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Monday, October 13, 2014

A Filmography of Native American Themed Films (Including Independent Films)

Please double check ratings and preview ALL films before sharing with students. Some of these films are not rated and some are rated R.
* (asterix) These films are available on Netflix
Many are available for purchase at

Whether book, movie, lesson plan, or other media source, my comment stands - Educate yourself and talk about the controversies/issues - there is NO PERFECT SOURCE, only really good questions to get to deeper understanding. Having said that, these links are great beginnings for the novice teacher or to enhance the lessons of the experienced teacher!

To keep it short and focused, this list does not include all Indigenous Nations of the Western hemisphere. For example, the following groups may be mentioned in documentaries, but are not specifically represented in a film: Maya, Inca, Aztec, Mexican, Brazilian, and Caribbean. This compilation of films is selected with the following criteria (in this order):
· Native American theme
· Potential for use in classroom by educators
· NA documentary
· NA director and/or actors (ex: Chris Eyre, Wes Studi, Graham Greene, Irene Bedard, Adam Beach)
· Depicts an historical event with an attempt at portraying an accurate NA perspective
· Depicts a NA role model (ex: Geronimo, Billy Mills)
· Depicts a relevant NA social issue (alcoholism, environmentalism, activism – mascots, Hollywood movie representation, etc.)
· Depicts relationships among NA peoples (sibling, parent/child, friends, etc.)
· Includes NA cultural beliefs/practices within the context of the story (ex: smudging, hair cutting, rites of passage)
· Shows NA contributions (ex: medicine)

The 5 Must-See Native Films of 2013

Winter In the Blood

Starring a who's-who of Native actors that includes Chaske Spencer, Julia Jones, Gary Farmer, Michael Spears and Saginaw Grant, expectations were high for Winter in the Blood, and the film largely delivered. It was the opening-night feature at the L.A. Skins Fest; won the Grand Prize at the Montreal First Peoples Festival; and at AIFF its star Chaske Spencer won Best Actor and the brother team of Alex and Andrew Smith won Best Director.

The Lesser Blessed

At Red Nation, The Lesser Blessed was named Best Picture, and Joel Evans won Best Actor for his portrayal of a troubled teen; up the coast at AIFF, Kiowa Gordon took the prize for Best Supporting Actor.


This tale of a rivalry between two arctic peoples set in the pre-conact era took home Best Picture at AIFF, and its stars Roseanne Supernault and Tantoo Cardinal won for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress.

The Cherokee Word for Water

This telling of a true story from the life of the late Wilma Mankiller was an opportunity to make a great film about recent Native history, and it succeeded in being just that. Star Kimberly Norris Guerrero, who portrays Mankiller in the movie, won Best Actress at Red Nation, where Cherokee Word for Water was the festival's closing-night film.

Other Films (listed by year)

* Battlefield Detectives: Native American Wars: The Apache (2004) – The History Channel's team of battlefield detectives compares the weapons and battlefield tactics of Apache fighters with those of their final foes, the soldiers of the U.S. Army. Exploring how the Apaches were able to use the landscape itself as an offensive strategy against opponents and analyzing important new clues left at the Battles of Cieneguilla and Hembrillo, a military geologist sheds new light on this old conflict.

* Black Cloud (2004) – Rick Schroder writes, directs and stars in this heartfelt coming-of-age tale about a young Native American boxer, Black Cloud (Eddie Spears), who overcomes many obstacles as he vies for a spot on the Olympic team. Along the way, he must use his pugilistic talents against a racist cowboy (Schroder) who's scheming to steal his girlfriend and his pride. Nathaniel Arcand, Peter Greene, Julia Jones, Wayne Knight, Tim McGraw and Russell Means co-star. 97 mins.

* Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (2007) – A dark chapter of U.S. history comes to light in this epic saga (which earned an Emmy Award for Best Made-for-Television Movie) of the U.S. government's deliberate extermination of the American Indians. Beginning after the Sioux victory at Little Big Horn, the film traces the stories of three men: a Sioux doctor (Adam Beach), a lobbying senator (Aidan Quinn) and the Lakota hero Sitting Bull (August Schellenberg). 132 mins.

* 500 Nations (1995) – This documentary chronicles the history of the people of North and Central America, beginning with the pre-Colombian era through their brushes with European colonization, capping off with the defeat of 19th-century North American Plains Indians. The remarkable story unfolds through transcripts depicting the historical events, as well as first-hand recollections, photographs and computer reenactments. 4 disks.

