8 of indigenous cinema’s most important films

Midway through National Native American Heritage Month, a roundup of the movies that actually moved beyond tokenism and misrepresentation.

by Braudie Blais-Billie
15 November 2016, 4:40pm

It's National Native American Heritage Month, a symbolic gesture from the U.S. government to acknowledge the indigenous peoples in this country, all the more crucial as the Standing Rock protests reach a crisis point. Throughout November, writer Braudie Blais-Billie will be reporting on the creativity and activism of Native peoples.

Filmmaking is an art form that's fairly new to indigenous creatives. Only within the past few decades have Native producers, directors, and writers emerged as autonomous agents from the stereotypical noble savages and Wild West Indians of the Hollywood film industry.

The history of American film and Native Americans is troubling— of the diverse 500-plus tribes in the U.S., often only recognizably "Native" symbols like face paint, teepees, and breastplates have been used to represent the entire ethnic group no matter how inaccurate. And more often than not, the redface and whitewashing of indigenous characters further erased authentic Native identity.

These issues of degrading misrepresentation aren't just vestiges of a more troubled America. In 2015, Joe Wright's Pan casted Rooney Mara (read: a white woman) as the movie's Indian princess Tiger Lily. Though she's since then expressed her regrets, it was a disappointing missed opportunity for indigenous actors that are already extremely limited.

But the surge of Native American activism in the 70s pushed a political and social dialogue surrounding indigenous communities deeper into mainstream media than ever before. More documentary producers were telling their peoples' stories on their own terms, paving the way for contemporary Native filmmakers to continue redefining indigenous identities and art. These shorts, feature films, exposés and even Youtube videos capture the complexities of the contemporary Native American experience that go beyond the ethnic fetishization and poverty porn that flatten such nuanced realities.

Today, establishments like the Sundance Institute foster indigenous filmmaking through their Native American and Indigenous Film Program. This year, the American Indian Film Festival celebrates its 41st anniversary of housing indigenous film that showcases resistance, survival, and progress. To honor 41 years of indigenous progress and the filmmakers who will continue to improve Native American representation, here are 8 of indigenous cinema's most important films.

1. Powwow Highway (1989)

Powwow Highway is a critically acclaimed comedy-drama directed by Jonathan Wacks that takes place on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation near Lame Deer, Montana. The story follows two characters — cranky war veteran Buddy Red Bow and the earnest Philbert Bono — as they road trip to Santa Fe. The film explores the contemporary indigenous condition through Philbert's sometimes ill-informed longing for a spiritual connection and Buddy's dedication to the rights of his tribe. Though not indigenous-produced, the film stars First Nations actor Gary Farmer (Cayuga Nation) as Philbert and features Cheyenne tribal members playing small roles.

2. Once Were Warriors (1994)

Based off a novel by Aboriginal author Alan Duff, Once Were Warriors is an unapologetic foray into the life of an urban Maori family plagued with poverty, domestic violence, and substance abuse. But the strength of protagonist Beth Heke, played by Maori actress Rena Owen, lifts the film away from a one dimensional cautionary tale. Once Were Warriors is critically acclaimed, one of the top highest-grossing New Zealand films, and voted best New Zealand film of all time in 2014.

3. Smoke Signals (1998)

Smoke Signals is an independent film written by indigenous author Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d'Alene) that has become a cult favorite amongst Native Americans. Taking place on the Coeur D'Alene Indian Reservation in Idaho, a young man named Victor Joseph (played by First Nations actor Adam Beach) travels to Phoenix, Arizona to straighten the affairs of his estranged and deceased father. The complications of his relationship to his father, his reservation, and childhood friend Thomas Builds-the-Fire (played by First Nations actor Evan Adams) reveal a troubling battle with colonial history and discrimination. Smoke Signals won American Indian Film Festival's Best Film title and was nominated for Sundance Grand Jury Prize in 1998. This hilarious, melancholy, yet ultimately hopeful film is a timeless representation of modern Native life.

4. Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (2008)

This feature-length documentary by First Nations (Abenaki) filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin was the first documentary to ever win the Best Canadian Feature award at the Toronto International Film Festival. It chronicles the Oka Crisis in Quebec, a land dispute between activists of the Mohawk nation and the Canadian government. There were thousands of Canadian soldiers and around 600 armed local activists that engaged in shootings and detainments that lasted 78 days.

5. Rhymes for Young Ghouls (2013)

Rhymes for Young Ghouls is a film set on the First Nation Red Crow Mi'g Maq reservation in 1976, the dark historical era of the state-funded, church-run Indian residential schools. The residential school system institutionalized cultural genocide with physical, emotional, and sexual abuse to assimilate First Nations children into white society.

In this harrowing film debut by First Nations director Jeff Barnaby (Listuguj Mi'g Maq), the life of Aila (played by Kahnawake Mohawk actor Kawennahere Devery Jacobs) is suddenly disrupted when her father returns from jail and her drug dealing money is stolen. The film unfolds as a revenge narrative against the sadistic Indian agent Popper and the insidious residential school she must protect herself and her family against. It's a somber, angry story that resolves in a justice First Nations peoples subjected to real world residential schools would dream about.

6. Drunktown's Finest (2014)

Navajo director Sydney Freehand's debut Drunktown's Finest is a drama following the lives of three young Native Americans with their own unique hardships in contemporary reservation life. There's Felixia, a hustling trans woman played by Carmen Moore; Nizhoni Smiles, an adopted Native returning to her roots played by actor Morningstar Angeline (multiple tribe affiliations but raised Navajo); and Sick Boy, a defiant expected father by Navajo/Omaha actor Jeremiah Bitsui.

The feature began as a 2009 Native Lab selection with the Sundance Institute and was premiered at the festival in 2014. It masterfully navigates the reservation hardships familiar to Freehand and many modern indigenous viewers, and acknowledges traditional philosophy like the Nadleeh "third gender" Felixia explores and coming of age ceremonies.

7. Mekko (2015)

Mekko, the film named after its troubled protagonist, chronicles the life of a Native man who is released from prison after 19 years with no home or family. Mekko, played by Crow actor Rod Rondeaux, finds his place in a homeless indigenous community in Tulsa, but soon realizes he must face the ghosts and traditions of his past to fight the evil presence in his life. As Seminole-Muskogee director Sterlin Harjo's third feature film, the thriller premiered at the Los Angelese Film Festival in 2015 to critical acclaim.

8. The Northlander (2016)

The Northlander is the first indigenous sci-fi movie to be produced on such a large scale. This Aboriginal fantasy feature film is set in the year 2961, a post-apocalyptic time without society, technology, or easily available resources. Two communities are in conflict, and a hunter named Cygnus is called to protect his people called Last Arc. The director, Canadian Metis (part-Aboriginal, part-European) Benjamin Ross Hayden brings this movie to life with indigenous actors like Roseanne Supernault and Michelle Thrush, creative character designs, and action-packed scenes. It's definitely exciting to see indigenous film move into different genres.


Text Braudie Blais-Billie
Still from Smoke Signals via YouTube

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