As a white person, it’s very easy to forget about my unearned white privilege–that 95% of TV and films is catered to my race and cultural background, that I’m less likely to be profiled by the police, that pretty much everything in society–books, education, jobs, clothing–is structured around white culture. It is, therefore, the responsibility of white people to acknowledge their unearned privilege and educate themselves on the unique cultural experiences of anyone who isn’t a white male. Unfortunately, we–as in everyone–is exposed to so-called “films about Native Americans,” such as Dances with Wolves, that reinforce racist notions of indigenous cultures. The following is a list of films that are made for American Indian audiences. You’ll find that they’re quite different from Disney’s Pocahontas.
1. Smoke Signals (1998)
This film is beautiful. It is among my favorite slice-of-life films. Although frequently described as a comedy, Smoke Signals is, in actuality, a drama about two men–Victor, an antisocial, angry basketball star, and Thomas, a geeky storyteller. When Victor learns that his runaway father has died, he reluctantly travels across the country with Thomas to retrieve the man’s ashes. The plot sounds boring, but the film is an engaging character study. Evan Adams, Adam Beach, and Irene Bedard star.
2. Older than America (2008)
Let’s face it. It’s very difficult to find any native-made movies that center on the lives of women or a woman. Most Native American films are pretty male-centric and deal with men’s issues. Although the experiences of men can be universal, it’s important to acknowledge that the same goes for women. Older than America is about a woman, Rain, who experiences terrifying visions of her mother in the past, amongst other children, being tortured by a Catholic priest. This movie is very suspenseful and exposes the truth behind these “culture-killing” institutions called boarding schools. Georgina Lightning, Adam Beach, and Bradley Cooper star in this film.
3. Powwow Highway (1989)
This film presents two characters who are polar opposites but both symbolize two common archetypes in American indigenous narratives. Buddy is an aggressive activist who is trying to stop developers from strip-mining part of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation. Philbert, on the other hand, is a spacey and clumsy daydreamer. When Buddy’s sister, a single mother, is arrested in Santa Fe (after being racially profiled), Buddy and Philbert travel across the U.S. to help her. The chemistry between the two main actors is humorous and entertaining and the honest depiction of reservation life is eye-opening. A Martinez and Gary Farmer star.
4. Imprint (2007)
Imprint is a horror/suspense film about a lawyer, Shayla, who returns home when her father dies and is plagued by visions of ghosts. Don’t be deceived by the plot description. This film isn’t just about ghosts. It’s about a woman who grew distant from her home and her culture and now must reassess her beliefs and purpose in life. This film did make me squirm a little.
5. Skins (2002)
Rudy is a rez cop and former football star who is gravely concerned for his brother Mogie, a self-destructive alcoholic. Distressed by the violence and dysfunction plaguing his home, Rudy begins to act as a vigilante to obtain justice. My plot hook does not do this movie justice. Just watch it. Eric Schweig and Graham Greene star in this film that explains why Mount Rushmore is such a disgusting insult to the Lakota.