From heart-touching documentaries, captivating biopics, and soul-stirring coming-of-age tales, these are fifteen great Indigenous films you can stream to celebrate National American Indian Heritage Month.
Happy National American Indian Heritage Month—part two! To go along with the Celebrating Indigenous Storytelling: A TBR List of Native Authors for NAIHM blog post, I wanted to compile a list of 15 great introductory films you can stream (right now!) and watch that feature Indigenous, Native American, and First Nations filmmakers and storytellers. This list is great for those of you more interested in visual media but still want to support creatives from Indigenous communities. I tried to compile an inclusive list in terms of genres, styles, filmmakers, and ease of streaming platforms, but this list is by no means comprehensive!
Feel free to leave your recommendations for positive representation of Indigenous, Native American, and First Nations filmmaking in the comments because I'd love to watch them! I believe that one of the best and easiest ways to combat stereotyping and encourage positive, effectual change is by supporting authentic storytellers and their art.
Don't forget to keep an eye out for another installment of "A History of..." and other NAIHM-related content on the blog this month. Also, if you'd like to learn more about National American Heritage Month, I've included some helpful links below. Enjoy!
Powwow Highway (1989)
Director: Jonathan Wacks
Screenwriters: David Seals, Janet Heaney & Jean Stawarz
Starring: A Martinez, Gary Farmer, Joanelle Romero, Amanda Wyss, Geoff Rivas, Roscoe Born, Wayne Waterman, Margo Kane, Sam Vlahos, John Trudell, Wes Studi & Graham Greene
The road-movie genre gets a lyrical twist shot through with Native American spirituality in this bittersweet portrait of two Cheyenne men on a journey through the American West and their own identities. Buddy Red Bow (Martinez) is struggling, in the face of greedy developers, to keep his nation on a Montana Cheyenne Reservation financially solvent and independent. Philbert (Farmer), his easygoing friend, pursues Native wisdom and lore wherever he can find it—even on Bonanza. As the two set off on a journey to bail out Buddy’s imprisoned sister, Philbert’s gentle faith challenges Buddy’s hard-edged view of the world, and together they face the realities and dreams of being Cheyenne in the modern-day U.S.
Did You Know? This movie was cited specifically by Stephen Hillenburg, creator of the animated series SpongeBob SquarePants, on the conception of his most infamous and well-loved episodes of the show: "Pizza Delivery."
Smoke Signals (1998)
Director: Chris Eyre
Screenwriter: Sherman Alexie
Starring: Adam Beach, Evan Adams, Irene Bedard, Gary Farmer & Tantoo Cardinal
This comedic drama follows the journey of two young Coeur d’Alene Native Americans, Victor and Thomas, as they travel from Idaho to Arizona to retrieve the ashes of Victor’s estranged father. Along the way, they learn about their heritage and form a deeper bond.
Did You Know? Smoke Signals was the first movie to be written, directed, and co-produced by Native Americans. In 2018, the United States Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the National Film Registry.
Director: Chris Eyre
Screenwriter: James Redford
Starring: Adam Beach, Wes Studi, Michael Greyeyes, Alex Rice & Misty Upham
Navajo Tribal Police Officer Jim Chee and Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn investigate three unsolved homicides of medicine men and an attempt on Chee's life that have left the Navajo Tribal Police baffled. Are the murders, some 120 miles apart, somehow connected, or are they random acts of violence? Is a Navajo witch behind it all? Chee and Leaphorn unearth clues that point toward one suspect, in this suspenseful mystery based on Tony Hillerman's novel.
Did You Know? Skinwalkers was a co-production involving executive producer Robert Redford's Wildwood Enterprises, PBS’ Mystery! series, and the British television company Carlton Television
Edge of America (2004)
Director: Chris Eyre
Screenwriter: Willy Holtzman
Starring: James McDaniel, Irene Bedard, Delanna Studi, Misty Upham, Eddie Spears, Cody Lightning, Geraldine Keams, Michael Flynn & Wes Studi
Based on a true story about sports and race, Edge of America follows Kenny Williams (McDaniel), a no-nonsense black English teacher who relocates to Three Nations to join its high school faculty. Williams has trouble fitting in on "the Rez" until he grudgingly agrees to coach the girls' basketball team. Confronted with a roster that runs the gamut from shy to wild to pregnant, Williams treats all his players with humanity, kindness, and sensitivity. He molds the diverse group of bickering teenagers into a well-drilled team. But can Three Nations take the next step and make it into the state finals?
Did You Know? In 2006, Edge of America received several honors and recognitions, including a Peabody Award.
Miss Navajo (2007)
Director: Billy Luther
Featuring: Crystal Frazier, Radmilla Cody, Marilyn Help Hood & Ida Gail Organick
Where to Watch: Amazon Prime Video
For most of us, pageants conjure up smiling beauty-queen hopefuls parading around in bathing suits or glittery gowns. But most of us have never witnessed the Miss Navajo Nation competition. Inaugurated in 1952, this unique competition redefines "pageant" as an opportunity for young women to honor and strengthen Navajo culture.