* Geronimo: An American Legend (1993) – Paying close attention to period detail and historical accuracy, he-man action specialist Walter Hill (The Long Riders) directs this traditional Western recounting famed Apache warrior Geronimo's losing battle with the U.S. Army in the late-1800s Southwest. Wes Studi has the title role; Jason Patric, Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall co-star, with Matt Damon playing a young Army observer in one of his first prominent roles. 115 mins.

* In the Light of Reverence – An interesting documentary on the struggle to protect sacred Native American sites in the midst of mining, recreational use threats, and competing religions. The film follows three separate but similar Native people’s struggles: Mato Tipila in Wyoming (Lakota), Hopitutuskwa in Arizona (Hopi), and Bulyum Puyuik in California (Wintu). The film offers an array of differing positions on the complex situations and does a great job highlighting the ongoing question of public land rights versus Native American religious freedom and practice. 73 min.

* Incident at Oglala: The Leonard Peltier Story – Attempting to decipher truth from scandal, this film critically looks into the events of the June 26, 1975 murders on the Lakota Pine Ridge Reservation and the subsequent Leonard Peltier case. Many of the original individuals involved are interviewed – including community members, attorneys, and FBI agents. Leonard Peltier himself is featured in this film. An alarming and stirring story is presented. Questions of justice are explored and a number of critical inconsistencies with the trial that put Peltier behind bars for two life sentences are brought to light. 90 min.

* More Smoke Signals (2008) – Radio signals replace smoke signals as the communications vehicle of choice in this documentary profiling a Porcupine, S.D., radio station and the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation community it serves as the "Voice of the Lakota Nation." Swiss filmmaker Fanny Bräuning captures the enduring spirit of people like Roxanne Two Bulls, a woman trying to restart her life on her ancestors' land, and John Trudell, an activist turned Hollywood musician.

* Native American Healing in the 21st Century (1997) – Learn from today's respected physicians the crossover of ancient native remedies to present-day medical practices. Learn from tribal elders traditional healing practices and philosophies. Discover the contents of a recently found 350 year old Indian medicine bag. Compare the similarities of Native American and Chinese healing. Herbal healing remedies for: Heart and circulatory; arthritis; female conditions; asthma; skin conditions and more. 40 mins.

* Pow Wow Highway (1989) – This film is an entertaining chronicle of two Cheyenne men’s journey to bail out the sister of one of the men, who has been wrongfully jailed. Both men evolve as the road trip and adventures unfold. A number of themes are represented in this Hollywood movie such as the sometimes ambiguous role of tradition in the present day, seeming disconnection from one’s Native roots, and tribal government corruption. 88 min.

* Pow Wow Trail (2004) – Producer Jeremy Torrie takes an up-close look at the unsung hero of band instruments -- the drum -- exploring its history and variety of sound capabilities, as well as its influence on different musical genres. The film takes viewers on a tour of various Indian reservations throughout North America, revealing the important role played by the drum in many traditional Native American ceremonies. 42 mins.

* Reel Injun (2009) – For more than a century, the film industry has depicted North American native people in a variety of ways -- many of them wildly inaccurate. Recently, however, that's begun to change. Director Neil Diamond captures both sides of the coin here. Through interviews with a gallery of actors and directors, including Clint Eastwood, this documentary reveals the film industry's impact on the experiences of native people in the United States and Canada.

* Running Brave (1983) The story of Billy Mills – In one of the great upsets in sports history, 10,000-meter runner Billy Mills sprinted from the back of the pack and took the gold medal in the final heat of the event at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics -- a mixture of pain and pride etched across his face as he breasted the tape. Robbie Benson portrays Mills, the Native American who left his Sioux reservation in the late 1950s for his date with destiny. Pat Hingle co-stars. D.S. Everett directs.

* Skins (2002) R – Lakota Sioux tribal police officer Rudy Yellow Lodge (Eric Schweig) struggles to rescue his older brother, Mogie (Graham Greene), a former football star who returned from Vietnam a cripple and now seeks only to drown his sorrows. This powerful story about life on a barren South Dakota reservation is one of drama and activism, filled with humor and integrity and painted with vivid details of Native American life, spirit and myth. 87 mins.

