beautifully understated acting that let the story breathe. The photography was exquisite – I know that country and found myself longing to be there. The ragged weave of the story was precisely how life is lived by so many of us – no big epiphanies, no smarmed up resolutions, no miracles except for how people can hold fast to love. I thank the filmmakers for their deep respect for the people and their recognition of the way the land is the base of hope for far too few of us.”
Wind River (2017)
True crime enthusiasts: this compelling MMIWG murder mystery will draw you in! In this chilling thriller, a rookie FBI agent teams up with a local game tracker to solve the mysterious death of a young Native American woman on a remote Wyoming reservation. As they navigate through a harsh winter landscape and confront dark secrets, the film immerses viewers in a gripping tale.
Native themes in this movie include MMIWG, justice, and redemption.
Rotten Tomatoes gives Wind River an 88%, and IMDb reviewers give it a 7.7/10. Pretty good!
Here is a review that will entice you to watch it:
“This movie was incredible. It juxtaposes the beauty and brutality of life in the West and depicts what is taken by the unforgiving landscape and by desperate, broken men. It was raw and heartbreaking. Olsen delivered a very realistic performance as the strong yet naive outsider, ignorant to the code and culture of the West. Brenner was an empathetic character and a silent hero. Part of what makes this movie so gut-wrenching is that it captures the reality of many Native communities.”
Native people have long been underrepresented in mainstream film, a glaring disparity that needs immediate attention. Supporting Native American film is not just about embracing diverse perspectives but also acknowledging the richness of their cultural heritage. By watching a Native American movie tonight, we can immerse ourselves in stories that educate, entertain, and challenge us. It's time to amplify their presence on the big screen and embrace the power of diverse storytelling.