November is Native American Heritage Month in America, a.k.a. Indigenous Heritage Month. It’s inspiring to see Indigenous filmmakers using their unique perspectives, ingenuity, and experiences to bring fresh and distinct stories to the screen.
While you’ve probably heard of Chris Eyre’s classic Smoke Signals, there are many Native filmmakers, screenwriters, and creators in the industry making their voices heard. This list includes movies you should watch from Indigenous creators from the U.S. and Canada. Check out the below films to get familiar with some of their work.
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Synopsis: Three young Native Americans – an adopted Christian girl, a rebellious father-to-be, and a promiscuous transsexual – strive to escape the hardships of life on an Indian reservation.
Drunktown’s Finest is an indie drama from writer/director Sydney Freeland (Navajo). A 2014 Official Sundance Selection, the film is Freeland’s first feature. She began her career after recognizing that there is a need for authentic Native voices in Hollywood. Freeland has gone on to write and direct the crime comedy feature Deidra & Laney Rob a Train for Netflix, direct numerous episodes of television, and pen the pilot for the Native American family drama Sovereign from Ava DuVernay’s Array Filmworks.
Synopsis: The dead are coming back to life and almost all of Earth’s population are decimated due to a zombie virus, except for the isolated Mi’kmaq reserve of Red Crow, whose indigenous inhabitants are strangely immune to the zombie plague.
Blood Quantum is the second feature from Canadian writer/director Jeff Barnaby (Mi’gmaq). He cleverly uses genre to convey the experiences and history of Indigenous people. Speaking to Seventh Row about his zombie horror film, he says:
“I don’t think they [genre films] should be relegated to being just entertainment. What I’m trying to do is take high art sensibilities and apply them to those formats. I’m just happier making genre films. They’re better vehicles for dense ideas.”
Synopsis: Mekko, released from prison after a 19-year sentence, has nowhere to go and sleeps on the streets. When he is taken in by the native community, he becomes convinced that a man among their ranks is a witch.
You may know writer/director Sterlin Harjo (Seminole/Muscogee Creek) from his hit FX comedy series Reservation Dogs, co-created with Taika Waititi, but the filmmaker has been telling Native stories set in his home state of Oklahoma for years, both narrative and documentary. Mekko is his third narrative feature, a dramatic thriller that premiered at TIFF in 2015 and opened 2015’s ImagineNATIVE Film Festival. The film employed Native homeless extras that Harjo met at Iron Gate, a soup kitchen in Tulsa. Many of them have a story like Mekko’s and became supporting characters.
Watch Mekko, which gives voice to the Native homeless community, on Amazon.
Synopsis: A mother joins an underground band of vigilantes to try and rescue her daughter from a state-run institution.
Futuristic sci-fi thriller Night Raiders is the feature debut of Canadian filmmaker Danis Goulet (Cree/Metis). Her film premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival this year, and she won the 2021 TIFF Emerging Talent Award. Talking to La Ronge Now about her film, she says:
“It imagines the children are the property of the state. Even though it is set in a fictional future, it is very much dealing with all the real historical policies that were inflicted upon Indigenous Peoples throughout history and especially the residential school system.”
Synopsis: Decades after covering up his classmate’s murder, Michael has moved on from his reservation and fractured past. When a man who shares his violent secret seeks vengeance, Michael goes to great lengths to protect his new life from the demons of his past.
Writer/director Lyle Mitchell Corbine Jr. (Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians) made his feature debut with the dramatic crime thriller Wild Indian. The film premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Corbine shot the feature in just 17 days, but he spent years honing the script. Talking to Film School Rejects, he elaborated on working with different Sundance programs to develop his screenplay:
“I’d spent six years writing it. I developed it at length with my mentors through the Screenwriters Lab and the Director’s Lab. Then at the end of that, I went through the Screenwriter’s Lab again. So, I did that lab twice. I spent so much time, weeks, and months getting the minutia of each scene right. And then, walking into a location, hearing you have forty minutes to set this up and shoot it, this thing that’s been in my head for a couple of years – It was tough, but we got it done.”
Synopsis: A part-time Hawaiian teacher living out of a van hits a mysterious homeless man crossing the street. The pair become friends, but their illusion of safety is shattered when her van is towed and her desperation triggers her past trauma.
Although Waikiki can only be seen in festivals right now, this list would not be complete without mentioning the drama from filmmaker Chris Kahunahana (Kanaka Maoli), accredited as the first narrative feature film written and directed by a Native Hawaiian filmmaker. His feature debut has been dubbed “The Anti-‘White Lotus’” by The Daily Beast because it offers a look at paradise from the Native Hawaiian perspective. He told Filmmaker Magazine the unique story that Waikiki offers:
“The beauty of Hawaiʻi is well-known, however its pain and struggle is so unknown that for most it was surreal. Navigating my reality, Hawaiʻiʻs reality and the viewerʻs reality was an unanticipated challenge. Film was the correct medium to explore these issues because of film’s ability to bend space and time.”
If you can’t find a nearby festival screening, check out the trailer for a taste of this award-winning film:
Each one of the above Native creatives brings a singular perspective to their work, distinctly characterized by their Indigenous experience. They’re a fantastic example of how each of us as writers or directors has a voice like no other. They’re also a perfect example of why the authenticity of Indigenous voices is vital in Hollywood.
Support their work by renting, buying, and sharing their films with others. Allow their courageous creative journeys to motivate you to see how your unique voice is also needed as a storyteller.
Joanna Ke is an award-winning, half Taiwanese actor, writer, producer, and trained sword fighter. Her foundation as a creative producer and screenwriter is built on nearly a decade of experience as a professional script reader in development and acquisitions. She studied screenwriting with the late, great Syd Field, and as an actor, has had the honor of working with director Cameron Crowe. Her films have won BEST ACTION and BEST FANTASY awards, and her acting has won BEST PERFORMANCE and BEST VILLAIN accolades.
Wielding her broadsword is a favorite, both on and off camera.