Did You Know? Participant Crystal Frazier went on to study mechanical engineering at Utah State University.
Barking Water (2009)
Director & Screenwriter: Sterlin Harjo
Starring: Richard Ray Whitman, Casey Camp-Horinek, Jon Proudstar, Aaron Riggs, Laura Spencer, Quese iMC, Ryan Red Corn & Beau Harjo
Where to Watch: Amazon Prime Video
Frankie is dying. Irene hasn't forgiven him. And they are racing against time to find their way home. Frankie needs help, and Irene is the one he turns to. He must go home one last time. And, like so many times before, Irene is extending herself beyond her common sense. The two set out on a journey that becomes more than getting home; confronting the past, love, understanding, and self-discovery. Barking Water is a tale of great love that looks at what brings us all together. It's a tale of home and what it takes to get there.
Did You Know? Barking Water was named best drama film at the 2009 American Indian Film Festival, and Casey Camp-Horinek was named best actress.
Reel Injun (2009)
Directors: Neil Diamond, Catherine Bainbridge & Jeremiah Hayes
Featuring: Angela Aleiss, Adam Beach, Clint Eastwood, Sacheen Littlefeather, Zacharias Kunuk, Jim Jarmusch, Robbie Robertson, Russell Means, Melinda Micco, Jesse Wente & Neil Diamond
Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond takes an entertaining and insightful look at the portrayal of North American Indigenous people throughout a century of cinema. Featuring hundreds of clips from old classics as well as recent releases, and candid interviews with celebrities like Clint Eastwood, Robbie Robertson, and Jim Jarmusch, the film traces the evolution of the Hollywood Indian.
Did You Know? The film was inspired, in part, by Diamond's own experiences as a child in Waskaganish, Quebec, where he and other Native children would play cowboys and Indians after local screenings of Westerns in their remote community. Diamond remembers that although the children were Indians, they all wanted to be cowboys. When Diamond was older, he would be questioned by non-Native people about whether his people lived in teepees and rode horses, causing him to realize that their preconceptions about Native people were also derived from movies.
Rhymes for Young Ghouls (2013)
Director & Screenwriter: Jeff Barnaby
Starring: Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs, Glen Gould, Brandon Oakes, Roseanne Supernault & Nathan Alexis
Red Crow Mi'kmaq reservation, 1976: By government decree, every Indian child under 16 must attend residential school. In the kingdom of the Crow, this means imprisonment at St. Dymphna's, being at the mercy of "Popper," the sadistic Indian agent who runs the school. At 15, Aila is the weed princess of Red Crow. Hustling with her uncle Burner, she sells enough dope to pay Popper her "truancy tax," keeping her out of St. D.'s. But when Aila's drug money is stolen, and her father Joseph returns from prison, the precarious balance of Aila's world is destroyed. Her only options are to run or fight—and Mi'kmaq don't run.
Did You Know? According to screenwriter and director Jeff Barnaby, one of his inspirations was Conan the Barbarian (1982), another story about someone seeking vengeance against a cult that destroyed their family.
Te Ata (2016)
Director: Nathan Frankowski
Screenwriters: Jeannie Barbour & Esther Luttrell
Starring: Q'orianka Kilcher, Gil Birmingham, Graham Greene, Mackenzie Astin, Brigid Brannagh & Cindy Pickett
Where to Watch: Amazon Prime Video
Te Ata is based on the inspiring, true story of Mary Thompson Fisher, a woman who traversed cultural barriers to become one of the greatest First American performers of all time. Born in Indian Territory, and raised on the songs and stories of her Chickasaw culture, Te Ata’s journey to find her true calling led her through isolation, discovery, love, and a stage career that culminated in performances for a United States president, European royalty and audiences across the world. Yet, of all the stories she shared, none are more inspiring than her own.
Did You Know? The real Te Ata was lifelong friends with Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1932, Mrs. Roosevelt, then First Lady of New York, named Lake Te Ata in Harriman State Park in upstate New York in honor of the performer who had given her time to educate and enlighten the children of New York.
Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World (2017)
Directors: Catherine Bainbridge & Alfonso Maiorana
Featuring: Quincy Jones, George Clinton, Taj Mahal, Martin Scorsese, John Trudell, Steven Tyler, Marky Ramone, Slash, Iggy Pop, Buddy Guy, Steven Van Zandt, Taylor Hawkins, Robert Trujillo
This powerful documentary about the role of Native Americans in contemporary music history—featuring some of the greatest music stars of our time—exposes a critical missing chapter, revealing how indigenous musicians helped shape the soundtracks of our lives and, through their contributions, influenced popular culture. The film showcases artists like Link Wray, Jimi Hendrix, and Buffy Sainte-Marie.