* Smoke Signals (1998) – On a Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, reservation, nothing ever changes -- until the estranged father of Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) bites the dust in Arizona, and Victor must go collect the cremated remains. The problem is, Victor can't afford the fare. But annoying nerd Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams) will float Victor a loan ... if Thomas can tag along. This tender tale of self-discovery is based on acclaimed author Sherman Alexie's short stories. 89 mins.

* The Fast Runner Atanarjuat (2002) R – In this Cannes Film Festival award winner that's faithful to the native Inuit lifestyle, two Inuit brothers (Amaqjuaq, the Strong One, and Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner) struggle to save their nomadic tribe from evil. Atanarjuat romances the beautiful Atuat, much to the chagrin of the arrogant son of the tribe leader, Oki, who won't stand for the humiliation. Oki stages an ambush in which Amaqjuaq is killed, but Atanarjuat miraculously escapes. 172 mins.

* The Last of His Tribe (1992) The story of Ishi – Decades after his entire tribe was slaughtered, the sole survivor of the attack, Ishi, (Graham Greene) comes out of hiding having lived for years in isolation. Anthropologist Alfred Kroeber (Jon Voight) learns of Ishi's story and makes it his subject of study. Impressed with the man's courage and eager to learn the tribe's history, Kroeber takes Ishi in and devotes his research to finding out the truth. 91 mins.

* The Only Good Indian (2009) – Set in the early 20th century, when Native Americans were forced to attend boarding schools to assimilate with white culture, this provocative drama follows Charlie (Winter Fox Frank), a teenager who flees one such school to return home. Wes Studi is Sam Franklin, a Cherokee bounty hunter who has rejected his native people, charged with bringing Charlie back. Kevin Willmott (CSA: Confederate States of America) directs this powerful film. 114 mins.

* Thunderheart – This Hollywood production is based on the Pine Ridge Reservation tragedy and, at times, draws strongly from the circumstances surrounding the incident. The film’s main character – agent Ray Levoy – undergoes a personal transformation as he struggles to deal with his Sioux roots (that he has turned away from for many years). The film’s portrayal is much more optimistic that the actual Pine Ridge events. The film does, however, offer a realistic depiction of the communal division, crime, and corruption on the reservation while managing to illuminate a strong Native community and traditional belief system. 118 min.

* Trudell: Independent Lens (2006) – Filmmaker Heather Rae paints an unforgettable portrait of Native American poet and activist John Trudell, a man known as much for his spoken-word performances as he is for his politics. The documentary includes commentary from Robert Redford, Kris Kristofferson, Sam Shepard, Val Kilmer, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls and Wilma Mankiller, the first woman principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. 54 mins.

* Windtalkers (2002) R – Joe Enders (Nicolas Cage) is a gung-ho Marine assigned to protect a "windtalker" -- one of several Navajo Indians who were used to relay messages during World War II because their spoken language was indecipherable to Japanese code breakers. Part of Cage's mission, however, is to kill windtalker Ben Yahzee (Roger Willie) if capture appears imminent -- always a possibility in director John Woo's high-powered action drama. 134 mins.

Coming to Light: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indians – This film explores the life and work of avid photographer and filmmaker Edward Curtis. Fearing the complete assimilation of Native American cultures, Curtis spent over thirty years capturing photographs and video recordings of North American Indians. The film explores Curtis’ questionable techniques of collecting such information, the relationships he had with the tribes, his personal biases and struggles, as well as the legacy of his work. 86 min.

Images of Indians – A five-program series focusing on the history and effects of Native American stereotypes in film. Critical issues facing Native American communities and individuals as a result of this unfair stereotyping are addressed. Prominent Native American icons and filmmakers are included in the dialogue. Numerous examples and clips are included to illustrate the severity of these inaccurate representations. 150 min.

In Whose Honor? American Indian Mascots in Sports – This film explores the ever- controversial topic of Native American mascots. The main storyline is centered on mother and University of Illinois grad student Charlene Teeters’ personal disapproval of ilm follows her and her opponents as the issue grows to a hotly contested national debate. The film raises the issue of potential self- esteem and self-image problems that such mascots can have on Native American youth. 47 min.

Kinaaldá: A Navajo Rite of Passage – This film follows a young Navajo girl as she undergoes a three-day sacred rite of passage (Kinaaldá) from adolescence to adulthood. The video follows the girl through nearly all aspects of the very traditional and sacred ritual. By following the ritual closely, the film illustrates the importance of family, community, balance, purification, and tradition among the Navajo. 56 min.

