Top Native American Documentaries – Learn The Real Story of Native Culture in History and Today

Top Native American Documentaries – Learn The Real Story of Native Culture in History and Today

Learning with documentary movies and TV series captures the mind and helps you experience the truth about a particular time, place, or people in a more engaging way. Native American documentaries have shown glimpses of both historical events, individuals, and current issues that have to do with the first nation's people who have called the Americas home for far longer than European settlers.

Unfortunately, quite a few supposed truthful accounts have fallen short of that claim over the years. With all the stereotypes and blatant bigotry plaguing popular media about American Indians since the early days of western films about “evil savages,” finding the best Native American documentaries presents a challenge. While nothing is perfect, the following options will help you gain a much more accurate representation of what really went on, what goes on now, and the people who play a strong role in the Native American story.

Explore these titles, and start a watch party of your own!

Related Info – Our favorite Native American movies on Netflix

The Best PBS Native American Documentaries

Public Broadcasting System (PBS) has long been appreciated for its educational TV series and movies. While not everything they produce receives positive acclaim, they are generally thought of as thorough, accurate, and fair in their depiction of people, places, and times throughout history. PBS Native American documentaries follow these expectations. The collection here and the additional ones listed below can give you a more accurate look at the historical, cultural, and current experiences of various people across the United States and other parts of the Americas.

Native America Series 

The latest offering from PBS has four episodes that cover many different Native American peoples and historical information about each. It attempts to cover 150 centuries of life from the earliest Mesoamerican civilizations to more current issues and systems still concerning the native population today. Of course, everything cannot get covered fully in that time span, but PBS has received a positive review for this series already.

The unique thing about this collection of films on DVD and offered through streaming episodes is the focus on indigenous culture throughout the ages. It has a large selection of origin stories told in unique “shadow” style animations for the Choctaw, Inca, Teotihuacan, and Comanche tribes among others. Visit the PBS website for more interviews to watch, video clips to check out and interactive maps to explore.

Ken Burn's The West

This historical series covers more than just Native American history in nine episodes. The “wild west” part of North America and related expansion and turmoil included a lot of conflict between Europeans and native populations who already lived on the land. The episodes include many topics from Central American “Cities of Gold” to the gold rush, the Trail of Tears to the Civil War, and the building of the transcontinental railroad. As with many other Ken Burns documentaries, this one is praised for its thoroughness and presentation. He produced it in opposition to what he called the “lily-white version of the West” that had long permeated the documentary category.

This series, although it does not focus on Native Americans precisely, has a lot of background information about how the settlers and early citizens of the United States interacted with and affected the tribal populations. Each disc covers approximately a 10–50 year period from before 1800 up until 1914. It is available on both Netflix and PBS and for sale at other major retailers. Careful not to binge-watch!

We Still Live Here As Nutayunean

Not every quality Native American documentary on PBS is a grand historical epic that includes prominent time periods and personalities from the past. This story highlights a more modern quest to reclaim lost culture and language by some of the native people in the USA. It is the tale of a Wampanoag social worker who revives a “dead” language of her people with the help of others and hundreds of records of the language almost lost to time. While short and highly specific, this documentary offers a very unique look into how some strive to hold onto the things that make each group unique.

Native American Documentaries on Netflix

The popular video streaming and DVD renting website Netflix offers more fictional stories that include Native Americans than they do documentaries. However, some quality non-fiction movies still exist.

American Experience: We Shall Remain

This 2009 historical documentary focuses on 300 years of the past, which includes most of the well-known events and circumstances that many people interested in the past would know about. However, the focus of this three-part PBS series is firmly fixed on NA experiences and understanding. It covers the time after the Mayflower pilgrims first arrived, the horrific Trail of Tears, and Wounded Knee among other time periods. It includes no rose-colored glasses or dramatization of Native American history. Both negative and positive sides are included for each subject.

Both native and non-native experts worked on this film, and many Native American experts were interviewed and approached for help. In the end, the dramatizations mixed with recorded information make for an engaging watch and informative presentation told from both sides as much as possible.

500 Nations 

With Kevin Costner of “Dances With Wolves fame hosting, this Native American documentary seeks to give an overview of the vast number and diversity of the tribal people who lived across North and Central America. This box set includes eight parts that traverse Native American history from the pre-Columbian era through the 19th-century assault by Europeans. This is a tragedy of epic proportions that uses everything from historical documents to eye-witness experiences to inform all who watch it.

