Everyone deserves proper representation in the media. To have their own voice heard rather than be spoken for like the insensitive Adam Sandler Western parody Ridiculous 6. The film industry is one of the best places to be heard, to tell a story that everyone will listen to. Whether it’s a story about a family struggling on their reservation or the story of the Golden Spruce, Indigenous communities all over North America have stories worth listening to. This brings us to the genre of Indigenous movies.
Indigenous films are a genre all their own, with a focus not only on Indigenous representation but perspective and expression of cultural values. The stories they tell may not resonate with general audiences, with different values and traditions that most do not understand, so many Indigenous films often go unappreciated. However, the fight for equitable opportunity and representation in film means recognizing great stories and filmmakers. These are the best indigenous movies from North America that deserve everyone’s attention.
Windtalkers follows Marine Enders (Nicholas Cage) who is tasked with protecting Ben Yahzee (Adam Beach), a Navajo code talker. The story is based on the real Navajo code-talkers used by the Marines during WWII. Windtalkers is masterfully done in the sense that it explores how Indigenous soldiers differed from white soldiers in both beliefs and practices. While at times relations between the code-talkers and the Marines were strained, the film displayed them reaching an understanding and mutual respect for one another. Windtalkers was not well-received in the box-office and director John Woo stated “They wanted a John Wayne movie.” While Windtalkers is not a typical war movie, it’s a refreshing change.
7 Dance Me Outside
When Silas, Frank and their girlfriends find the body of a murdered woman they know, her white killer receives a two-year sentence for his actions. After receiving the news, the boys plot revenge against the killer. The film examines the harsh injustices that the Indigenous people face on a regular basis and the reality of white privilege. Yet another film starring Adam Beach on this list, Dance Me Outside is a serious drama that allows the Indigenous community to shed light on the systemic racism within the legal system. Before its time, Dance Me Outside is reminiscent of the modern movement for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girlsa public inquiry into the outstanding statistics of Indigenous women and girls representing 16% of female homicides in Canada.
6 Songs My Brother Taught Me
When Johnny and Jashaun’s father dies, Johnny wishes to leave his life on the reservation for LA, but fears leaving his sister behind. Songs My Brother Taught Me shows the realities of life on a reservation, but many other cultural significances are explored throughout the film, including the significance of the number 7 to most Indigenous communities. Songs My Brother Taught Me was the directorial debut of Chloe Zhao, known for Nomadland. The film was nominated for Best Feature Film at the Independent Spirit Awards. Songs My Brother Taught Me is a tear-jerking story about the collectivistic culture on an Indigenous reservation where the community’s best interests are put before anything else.
5 Geronimo: An American Legend
As the Apache people are forced off of their homeland by the Colonizers and herded onto reservations, some refuse to leave without a fight, their leader being Geronimo. Geronimo: An American Legend is based on the story of how the real Apache warrior Geronimo came to surrender to the cavalry and the events that followed. The film was praised by the Indigenous community for its representation of Geronimo and for the twist on the classic Western, focusing on the Indigenous perspective rather than making the cowboy the hero. Geronimo: An American Legend was nominated for Best Sound at the Academy Awards.
4 Indian Horse
After surviving the wrath of the residential school, Saul Indian Horse strives to become a star ice-hockey player. Indian Horse is based on the award-winning novel of the same name and the film has received even more accolades for the directing, editing and the overall narrative of the film. The film shows the conditions many Indigenous people were forced to face at the residential schools, including not being allowed to speak their Native language, in Saul’s case Ojibwe, and some being forced to change their name if it was not a suitable Christian name. Part of what makes Indian Horse so poignant is the harsh realities of the pain inflicted on the survivors of the residential school system that both the Church and the Government were responsible for.
3 Shouting Secrets
A family is forced to face their estranged past when their matriarch suffers a stroke and falls into a coma, and they must stay together in the confines of the hospital. Wesley is an outcast among his family for leaving the reservation to write a successful novel that is mostly autobiographical in nature. Shouting Secrets examines the meaning of the word family from an Indigenous perspective. The film has a star-studded cast featuring Chaske Spencer and Gil Birmingham as Wesley and his father Cal, both of whom appeared in the Twilight saga. Shouting Secrets was praised for its portrayal of family relations and earned itself the Best Feature Film award at the Rhode Island International Film Festival.
2 Smoke Signals
This classic comedy follows Victor and his cousin Thomas. When Victor’s father dies, he leaves for Arizona to go and collect his ashes, but Thomas drags along with him as he has the money for the bus. With comedic features like Rez Radio, a radio station run from a van with the traffic reporter sitting on top and the infamous car that is stuck in reverse, Smoke Signals is an Indigenous classic. Not only is it light-hearted in nature, but it touches on some deep-seated subjects like addiction and racism. Smoke Signals is one of the most popular films among the Indigenous community as it’s a comedy that you can reach for again and again.
1 Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner
Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner is an Inuit film, entirely in the language Inuktitut. The film follows the traditional Inuit story of Atanarjuat who saved his people from the bad medicine by running away, barefoot and naked, from Oki and his goons, trying to kill Atanarjuat. As Atanarjuat struggles to fight the bad medicine, he suffers terrible loss and is separated from his family. Considered the ultimate Indigenous movie, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner is a highly underrated film that is a visual preservation of the story of Atanarjuat, transcribed from the oral storytelling by the elders of Igloolik. After a poll taken at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2015, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner was named the greatest Canadian film of all time.
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