More Than Bows and Arrows – A great teaching tool for grades 6-12. The film covers a broad range of Native American history, inventions, and contributions to US society. The film reveals that Native American influences are found in our current political system, art, architecture, agriculture, medicine, and recreational activities (to name a few). The video is full of information and is sure to keep viewers’ attention! 60 min.

On and Off the Res’ with Charlie Hill – An entertaining documentary about the life and career of famed comedian and actor Charlie Hill, this film illustrates the many influences that contribute to one’s individuality. The film explores Hill’s versatile influence and audience. Through his comedy, Hill addresses a number of sources of Native American discrimination. However, he does so in a manner that both raises awareness and alleviates the pain. In his own words, “I try to turn poison into medicine through comedy.” 56 min.

The Salt Song Trail – bringing creation back together,” is about the sacred Salt Songs (Asi Huviav Puruakain) of the Southern Paiute (Nuwuvi) people. The songs are used in memorial ceremonies, for cultural revitalization and as a spiritual bond for the Southern Paiute people living in the Southwest. Through the beautiful landscape of the Colorado Plateau, painted deserts and river valleys, the Salt Song Trail traces the journeys of ancestral peoples to historic and sacred sites. The film also documents a healing ceremony at the Sherman Institute – a former Indian boarding school where Indian children where forcibly taken from their homes and forbidden to practice their traditional cultures. The singers return to the school years later to sing for the children who never came home. To read a short article on “The Salt Song Trail,” go to:

12 Movies Shot in Monument Valley on the Navajo Nation 
  1. Stagecoach (1939)  
  2. My Darling Clementine (1946)  
  3. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949)
  4. The Searchers (1956)
  5. How the West Was Won (1962)
  6. Easy Rider (1968)
  7. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
  8. The Eiger Sanction (1975)
  9. National Lampoon's Vacation (1983)
  10. Back to the Future Part III (1990)
  11. Forrest Gump (1994)
  12. The Lone Ranger (2013) 
11 Essential Native American Films You Can Watch Online Right Now

1. Shouting Secrets: iTunes.
Wesley, a young, successful novelist, long ago left Arizona and the San Carlos Apache Reservation in his rear view mirror. He remains close to his mother but alienated the rest of the family with his autobiographical bestseller. He has no intention of returning for his parents anniversary party but finds himself pulled back into the fold. Coming home only underlines what a mess Wesley’s life has become, but he’s not alone in that. Shouting Secrets tells a present day story about a Native-American family with unique struggles but universal truths.​

2. Empire of Dirt: Vimeo On Demand.
A young single First Nations mother struggling to bridge the generation gap with her daughter Peeka and her mother Minerva.

3. This May Be the Last Time: Google Play, YouTube, iTunes
Director Sterlin Harjo heard a story hundreds of times growing up; the story of when his grandfather disappeared. Pete Harjo mysteriously went missing in 1962 after his car crashed on a rural bridge in Sasakwa, Oklahoma. The Seminole Indian community began a day and night search for his body. As they combed the riverbanks it is told that they sang songs of faith and hope that had been passed on for generations. In This May Be The Last Time, the director revisits his grandfather’s mysterious death and how hymns played a role then and now in uniting families and communities in times of worship, joy, mourning, hope, tragedy. This deeply personal journey starts in Oklahoma’s Native churches and carries on through astounding connections to slavery in the deep American South and onward as far away as the Scottish highlands. 

4. Road to Paloma: Google Play, Amazon, VUDU.
Native American protagonist Wolf is on the run after avenging his mother's murder. As he flees across the desolate American West on his motorcycle, he'll discover that justice has a cost—Wolf's search for redemption will reveal secrets and take him on a journey where the roads have some very unexpected turns.

5. The Lesser Blessed: iTunes, VUDU; Amazon.

Through the eyes of Larry Sole, a First Nation teenager filled with bravado and angst, fragile and yet angry, seeking clarity clouded by confusion, seeking to belong without belonging, comes the story of three unlikely friends isolated in a small rural town discovering what they can of life and love amid racial tensions and the recklessness of youth, in a world clouded by a dark mystery from his past

6. Rhymes for Young Ghouls: VUDUiTunes (Canada).

Red Crow Mi'g Maq reservation, 1976: By government decree, every Indian child under the age of 16 must attend residential school. In the kingdom of the Crow, that meansimprisonment at St. Dymphna's. That means being at the mercy of "Popper", the sadistic Indian agent who runs the school. At 15, Aila is the weed princess of Red Crow. Hustling with her uncle Burner, she sells enough dope to pay Popper her "truancy tax", keeping her out of St. Ds. But when Aila's drug money is stolen and her father Joseph returns from prison, the precarious balance of Aila's world is destroyed. Her only options are to run or fight... and Mi'gMaq don't run.

