Previously I wrote about the whitewashing of Tonto in Disney’s The Lone Ranger and some of the harm done by non-Indigenous filmmakers controlling onscreen images of NDN people. One way to combat this harm is to support Indigenous filmmakers, writers and actors in their endeavors to portray our lives, the multitude ways of being Native, and some of the intersections of Indigenous identities with other identities. I’ll get you started by sharing some of my favorite movies about and by Indigenous people.
1. Smoke Signals (1998)
Victor Joseph and Thomas Builds-the-Fire reside on the Coeur D’Alene Reservation in Idaho and are thrown into each other’s lives at an early age when Victor’s father, Arnold, saves baby Thomas from a fire that kills Thomas’s parents. When Arnold passes away in Arizona, Thomas and Victor take a road trip to recover Arnold’s ashes. Along the way Victor’s and Thomas’s personality differences and Thomas’s hero worship of the abusive, alcoholic Arnold create friction between the pair, and Victor learns new things about his father than change his perspective on Arnold and himself.
When I was in middle school, a tribal school, we read Sherman Alexie’s Lone Ranger & Tonto Fistfight in Heaven containing his short story “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona.” As an academic exercise, we compared and contrasted the short story with the film version, Smoke Signals. At the time we didn’t possess the language to discuss some of the more profound aspects of the film. Instead we ran around the playground yelling at each other, “Heeeeey Victor!”
When I bought a copy of the movie as an adult, mostly out of nostalgia, I truly began to appreciate this film. I appreciate the variety of NDN characters from the angry Victor to Thomas the storyteller and the women whose car will only drive in reverse. I appreciate it as tale of coming to terms with ourselves and our internalized anger as Indigenous people. For those of us with difficult relationships with our parents or other important people in our lives, I appreciate Thomas ending the film by asking, “How do we forgive our fathers? Maybe in a dream.”
2. Reel Injun (2009)
As a child Neil Diamond (no, not that Neal Diamond) used to play “cowboys and Indians” with his friends after catching the latest Western at their local theater. Despite actually being Native, he and all of his buddies wanted to be the cowboys because the cowboys always won. As an adult, Diamond began to question these onscreen depictions of Indigenous people and eventually produced Reel Injun. Reel Injun examines portrayals of NDN people on film using footage and interviewing Indigenous actors and explore such topics as whitewashing, longstanding stereotypes, and the effect of such portrayals on Indigenous youth.
I first watched this film when my university’s Intertribal Student Council (ISC), of which I was an officer at the time, screened it after dinner at my house. Predictably, I had served Indian tacos to my family and a couple of members of the ISC before we settled into the living room to watch. It was an interesting audience of myself, my grandmother, my older brother and two white, non-Indigenous members of ISC. My grandmother, who had actually seen many of the classic films discussed in the documentary, commented on some of them.
While I cannot say that the film had a profound effect on me, as I discussed with another Persephone contributor, I absolutely recommend to anyone who wants a primer on the representation of U.S. Indigenous peoples in Hollywood film.
3. Powwow Highway (1989)
Powwow Highway centers Buddy Red Bow, a Cheyenne man and Indigenous activist residing in Montana. Red Bow is trying to block a plan for a strip-mining project on the reservation when his sister, Bonnie, is arrested in New Mexico. Buddy enlists the help of his friend Philbert and his prized car, Protector, to go bail Bonnie out of jail and take care of her children until then. Philbert and Buddy ultimately break Bonnie out of the slammer and try and lose the cops on their way back to Montana.
Powwow Highway is a clear precursor to the previously mentioned Smoke Signals. Everything from the road trip to the Southwest to the angry NDN having to ask his more traditional and somewhat space cadet buddy to use their resources for the trip. Where Powwow Highway differs is in its very explicit social and political commentary. The film comments on the Vietnam War and Indigenous peoples’ long history of fighting in U.S. wars with Philbert’s backstory as a veteran. The film challenges us to think about the continuing attempt to grab NDN land for profit and the environmental impacts of modern living.
Perhaps more so than anything, the film asks us to think about power and where we derive our power. It asks us to think about how those differences can weaken or strengthen our collective resistance to oppression depending on how we approach it. Buddy derives his power from being a militant activist while Philbert derives his from tradition. At first these differences antagonize the pair, but by the end of the film they’ve worked together to overcome what could have been a potential tragedy. I believe this says much about our ability to do so off-screen.
4. The Business of Fancydancing (2002)
Sherman Alexie’s struggles as a mainstream Indigenous author with a lot of non-Indigenous fans helps inform this story about Seymour Polatkin, a gay Indigenous poet, who returns to his reservation in Spokane for a friend’s funeral and has to deal with the multiple conflicts in his life as a gay, urban NDN with a white boyfriend whose reservation friends and family don’t understand or approve of his life off of the rez, and whose white admirers of his literature don’t understand what it means to be Indigenous.
What drew me into this film and continues to draw me into this film is Seymour’s profound sense of alienation as a man who doesn’t seem to fit anywhere comfortably. While I make no claim to understand Seymour’s particular circumstances, as a Black Native, multi-racial person and both a rez and urban Native, I’ve long struggled with a consistent feeling of alienation and never quite belonging anywhere comfortably and what it means to be “really NDN.” I have encountered anti-Black from Indigenous peoples, both vicious and “benevolent” (e.g. “I don’t even see you as Black”). Yet, my life experience is that of a person whose formative experiences and closest relationships were and are typically with other Indigenous people. So, Seymour’s struggles “hit close to home” and challenge notions of what it means to be a Native person.
5. Naturally Native (1998)
Naturally Native follows the story of three Indigenous women, sisters, trying to get their Naturally Native cosmetics company off of the ground but are constantly having to battle racist business executives who try to undermine their success. This film is one of few Indigenous made films that centers Indigenous women and their struggles. It is also one of few films to be entirely backed by the filmmaker’s tribe rather than using any outside funding as a resource. The films story is director and writer Valerie Red-Horse’s criticism on how difficult it is for Indigenous peoples, and especially Indigenous women, to produce and distribute films in the Hollywood film industry.
Though the film was made in the same year as Smoke Signals, it never got quite the same attention or acclaim.
Do you have any recommendations for this list? Any recommendations on films about or by Indigenous groups outside of the United States? If so, please feel free to share!