Movies

The Best Movies About Native Americans And How To Watch Them

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A wide array of people from various walks of life have made considerable contributions to cinema. Unfortunately, some tend to get overlooked compared to others. One could certainly argue that films centered around Indigenous culture can fall through the cracks. There are plenty of great motion pictures that spotlight the native experience and do so in incredibly nuanced ways, leading to some of the best western movies of all time, among other genres. 

On that note, we’re going to take some time to highlight and honor such productions. So, without further ado, let’s discuss the best movies about Native Americans. 

Gary Farmer in Powwow Highway

(Image credit: Warner Bros.)

Powwow Highway (1989)

Surely, you may be familiar with road trip comedies like Vacation and Tommy Boy, but you may not have heard of Powwow Highway. Jonathan Wacks’ movie sees a man go on a road trip with his childhood friend to help his sister, who’s been arrested as part of a plot initiated by land developers. This is a funny and sentimental story that emphasizes the importance of friendship and family. Those elements and the film’s warm depiction of Native American culture make this a refreshing piece of work. 

Stream Powwow Highway on The Criterion Channel.

Rodney A. Grant and Graham Green in Dances with Wolves

(Image credit: Orion Pictures)

Dances With Wolves (1990)

Dances with Wolves remains one of the most famous entries in Kevin Costner’s filmography. In the movie, the actor/director plays a Civil War soldier who forges a connection with Lakota Indians and eventually integrates into their society. This is the definition of a sweeping epic, and it’s hard not to become engulfed in the filmmaking that’s on display. It would be irresponsible not to mention the fact that Costner’s Oscar-winning movie falls into the age-old “white savior” trope. Yet the emphasis on Indigenous culture is strong, and there are great performances from native actors like Graham Greene and Tantoo Cardinal. 

Stream Dances with Wolves on PlutoTV. 

Stream Dances with Wolves on Tubi.

Actors in Black Robe

(Image credit: Alliance Films)

Black Robe (1991)

One notable entry from the ‘90s is Black Robe – a historical drama helmed by Tender Mercies director Bruce Beresford. It centers on a missionary, who – while seeking to establish a mission in 17th century New France – makes his way through the wilderness with the aid of Algonquins. Beresford succeeds in highlighting the subtle nuances of the Eastern Canada-based natives, and there are even portions of the film that are spoken in Algonquin, Mohawk and Cree dialogue. On the whole, this is a well-made and well-acted film.

Stream Black Robe on Tubi.

Stream Black Robe on Prime Video.

Russell Means and Daniel Day-Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans

(Image credit: 20th Century Fox)

The Last Of The Mohicans (1992)

When it comes to Michael Mann’s body of work, The Last of the Mohicans stands as one of his defining films outside of the crime genre. A somewhat loose adaptation of the 1826 novel of the same name, this epic tale sees three members of the Mohican tribe attempt to protect a British colonel and his two daughters. Action and romance abound in Mann’s ambitious flick, which features excellent performances from the great Russell Means and Wes Studi. And, of course, Daniel Day-Lewis gives one of his most memorable performances.

Rent/Buy The Last of the Mohicans on Prime Video.

Adam Beach and Evan Adam in Smoke Signals

(Image credit: Miramax )

Smoke Signals (1998)

I’m a sucker for a good coming-of-age dramedy and, if the same is true for you, then you should really check out Smoke Signals. It’s a road movie about two young men who take a cross-country trip to retrieve the ashes of the man who served as a father figure to both of them. In addition to the winning performances and keen direction from Chris Eyre, what makes this movie shine is the complex way in which it tackles themes of familial ties and cultural identity. In many ways, this feels like a precursor to the FX show Reservation Dogs (which similarly focuses on intergenerational relationships).

Rent/Buy Smoke Signals on YouTube.

Rent/Buy Smoke Signals on Prime Video.

Natar Ungalaaq in Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner

(Image credit: Odeon Films)

Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001)

You won’t find too many films that are as intense and raw as Zacharias Kunuk’s 2001 epic. Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner provides a detailed look at Inuit culture through the eyes of the eponymous character – who finds himself on the run after getting on the bad side of his tribe’s leader. Steeped in Inuit mythology, Kunuk’s feature is effectively shot and features some unforgettable performances. This is a production you’ll be thinking about long after you’ve screened it.

Stream Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner on Apple TV.

Eric Schweig in Skins

(Image credit: First Look Pictures)

Skins (2002)

In addition to Smoke Signals, Chris Eyre is also known for crafting Skins, though the 2002 drama film is a major departure from his earlier work. This is a gritty flick about a Lakota tribal officer who seeks to balance his responsibilities to his job and his commitments to caring for his alcoholic brother. The movie is a brutally honest look at reservation life while shedding light on how factors such as poverty and alcoholism impact the people who live on them. Eyre clearly wanted viewers to walk away pondering a few topics, and you’ll likely do just that after you see.

Stream Skins on Prime Video.

Stream Skins on The Roku Channel.

Native man in American Native

(Image credit: Indican Pictures)

American Native (2014)

American Native is probably one of the best documentaries about Native American history. At the center of this doc are the Ramapough Mountain Indians of New York and New Jersey, who seek to be recognized as a genuine tribe. What director Steven Oritt presents to his audience is a well crafted movie that chronicles a group of people seeking to hold on to their cultural identity in the face of various obstacles. It’s a bittersweet piece of work that’s definitely worth your time.

