Indigenous Cinema Favorites

Movies of indigenous peoples have always been a bit on the back burner of cinema. While some movies such as “Dances with Wolves” or “Last of the Mohicans” have garnered great fame, there are many that get little recognition by movie critics and movie goers. Native American focused movies are indeed in short supply, and often include inaccurate portrayals, but the ideas they take on in the modern era have wide-reaching themes such as family issues or cultural death.

In support of PWNA’s aim to help raise awareness about realities in Indian Country, I’ve compiled a few of my favorite films that portray indigenous cultures in a realistic, informative light.

The first movie is an old favorite of mine: “Smoke Signals.” This movie has a great many examples of native humor, as well as many other methods that indigenous cultures use to cope with difficult situations. Following Victor Joseph in his dealing with his father’s passing, the movie hits on many difficult subjects, but has as its heaviest theme family estrangement, something that is found in Native and non-Native American communities around the world.

Another favorite movie of mine is “Rhymes with Young Ghouls,” a 1970’s era film that occurs on a fictitious reservation and heavily involves the theme of Christian-run state schools and their efforts to integrate native children into mainstream society. With my own family having had a taste of this dark part of history, and many outside people having little to no insight on these old boarding schools, I find it important to make these situations known through cinema. While the story also has some supernatural elements, the realities of these schools and some of the dramatic situations people go through are depicted accurately.

To touch on one last movie, I think “Skins” is a moving portrayal of some of the situations encountered in indigenous (and other) communities. Following a local officer named Rudy Yellow Lodge on a fictional reservation, the movie was actually shot on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. After a local incident involving a murder, and dealing with an alcoholic brother, Rudy steps out as a vigilante and sets the local ABC store on fire. While this movie deals with heavy themes of alcoholism and the consequences and stress it causes on the reservation, it gives the audience the experience of addiction and the bonds it can break in a family. This movie also shows the barriers that can be overcome by families dealing with these problems together – in any community.

I think indigenous-made movies today provide an insight into reservation realities, histories, and other parts of the dysfunction in modern day culture, and they are portrayed well. Not often feel-good films, they deal with the tougher issues that take place on the reservations, with colonization and assimilation into the modern world, and at the same time tell compelling stories complete with heroes, villains, vigilantes, and bystanders. Make your next movie night one of these Native American tales!

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