Reel Injun

Although not specifically about Native American history as it pertains to world events, this documentary highlights a very accurate and intriguing depiction of how native people were maligned, misunderstood, and blatantly presented in wildly inaccurate and damaging ways in film. The information contained within can open your eyes on the Native American experience and help you discern more truth behind how native people are depicted in some of the most popular films from the last several decades. It's hard to watch at times, but it sheds important light on Native cultures and history.

Other Native American Documentaries

Although some of the films and TV series that showcase both historical and current information about Native Americans are available to rent or stream, many more exist that you would have to buy in order to watch. In order to complete your collection of the best American Indian films around, consider checking out the following options.

A Good Day To Die

 This movie starring Dennis Banks focuses on his life and cofounding of the American Indian Movement. This organization began in 1968 in an attempt to protect native rights and property. As this was created with the man who actually took part in the early days of the movement and helped it gain power, the accuracy is considered quite exceptional. The documentary covers a lot of background information about how native children were forced into residential schools and stripped of their culture and language. It also points out serious failings of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and other government groups that were supposed to protect the people. This civil rights documentary shows a unique side of the ongoing struggle that is usually not taught in history class at public schools.

American Outreach

Although only an hour long, this film was a 12-time winner at North American film festivals ever since it was produced in 2009. Instead of touching on historical events or famous personalities, this documentary explores the story of two sisters who took on the federal government in a battle for their indigenous land rights. The two senior women, Shoshone natives, used traditional native land to graze their horses and cattle. In what many people consider a human rights violation of the worst kind, they were sued and fined for trespassing even though the land was not used for anything and the animals had no environmental impact at all. The documentary follows the court case to the Supreme Court and the United Nations.

Broken Rainbow

An Academy Award winner for the Best Documentary Feature, this film clearly demonstrates both historical and more recent efforts by the US government to force Navajo and other Native Americans off their land. This film was created in 2013 when battles were underway to gain control over the land due to natural gas deposits and mineral rights. It demonstrates how the continuous mistreatment of Native Americans has been fueled by greed that has persisted for centuries.

The history of Native American people from South and Central America all the way up to Canada covers so many different countries, time periods, cultures, personalities, and struggles. If you watch 100 different documentary movies and TV series or shows, you may still not scratch the surface of all there is to learn. However, if you start with the above-listed options, you will be that much more informed about how these diverse people lived, fought, and still exist today within the confines of this modern world.

Some other nonfiction movies that focus on Native Americans include:

Trail of Tears Collection

This four-disc set offers almost 5 ½ hours of background information about Native American history during the formative years of the United States. It includes horrible experiences of racism and oppression, forcing people off ancestral lands, forcing children into boarding schools, and a systematic attempt to destroy entire cultures. Other discs include a look at the unique culture of African and Native Americans and how they combined characteristics from both traditions to form something new. In the final disc, you get to explore stories of native healing techniques, herbals, and the effect that traditional medicine has on the industry today.

We Were Children

This dramatic movie is not strictly a traditional documentary, but it does follow the story of two Native American kids who were forced to leave their home at a young age. In Canada and the United States, the government decided that tribal youth would be much better off in Christian boarding schools. This horrific abuse of power included considerable trauma for the children and a forced erasure of native languages, spiritual beliefs, and cultures.

Holy Man: The USA vs. Douglas White

The Native American man mentioned in the title of this documentary was convicted of a crime in a gross miscarriage of justice and spent 17 years in prison. This film combines unique cultural influences with the native spirituality practiced by Douglas, his family, and supporters, with a gritty look at how messed up the legal justice system can be. The filmmakers explore the continued racism and bigotry that native people still have to endure today. This film was released in 2017, but the stories are even more powerful now.

Sitting Bull: A Stone in My Heart

The words of well-known legend Sitting Bull and more than 600 photos showcase the incredible effort that occurred during the time of westward expansion. While European settlers constantly forged into new lands, they displaced Native Americans either through crowding or blatant force. This documentary shows how Sitting Bull worked his hardest to protect indigenous people and preserve their cultural identity, despite the horrific things happening to them.

The idea of enjoying such serious Native American productions on Netflix, PBS, and from other sources makes little sense when so much of the truth is dark and tragic. However, these films and TV series will enrich your heart and mind and help you truly understand more about indigenous people no matter which part of Central or North America they came from or live on today. Every person who wants to know the history of the U.S. must include a comprehensive study of the people who were there before Europeans arrived on their ships. Watch the reenactments, explore their culture through photographs, and listen to their words to understand.