7. The Activist: iTunes, Google Play.

A political thriller set during the Wounded Knee insurrection in 1973. Two activist are arrested and maintain in custody in a sheriff's office. They will meet a Nixon advisor, a lawyer, a senator and a movie star who is also an activist.

8. The Cherokee Word for Water: website; iTunes, coming soon.

Set in the early 1980s, The Cherokee Word For Water begins with the return of Wilma Mankiller to her rural Oklahoma Cherokee community where many houses lack running water and others are little more than shacks. After centuries of being dehumanized and dispossessed of their land and identity, the people no longer feel they have power or control over their lives or future. This is the true story of the struggle for, opposition to, and ultimate success of a rural Cherokee community to bring running water to their families by using the traditional concept of "gadugi"– working together to solve a problem.

9. A Good Day to Die: Netflix, iTunes, VUDU.

Dennis Banks co-founded the American Indian Movement (A.I.M.) in 1968 to call attention to the plight of urban Indians in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The film presents an intimate look at Dennis Banks' life beginning with his early experience in boarding schools, through his military service in Japan, his transformative experience in Stillwater State Prison and subsequent founding of a movement that, through confrontational actions in Washington DC, Custer South Dakota and Wounded Knee, changed the lives of American Indians forever.

10. On the Ice: Netflix, iTunes, VUDU.

Two teenage boys who have grown up like brothers go about their lives in the comfortable claustrophobia of an isolated Alaskan town. Early one morning, on a seal hunt with another teenager, an argument between the three boys quickly escalates into a tragic accident. Bonded by their dark secret, the two best friends are forced to create one fabrication after another in order to survive. The shocked boys stumble through guilt-fueled days, avoiding the suspicions of their community as they weave a web of deceit. With their future in the balance, they are forced to explore the limits of friendship and honor.

11. Tiger Eyes: Google Play.

(Note: Strictly speaking, Tiger Eyes isn't a "Native American film" in the same sense as the others listed here, as its protagonist, screenwriters and director were all non-Native. But we include it in this list because of the critically-lauded performance by Tatanka Means, which was found award-worthy by Native film festivals.)  Forced by her grieving mother to move from her home in Atlantic City to the strange “atom bomb” town of Los Alamos, New Mexico, Davey (Willa Holland) no longer knows who to be or how to fit in. Everything that once mattered—the friends, reputations, parties and expectations that fuel high school days—suddenly seems insignificant and Davey is certain no one has the first clue about the turmoil she is going through. But when she meets Wolf (Tatanka Means), a mysterious Native‐American climber exploring the surrounding canyons, she feels he is able to see right into her most wild and secret emotions. Their intense relationship brings Davey back from the edge as she finds the courage to embark on the first great adventure of her life.

2013 Thanksgiving Movie:  Free Birds
It's probably unreasonable to expect an animated children's movie about the First Thanksgiving to tell anything but the well-known sanitized version of the tale. All in all, it would be best to avoid the subject altogether, since the story of Indians and Pilgrims sitting down to a turkey dinner in 1621 sows seeds of basic disinformation that many people carry into adulthood. It simply didn't happen the way it's taught to children, and what did happen puts a smileyface on a long and shameful history of conquest and genocide.  We haven't even mentioned Indians. There weren't any in the first trailer for the movie, and in the second they show up, briefly, in the final 20 seconds. One wears a large feather headdress and a bone breastplate, he has a partner and they're both riding horses. Wrong, wrong, and wrong.

The plot of Free Birds, coming to a theater near you November 1, finds an oppressed population traveling back in time to 1621 to change the course of history and save future generations. No, it's not Native Americans -- it's turkeys. The turkeys from the future band together with their ancestors and wage a Braveheart-style war on the Pilgrims. It's your standard anthropomorphic kid-flick wackiness, and if history has to be fudged to make it work then so be it.