Rent/Buy American Native on YouTube.

Rent/Buy American Native on Prime Video.

Rod Rondeaux in Mekko

(Image credit: Indion Entertainment Group)

Mekko (2015)

Years before he co-created Reservation Dogs (which can be streamed with a Hulu subscription), Sterlin Harjo wrote and directed Mekko, and it’s somewhat different from the delightful and insightful TV series. In the film, the titular protagonist looks for purpose and wrestles with inner demons after serving a long prison sentence for killing his cousin. Though it differs from Rez Dogs on many levels, it’s similar in that it feels authentic and is grounded in character work. Rod Rondeaux’s excellent performance in the lead role alone is enough to warrant a watch.

Stream Mekko on Tubi.

Stream Mekko on The Roku Channel.

Songs My Brothers Taught Me still

(Image credit: Kino Lorber)

Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015)

Oscar-winning director Chloé Zhao may get a lot of mainstream recognition for having helmed Marvel Studios’ Eternals, but we can’t forget that she made her name in the world of indie filmmaking. Her feature film debut was Songs My Brothers Taught Me – a film that mostly focuses on the relationship between Lakota Sioux siblings. Zhao’s film is so skilfully written and directed, and what really makes it shine is her naturalistic approach to the work. That includes her tendency to cast people who have little to no formal acting experience in the lead roles. It’s a tragic story, to say the least, but one that’s also incredibly warm.

Rent/Buy Songs My Brothers Taught Me on Prime Video.

Rent/Buy Songs My Brothers Taught Me on Apple TV.

Buffy Sainte-Marie in Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World

(Image credit: Madman Films)

Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World (2017)

Music lovers are sure to enjoy what Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World has to offer. The film is a compelling look at the various Indigenous musicians from across North America who have left their marks on rock music. A number of famous rockers receive the spotlight here, including Robbie Robertson, Stevie Salas and Buffy Sainte-Marie. This award-winning doc from Catherine Bainbridge and Alfonso Maiorana is very informative and has a lot to offer viewers – even those who aren’t as well versed in this genre of music.

Stream Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World on Prime Video.

Rent/Buy Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World on YouTube.

Elizabeth Olsen and Graham Greene in Wind River

(Image credit: The Weinstein Company)

Wind River (2017)

Wind River is easily one of the greatest productions from Taylor Sheridan, the mastermind behind the massive TV franchise that is Yellowstone. It’s a chilling crime drama that follows an FBI agent and wildlife tracker as they seek to solve the murder of a teen girl from the titular Native American Reservation. Sheridan’s script and direction are perfect as are the performances of Elizabeth Olsen, Jeremy Renner, Graham Greene and the rest of the cast. To put it honestly, the story is emotionally raw and serves as a brutal reminder of the frequent neglect that Indigenous women face.

Stream Wind River on Prime Video.

Stream Wind River on Apple TV.

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers in The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open

(Image credit: levelFilm)

The Body Remembers When The World Broke Open (2019)

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Kathleen Hepburn’s The Body Remembers When the World Broke is a particularly personal and affecting film. It focuses on two Indigenous women whose paths intersect in an interesting way. While they both differ when it comes to their social statuses and life experiences, both must grapple with the effects of domestic violence. This is a thoughtful film that leaves one with a lot to ponder and, while it’s not always easy to watch, it’s definitely necessary viewing material.

Stream The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open on Apple TV.

Amber Midthunder as Naru in Prey

(Image credit: Hulu)

Prey (2022)

I’m not sure if audiences knew what they were getting with Dan Tractenberg’s Prey, but what they received is one of the best movies in the Predator franchise. A prequel to the first four films, it turns the focus to Naru, a young Comanche woman living in the Northern Great Plains in the 1700s. The lives of the aspiring hunter and her people are ultimately threatened due to the presence of one of the franchise’s infamous extraterrestrials. Trachtenberg’s direction is so sharp and, while he provides plenty of sci-fi action, he also doesn’t shy away from highlighting Indigenous culture. But the weight of the film really lies upon the shoulders of lead actress Amber Midthunder, who makes Naru an incredible character — and action hero. 

Stream Prey with a Hulu subscription.

Stream Prey with a Disney+ subscription.

Lily Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon

(Image credit: Apple)

Killers Of The Flower Moon (2023)

Martin Scorsese has crafted his fair share of historical dramas over the course of his illustrious career, and while it may be one of his more recent films, Killers of the Flower Moon is one of the most captivating among the bunch. The tragic film is based on David Grann’s 2017 non-fiction book and chronicles the Osage Nation murders of the early 1900s. The focal point of the film is the relationship between Molly and Ernest Burkhart, whose marriage is marked by love, abuse and betrayal. Scorsese dove head first into Osage culture for this feature, and it really shows. There are also stunning performances from the impeccable cast, including the masterful Lily Gladstone.

Stream Killers of the Flower Moon on Apple TV+.

There’s still a long way to go when it comes to representation for Indigenous people on the silver screen. However, as we look to the future, let’s not overlook the cinematic gems that have been mentioned here as well as other features that exist. Do yourself a favor and check them out, as they’re definitely worth your time.

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