Last Updated on February 15, 2024 by Paul G

18 Comments on “Top Native American Documentaries – Learn The Real Story of Native Culture in History and Today”

  • Avatar for Lynne Summit

    Lynne Summit


    I appreciate your providing this list of movies and documentaries. I have several of these already, but some on this list, I haven’t seen or heard of before. I will begin searching for these movies and documentaries so I can learn more about the Native American culture which I’ve grown to be so passionate about.
    Thank you !!

  • Avatar for Robert Yellow Fox 3rd

    my namesake ‘Robert yellow fox was a kit fox military society member, my great grandfather who’s dad, was with chief two moons, when the kit fox surrendered to general miles,2nd cav. @ Fort Keogh, Montana Territory. my name sake signed up to be a U.S scout, He used the Christian name .Robert as his own, his name as a youth, he used for his last name. served under Lt. Casey [white hat].. over 100 years of silence about…. the little big horn battle, our Northern Cheyenne suicidal warriors…… The battle regalia of the 7th cav.. cache???? which tribe killed , Lt.gen. Custer an his horse troops…???? Who Crazy Horse really was????? Why was Crazy Horse the ONLY souix to speak fluent Northern Cheyenne….???? Why could no other teton speak my tribes language fluently???? It’s time the people of the united states,[all] is told the truth about custer an troops… who killed who…???? why my tribe fought so hard for this country…. which tribe really owned the black hills… who fought the Commanche and the Kiowa which did cliam the black hills… an they themselves through tribal warfare lost the black hills .. The northern cheyenne an araphoe won the black hills…. why the northern cheyenne left the black hills…. horses an the bison is why my tribe left the black hills… i’m looking to get in touch with a respectable documentary company that will print or film this oral family history. my knowledge was handed down to myself by my great grandmother who kept both oral history of her husbands an her own families secret oral history… the truth must be told now….100yrs later… please contact me…

  • Avatar for Running Doe

    osiyo I really enjoy all of the movies, of our native people, must heartfelt, wado for sharing them all,

  • Avatar for Bob Fries

    Bob Fries


    Very informative and sad. That this great country has done such a miscarriage of justice to the people that are the true inhabitants of this land.

  • Avatar for Alden C. Sheremata

    Alden C. Sheremata


    I saw a very good documentary in the 90s which provided a background to British and French North America and the Indian Tribes, called The French and Indian Wars, with Norman Green Narrating. If you catch this by the tail let me know. I would very much like to see this Documentary Film Series again.

  • Avatar for Steve Dumler

    Steve Dumler


    Before Rocky Mountain PBS showed the Ken Burns National Parks series for the first time, the first episode was preceded by an hour-long program about the Native American’s view of the National Parks, both before and after they became federal. It included an interview with a woman spokesperson for the Indians, maybe she was Lakota, but I really admired what she said, and have been trying to track down that program for years, with no success. Can anyone help?

  • Avatar for Muriel Fite

    Muriel Fite


    Win the Pendleton

  • Avatar for ROY Weaver

    ROY Weaver



  • Avatar for ROY Weaver

    ROY Weaver



  • Avatar for ROY Weaver

    ROY Weaver



  • Avatar for ROY Weaver

    ROY Weaver



  • Avatar for Stacia Pedro

    Stacia Pedro


    I received the same code 475300 today . which I received of Sun the 17th. So when I tried to enter it said it was invalid.

  • Avatar for June



    I know there was a Ted Turner Docuseries on the “Native American” back in the 90’s with historical interviews with many natives that are now in the spirit world. Robbie Robertson also put out a CD with music from that series. I don’t know if it’s even available anywhere now.

    • Avatar for Dammy McLaren

      I’m Danny McLaren at [email protected]
      You sent me a number 104928 on 11/23/19 and it came up Invalid Code and now today 11/24/19 you sent me number 475300 and it came up Invalid Code too for the Powwow blanket giveaway. What are you running some kind of Scam here . Now I’m losing Two days points. What you gonna do about it ?
      Danny McLaren

      • Avatar for Paul G

        Paul G


        We sent an email explaining that we made some mistakes and sent new codes.

  • Avatar for Hunwet Omuwet

    All of these Films my be about Native American culture .. but made by non Native People.

    Your was instrumental in promoting an award winning Native American Documentary but Failed to list it here. Made by Native Americans with Native Americans in the Film with Authentic Stories from Elders and singers..
    When one forgets about the Continued Marginalization of Native People and Practices efforts to erase all good things we do…

    Absolutely disappointing.

    • Avatar for Paul G

      Paul G


      Sorry we left one off the list. Which film are you referring to?

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