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Last updated on December 10th, 2019
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 learn 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.
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 documentaries on DVD and offered through streaming episodes is the focus on 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 nations among others. To get the full experience, visit the PBS website for more interviews, video clips, and interactive maps.
Ken Burn's The West
This historical series covers more than just Native American history in nine episodes. The “wild west” part of the 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 Burn's 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 documentaries and fictional films.
This series, although it does not focus on Native Americans precisely, has a lot of information about how the settlers and early citizens of the United States interacted with and affected the tribal populations. Each disc covers an approximately a 10 to 50 year period from before 1800 up until 1914. It is available on both Netflix and PBS and for sale at other major retailers.
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 first nations 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 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 and informative presentation told from both sides as much as possible.
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 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.
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 and help you discern more truth behind how native people are depicted in some of the most popular films from the last several decades.
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 Native American documentaries 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 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 who were supposed to protect the people. This civil rights documentary shows a unique side of the ongoing struggle that is usually not taught in schools.
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 tells the story of two sisters who took on the federal government in a battle for their 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.
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 strongly demonstrates how the continuous mistreatment of Native Americans has been fueled by greed through the centuries.
The history of Native American people from South and Central America all the way up to Canada covers so many different nations, 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 in-depth 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. The final disc focuses on 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 lives of two Native American children who were forced to leave their home at a young age. In Canada and the United States, the government decided that tribal children would be much better off in a Christian boarding schools. This horrific abuse of power included considerable trauma for the children and a forced erasure of native languages, spiritual beliefs, and culture.
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. This is a movie that clearly demonstrates the continued racism and bigotry that native people still have to endure today. This film was created in 2017.
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 his people and preserve their culture despite the horrific things happening to them.
The idea of enjoying such serious Native American documentaries 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 the first nations 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 America must include a comprehensive study of the people who were there before Europeans arrived on their ships. Watch the reenactments, view the photographs, and listen to their words to understand.
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