5 of the Greatest Movies about Native Americans

Here at Name Dropping, our team prides itself on being a game of inclusivity and diversity. With that in mind, we’ve decided to forgo the typical (or better yet, “traditional”) list of movies you and your family should watch on Thanksgiving to offer something different yet still appropriate. For a too often ignored portion of our population and to one for whom too many stereotypes and misconceptions still abound, we decided to offer up our list of 5 movies that put a positive spin and shine a bright light on Native Americans, their culture and history.

Little Big Man (1970)

Little Big Man on Name Dropping

Little Big Man

Does director Arthur Penn beat you over the head with his anti-war message? Sure. Are there historical inaccuracies? Of course. Is this an important film regardless? Absolutely. What makes this movie so important is that it helped to change not only the narrative but also many people’s perceptions of Native Americans. Dustin Hoffman plays a white man who as a child is saved and raised by the Cheyenne Indians. But what’s most interesting about this film is its depiction of Native Americans. Chief Dan George as Old Lodge Skins brings an authenticity to the role that only a Native American actor could. When he refers to the Cheyennes as “the Human Beings,” there is such sincerity in his voice that it turns a simple statement into a powerful phrase. This movie not only showcased positive portrayals of Native Americans in general but of LGBTQ Native Americans as well, as seen with the character of Little Horse (played by Robert Little Star), whose very own nature was allowed to flourish without shame or fear of rejection within the tribe.

Smoke Signals (1998)

Smoke Signals on Name Dropping

Smoke Signals

This is a road trip movie about two friends, Thomas and Victor, and the man whom one considers a hero and the other one calls dad. Their race is front and center, although they have completely different perspectives on just what it means to be Native American. Regardless of what your own background is, many will be able to relate to Thomas’s fascination with and appreciation of his culture. Others will relate to Victor’s more nonchalant approach to his ethnicity. This is the first movie written, directed, produced and acted by Native Americans, and because of that, everything about it, form the characterization to the dialogue, is seamless. Unlike most films about Native Americans, this one doesn’t carry the weight of the past but rather a hope for the future. In the end, both main characters realize, as most of us do in time, that what we feel about ourselves, how we see the world around us and how and to what degree we identify culturally is shaped by the people who have had the most direct effect on us.

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001)

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner

“The Fast Runner,” as it’s more commonly known, is another film where the people who know it best worked both in front of and behind the camera. It is lore brought to life on the big screen as a narrative that feels as if it is a documentary. A cast and crew of Inuit peoples create a film about a 1,000-year-old tale that is told in their native tongue of Inukitut. It’s a love story with tragic consequences told through the cold landscape of tundra and ice. Atanarjuat is in love with Atuat, although she has been promised to Oki. There’s a challenge, two wives, a brother, a murder and Atanarjuat running naked through the Tundra. Perhaps it’s the sincerity of the performances despite the story having melodramatic elements, maybe it’s the fact that the movie was shot with a high definition camera, giving it a video quality or maybe it’s the language and the music, but for whatever reason, this narrative feels more like a documentary feature about the Inuit peoples of the Arctic Circle during what was a very tragic time in their history.

Reel Injun (2009)

Reel Injun on Name Dropping

Reel Injun

The actual documentary on our list is this work by filmmaker Neil Diamond (no relation to the singer) who, after being asked if his people lived in teepees and rode around on horses, realized that many people’s preconceptions about Native Americans come from the films they watched growing up. Hoping to set the record straight by exploring the stereotypes often portrayed in Hollywood movies, he travels to various iconic locations that are both part of Native American and Hollywood history. On his travels, he stops to interview industry professionals that run the gamut from actors and filmmakers to film historians and activists. One of the things we learn in this documentary is the practice of using Italian-American or American Jews to portray American Indians, with mention of Iron Eyes Cody, an Italian-American actor who made a career of playing Native Americans on the big screen. This is a road movie infused with humor, as seen by the use of a “rez car” (a vehicle often used on Indian reservations), and it’s the humor that sells it, because if you can get them laughing, you can get them thinking.

Winter in the Blood (2013)

Winter in the Blood on Name Dropping

Winter in the Blood

Virgil is on a journey to find the woman who got away (or in this case, the woman who left him and took his electric razor and favorite rifle). This is a beautifully shot film that captures the enormity of Montana’s plains, which serve as a perfect backdrop to Virgil’s visions and to his memories of childhood. We’re not sure what is and isn’t real, and that’s because Virgil isn’t sure either. Case in point: the character of Airplane Man (played by David Morse). Through the experiences of its protagonist, the film reflects in an unwavering way the troubles faced by Native American communities (a topic not often tackled in such an open and honest way as it is in this movie), and Chaske Spencer as Virgil First Raise gives a wonderfully subdued and nuanced performance that despite his enormous flaws makes you want to still root for Virgil. Although Native American characters in film are often relegated to one-dimensional caricatures, “Winter in the Blood” gives us a three-dimensional protagonist struggling with the universal feelings of guilt and regret.

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