Great Films About Native Americans

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Sophia White

Hollywood’s racist depictions of Native Americans as savages impeding Manifest Destiny began to fall away after World War II. Broken Arrow (1950) and Apache (1954)paved the way for Cheyenne Autumn (1964) and other films expressing sympathy for the nation’s First People. Here’s a round-up of other likeminded movies.

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Little Big Man (1970)

Jack Crabb (Dustin Hoffman), who ages from of 17 to 121 in Arthur Penn’s film of Thomas Berger’s novel, is the prism for a revisionist perspective on the Plains Indians. White orphan Crabb is raised by Cheyennes and marries one, only to witness her murder by Custer’s 7th Cavalry. Enlisted as a scout by Custer, he then sees the Cheyenne and Sioux exact their revenge at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. By telling the story through the eyes of a white captive, Little Big Man offers insights into how prejudice can be turned on its head.

Billy Jack (1971)

Billy Jack features a Navajo protagonist and fights choreographed by the father of the martial art Hapkido. Played by Tom Laughlin, the film’s director and co-writer, ex-Green Beret and Vietnam vet Billy fights for the rights of his fellow Native Americans. Predominantly an action film, it found favor with young moviegoers thanks to its fight scenes – and with hippies for its anti-establishment message. Its 1973 re-release boosted its popularity and it’s now regarded as a cult film. Everyone who sees it remembers the iconic fight at the courthouse and the line ‘I’m gonna take this right foot, and I’m gonna whoop you on that side of your face.’

Windwalker (1980)

This ‘story of Indians without a single cowboy’ depicts the life of the eponymous Cheyenne warrior (Trevor Howard) through a series of flashbacks. Toward the end, the deceased Windwalker is reawakened by the Great Spirit to embark on a spiritual journey to reach a peaceful afterlife. Aside from voiceover narration, the entire film is spoken in the Cheyenne and Crow languages. Despite its limited release, Windwalker rose in popularity through word-of-mouth recommendations and was praised for its cinematography and sensitive and positive depiction of Native Americans.

Powwow Highway (1989)

Jonathan Wacks’ boisterous road movie combines the comedy antics of protagonist Buddy Red Bow (A Martinez) with social commentary on Native American land rights. It thus puts a different spin on the traditional relationship between the Cheyenne and avaricious whites, demonstrating that Manifest Destiny is far from played out. The story is far from unrelentingly serious: it features comic jail breaks, marijuana trades, and even ‘bromances.’ Powwow Highway won the Sundance Filmmaker’s Trophy and three Native American Film Festival Awards.

Dances With Wolves (1990)

Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves is the only film about Native Americans to win the Best Picture Oscar. Heading West after his Civil War heroics, Costner’s former Union Army lieutenant befriends the Sioux and grows to love their ways, though the Army eventually cuts short his sojourn with them. Much of the film’s dialogue is spoken in Lakota or Pawnee. The Director of the Native American Film Festival commented: ‘There’s a lot of good feeling about the film in the Indian community. I think it’s going to be very hard to top this one.’ Indeed, no other movie depicting Native Americans has achieved its fame or popularity.

Geronimo: An American Legend (1993)

Though Walter Hill’s film is based on events leading to the capture of the great Chiricahua Apache leader (Wes Studi) in 1886, it implicitly examines contemporary problems concerning Native American social integration. Unlike other films that negatively depict relation between Native Americans and the US Army, this underrated movie shows a handful of soldiers demonstrating respect and sympathy for the Apache. Native American groups praised it for bringing their people’s pressing concerns to a wide audience.

Smoke Signals (1998)

Cheyenne-Arapaho director Chris Eyre’s debut was the first film made entirely by Native Americans. Adapted by Sherman Alexie from one of his stories, it’s a story of self-discovery. Victor and Thomas, who live on the Coeur d’Alene reservation in Idaho, embark on a road trip that helps them come to terms with their complicated past. Victor (Adam Beach) both loves and despises his abusive alcoholic father, Arnold (Gary Farmer). In contrast, Thomas (Evan Adams) reveres Arnold, who rescued him from a house fire when he was an infant. The film won the Sundance Filmmaker’s Trophy and Audience Award, as well as the Native American Film Festival’s Best Film prize.

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001)

Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat – a pioneering adventure tale about a cursed Inuit community, sexual revenge, and warrior endurance – was thefirst film written, directed, and acted entirely in Inuktitut. Meticulously researched, it was based on a story believed to be at least five centuries old. Changes made to the end of the traditional tale in order to convey a greater message of hope to the audience. Atanarjuat is one of the best representations of Native American folk history on film.

Skins (2002)

Based on Adrian C. Louis’ novel, Skins tells the story of two very different Lakota Sioux brothers – policeman Rudy (Eric Schweig) and town drunk Mogie (Graham Greene). A witness to widespread unemployment, alcoholism, and impoverishment on their South Dakota reservation, Rudy protests against the exploitation experienced by his people – not least his brother. The film was shot on the Pine Ridge Reservation, the poorest place in the United States. Eyre stated that all the incidents in the film were modeled on real events. Every scene was filmed on an unembellished location to show the grim reality of Pine Ridge’s living conditions.

Imprint (2007)

Produced by Chris Eyre and directed by Michael Linn, Imprint probes enduring Native American beliefs. Supernatural elements aside, it’s primarily about appreciating one’s heritage. Shayla Stonefeather is an attorney who has shunned her Native American background. While prosecuting a Lakota teen in a controversial murder trial, she returns to her dying father’s home for the first time in years and is confronted by spirits who make her re-assess her relationship with her ancestral culture and her spiritual life. Imprint opens a window on the lives of modern Native Americans while showing the endurance of community traditions.

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