Did You Know? The idea for the film came from Stevie Salas (Apache) and Tim Johnson (Mohawk), two of the film's executive producers. They created an exhibit for the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian about the indigenous influence on American music, titled “Up Where We Belong: Native Musicians in Popular Culture.”
Edge of the Knife [SG̲aawaay Ḵʹuuna] (2018)
Directors: Gwaai Edenshaw & Helen Haig-Brown
Screenwriters: Gwaai Edenshaw, Jaalen Edenshaw, Graham Richard & Leonie Sandercock
Starring: Tyler York, William Russ & Adeana Young
Where to Watch: Amazon Prime Video
In a 19th-century summer, two large families gather for their annual fishing retreat on the far-removed island of Haida Gwaii. Adiitsʹii, a charming nobleman, causes the accidental death of his best friend Kwa's son and hastens into the wilderness. Adiitsʹii is tormented by what he has done and spirals into insanity, becoming Gaagiixiid, a supernatural being crazed by hunger. He unexpectedly survives the winter, and at next year's gathering, the families try to convert Gaagiixiid, back to Adiitsʹii, while Kwa also wrestles with a desire for revenge.
Did You Know? Edge of the Knife is the first feature film spoken only in the Haida language. Classified as an endangered language, fewer than 20 speakers spoke Haida at the time of the film’s production. Delores Churchill, a Haida weaver, helped translate the Edge of the Knife script into the two dialects of Haida for the filmmakers.
Words from a Bear (2019)
Director: Jeffrey Palmer
Featuring: N. Scott Momaday, Rilla Askew, Joy Harjo, Robert Redford, Jeff Bridges, Beau Bridges, James Earl Jones & Richard West
Words from a Bear examines the enigmatic life and mind of Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Navarro Scott Momaday. This profile delves into the psyche behind one of Native America's most celebrated authors of poetry and prose. Words from a Bear visually captures the essence of Momaday's writings, relating each written line to his unique Kiowa/American experience representing ancestry, place, and oral history.
Did You Know? In 1969, N. Scott Momaday became the first Native writer to receive a Pulitzer Prize. House Made of Dawn is considered the first major work of the Native American Renaissance.
The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (2019)
Directors & Screenwriters: Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers & Kathleen Hepburn
Starring: Violet Nelson & Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers
When Áila encounters a young Indigenous woman, barefoot and crying in the rain on the side of a busy Vancouver street, she soon discovers that this young woman, Rosie, has just escaped a violent assault at the hands of her boyfriend. Áila decides to bring Rosie home with her, and over the course of the evening, the two navigate the aftermath of this traumatic event. The film is an intimate portrayal of their experiences and the complexities of their backgrounds.
Did You Know? The title “The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open” comes from an essay by Cree poet Billy-Ray Belcourt.
Finding ‘Ohana (2021)
Director: Jude Weng
Screenwriter: Christina Strain
Starring: Kea Peahu, Alex Aiono, Lindsay Watson, Owen Vaccaro, Kelly Hu, Branscombe Richmond, Ke Huy Quan, Brad Kalilimoku, Chris Parnell, Marc Evan Jackson, Ricky Garcia, Ryan Higa, Mapuana Makia, X Mayo & Kyndra Sanchez
Where to Watch: Netflix
A summer in rural Oahu takes an exciting turn for two Native Hawaiian, Brooklyn-raised siblings, Pili and Ioane, when a journal pointing to a long-lost treasure sets them on an epic adventure with new friends and leads them to reconnect with their Hawaiian heritage.
Did You Know? All the interior cave shots for Finding 'Ohana were filmed in Thailand because, in Hawaiian culture, these caves are considered kapu (sacred ground).
Director: Dan Trachtenberg
Screenwriter: Patrick Aison
Starring: Amber Midthunder, Dakota Beavers, Dane DiLiegro, Michelle Thrush, Stormee Kipp, Julian Black Antelope & Bennett Taylor
Where to Watch: Hulu
Naru, a skilled warrior of the Comanche Nation, protects her tribe from a highly evolved alien predator that hunts humans for sport, fighting against the wilderness, dangerous colonizers, and this mysterious creature to keep her people safe.
Did You Know? The film was shot in English and later dubbed in Comanche, with the entire cast performing an alternate all-Comanche dub of the film. The film is the only feature film to have a full Comanche language dub. Both language versions, Comanche and English, are available on Hulu and Disney+.
Thanks for taking the time to browse through this great list of Native filmmakers and their works! I hope you've gained a deeper appreciation for the power of storytelling within their communities. However, it's important to remember that this list is just a starting point. There are so many more incredible stories waiting to be explored and loved.
Let's continue to show our support for Indigenous voices, not just in November but all year round. By doing so, we can honor their heritage and culture while recognizing the strength and creativity of these incredible storytellers.
National American Indian Heritage Month: