Indigenous Peoples’ Day and Native American Heritage Month Movie List 2019

What movies should you watch for Indigenous Peoples’ Day?  Inspired by last year’s PBS mini series, the four-part documentary “Native America,” I asked the experts, from the first Native American actor to receive an Academy Award to the first Native American to earn a Pulitzer Prize to a first-time feature filmmaker, local activists and the Smithsonian.


The Watts-born Queen Melé Le’iato Tuiasosopo Muhammad Ali is American Samoan on her mother’s side and African American on her father’s. As the founder of Nation19 magazine and director Manuia Samoa. One of her great concerns is dealing with the health of American Samoans, of home almost 50 percent are diabetic. Heart disease is also a big problem. She feels these health issues arise from a diet that is focused on processed foods and takes them away from the indigenous plants and vegetables the Samoans previously thrived on. “Our diets have basically been colonized,” she said. The foods are not only imported from America, but also China and Australia. Queen Muhammad Ali and Hakeem Khaaliq directed a short documentary, “Bars4Justice” (2015), about the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson.

“Even the Rain” or “También la lluvia” (2010): Directed by Icíar Bollaín Pérez-Mínguez

“The Orator” (2011): Written and directed by Tusi Tamasese (Samoan New Zealander)

“Sweet Country” (2017): Directed by Warwick Thorton (Kaytej, indigenous Australian)


Cynthia Benitez is a film curator and scholar specializing in Native and indigenous film. She is currently the Film Programmer for the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in New York City. Her list is so extensive, it deserved separate post, but here are the highlights:


Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance

(Canada, 1993, 119 min.)

Director: Alanis Obomsawin (Abenaki)

In July 1990, a historic confrontation between the Mohawks, the Quebec police, and the Canadian army in the villages of Kanehsatake and Oka, Quebec, propelled Native land-rights issues into the international spotlight. 

Warrior Women

(USA, 2018, 64 min.)

Directors: Christina D. King (Seminole Tribe of Oklahoma) and Elizabeth Castle

Warrior Women is the untold story of Madonna Thunder Hawk, one such AIM leader, who molded the children of activists—including her own daughter Marcy—into a group called the “We Will Remember” survival group.

Miss Navajo

(USA, 2007, 58 min.)

Director: Billy Luther (Navajo/Laguna/Hopi)

The role of women and tradition in Dine (Navajo) culture is explored through a young woman’s quest for the Miss Navajo Nation crown.

Columbus Day Legacy

(USA, 2011, 27 min.)

Director: Bennie Klain (Navajo)

Explores tensions and contradictions between Native and Italian‐American participants in the ongoing Columbus Day parade controversy in Denver, Colorado. 


Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner

(Canada,2001,161 min.)

Director: Zacharias Kunuk (Inuit)

Atanarjuat is the first Native-language feature film written, directed, and acted by the Inuit. An action thriller set in pre-contact Igloolik in what is now Arctic Canada, the film unfolds as a life-threatening struggle between powerful natural and supernatural characters.

Four Sheets to the Wind

(USA, 2007, 81 min.)

Director: Sterlin Harjo (Seminole/Creek)

Coming of age story of a young Seminole man who travels to Tulsa after the death of this father. 

N. SCOTT MOMADAY (B. 1934): Kiowa novelist and poet

When asked about his Pulitzer (in 1968 for the novel about a World War II veteran, “House Made of Dawn”), Momaday was surprised–he didn’t even know that he had been nominated and noted that the prize “brought me lots of junk mail” and “invitations to speak at numerous garden clubs and so on,” but it also “assured my publishing career.” That’s something considering he was in academia, a “publish or perish” world, and, on a more serious note added, “I was delighted, of course, that I’m credited with beginning the Native American Renaissance.” He acknowledges that the award “did enable more publications of Native American writers,” something he’s very proud of. Over the years, he’s feels more films “are dealing responsibly with Native American culture” as opposed to the “grade-B movies that were certainly not authentic” and only helped propagate stereotypes.

“Hostiles” (2017): Directed by Scott Cooper.

A Man Called Horse” (1970): Directed by Elliot Silverstein.

Honorable mention to “Dances with Wolves.”

Momaday liked “Hostiles” so much that if he had a choice of who would direct a realization of one of his novels, he’d choose Scott Cooper. He feels that his most cinematic novel would be “The Ancient Child” and there was an adaptation of his Pulitzer Prize-winning “House Made of Dawn,” but thought the acting could have been better.

As a writer, he’s recommend the books: the 1929 “Laughing Boy” (a book that earned Oliver La Farge a Pulitzer Prize and which was made into a 1934 movie) and the 1970 “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” by Dee Brown.


Mary Kathryn Nagle is the executive director of Yale Indigenous Performing Arts Program and a partner at Pipestem Law, a firm specializing in tribal sovereignty of Native nations and peoples. She is also a playwright. Nagle was introduced to me by Wes Studi who was doing a reading of her play, “Sovereignty” that weekend. Nagle is a Board Member of Vision Maker Media which helped provide funding for films like “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World.” Vision Maker has a Film Festival in April of next year in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Two of her plays that she feels would make a great movie would be “Sovereignty,” the story of a Cherokee lawyer who returns to Oklahoma to restore her Nation’s tribal jurisdiction, and “My Father’s Bones” which tells the true story about Olympic gold medalist Jim Thorpe’s children who cannot claim their father’s bones because they were sold by this third wife and are owned by a city in Pennsylvania.

“Powwow Highway”

“Smoke Signals”

“We Shall Remain” (2009): A five-part PBS documentary that was part of the American Experience series.

Nagle recommended films by Sterlin Harjo (Seminole-Muscogee).


Corinne Oestrich is a professional journalist with and an ambassador for the internet campaign #phenomenalwoman and #phenomenallyindigenous. She is a founder of the non-profit program that aims to reduce human trafficking and violence against women through empowering men to embrace heathy emotional behavior linked to indigenous values: “The Buffalo Project.”

Oestreich feels that “Native representation in Hollywood is a huge issue,” and besides the stereotyping (or even the thought that “we don’t look native enough” there’s the issue that not all Native Americans look alike. “Northwest tribes look totally different.” Because the Latino populations are often part Native American they can also pass. In terms of representation, Canada and the US differ. When I mentioned  the Canadian TV series, “Blackstone” which ran for five seasons (2009-2015), Oestreich noted “representation is everywhere in Canada.” In the US, she feels “first we have to explain that we’re still here” and “not only that we exist, but these problems are important.” In film and television, Canadian representations are “a half-step better.”

Three stories she wished would become a movie: Wounded Knee Incident of 1973, the Occupation of Alcatraz and one wild story about a Native American who served overseas, kept his hair long and wore moccasins to walk into an enemy encampment. Hollywood are you listening?

“Awake, a Dream from Standing Rock” (2017): Directed by Josh Fox, Myron Dewey, James Spione

“Smoke Signals” (1998): Directed by Chris Eyre (Cheyenne and Arapaho); Written by Sherman Alexie (Coeur d’Alene)

“Wind River” (2017): Written and Directed by Taylor Sheridan.

JEFFREY PALMER: Kiowa filmmaker

Jeffrey Palmer was at Sundance Film Festival with his nine-minute short, “Isabelle’s Garden,” when opportunity knocked. Shirley Sneve of Vision Maker Media saw his short and got together with American Masters’ producer, Michael Kantor. Although, Sneve and Kantor discussed other people, Palmer relates, “because I was Kiowa” and a “kindred spirit,” he got the gig to direct “Words from a Bear.”

Besides being from the same Native American culture as Momaday, Palmer had known Momaday since he was about seven. “He felt larger than life,” Palmer recalls. That’s understandable because of his size–six-foot-four, according to Palmer. It’s not only his size, thought. “He is a bear of a man,” in a way that James Ear Jones is. Besides their stature, their voices and the size of their hands, makes them impressive. Palmer recalls being “confounded” when he first met Momaday. “I had never met a Kiowa person wh sounded and looked like Scott.”

At the time Palmer was living in a “little dusty town.” It wasn’t until Palmer reached high school that he read Momaday’s work which “catapulted” Palmer into “being something I wanted to be.” He confessed, “I modeled things I wanted to be as an artist after him.” Momaday’s gift was he could “take our story to the general public” in a manner that they could relate and connect.

Later, in college was he was taking anthropology courses, Palmer saw “Imagining Indians” by Victor Masayesva Jr. As a general rule in anthropology, “being inside (the culture) makes you too subjective” but Masayesva’s film taught him that one could “be within that culture and say something important” and Palmer knew where he could take his anthropological work.

Although American Masters has a set format, Palmer spoke with Kantor because he wanted to push the boundaries of their storytelling format. Working on a feature length documentary and having to meet a certain standard was “one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done in my life,” he recalled. “I realized how much a village it takes to make a film” and the importance of having “those types of relationships” with the production crew.

One of the problems was finding a balance between Momaday’s poetry and his life story. While in a previous phone interview Momaday expressed satisfaction with the end result, Palmer wished he could have had more of a conversation between Momaday and Robert Redford and although James Earl Jones pops up, there wasn’t room to include a reading of Momaday’s work that featured Jones and Momaday. “The two of them have a special connection; it’s like a conversation between God and a Bear.” Palmer considers them “probably the two greatest orators, the two greatest voices” of our times. That reading will make it on to the DVD as one of the extras.

Palmer’s choices are:

“Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner” (2001): Directed by Zacharias Kunuk (Inuk). The first Canadian dramatic feature film produced entirely in Inuktitut.

“Barking Water” (2009): Written and Directed by Sterlin Harjo (Seminole-Muscogee).

“Boy” (2012): Written and Directed by Taika Waititi (Maori and Russian Jewish and Irish)

“Frozen River” (2008):  Written and Directed by Courtney Hunt

“Imagining Indians” (1992): Written and Directed by Victor Masayesva Jr.

“Powwow Highway” (1989): Directed by Jonathan Wakes

“Sami Blood” (2016): Written and Directed by Amanda Kernell (Sámi)

“Songs My Brothers Taught Me” (2015): Written and Directed by Chloé Zhou

“Smoke Signals” (1998): Directed by Chris Eyre (Cheyenne and Arapaho); Written by Sherman Alexie (Coeur d’Alene)

“Trudell” (2005): Directed by Heather Rae. John Trudell (1946-2015) was Santee Sioux (father) and Mexican-Native American (mother). He was the National Chairman of the American Indian Movement. His wife, mother-in-law and kids died in a suspicious fire in Nevada


In June of this year it was announced that the Academy Awards Board of Governors would present Wes Studi with an Honorary Oscar at the 11th Annual governors Awards on October 27, 2019. Born and raised in Oklahoma, Studi began acting with the American Indian Theater Company and his first film role was in the 1989 indie feature “Powwow Highway.” That role led to him being cast in the 1990 “Dances with Wolves.”

Studi didn’t learn English until he was five years old, having spoken Cherokee at home. He was sent away to an Indian children’s home where he stayed during the academic year and was bussed to public schools. When he returned home for the summer, he remembers having to relearn Cherokee.

When he was about eight, he remembers watching television and “the images of people portraying Native American didn’t seem true simply because of the facial characteristics of non-Indian people playing Indian characters. It seemed off kilter. It seem inauthentic.” He also remembers that Columbus Day “meant absolutely nothing to me.” The way that “we were being represented in the little plays on Columbus Day and Thanksgiving were so far removed from the reality of our lives,” but it was something that we accepted we “had to learn as children.” It’s only later, that he learned these were stories made up by “writers who had no real knowledge what history was all about.” In his early twenties, he began to see that these were “just fairytales that people had been spinning for the larger part of our lives”

Studi especially appreciates films where Native Americans are portrayed as ordinary people within the mainstream society such as “Heat.”

“Dances with Wolves” (1990): directed by Kevin Costner.

“Edge of America” (2003): Directed by Chris Eyre.

“Heat” (1995)

“Little Big Man” (1970): Directed by Arthur Penn. Especially for Chief Dan George (Tsleil-Waututh Nation).

“Older Than America” (2008): Directed by Georgina Lightning ( Samson Cree Nation)

“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” (1975):  Directed by Miloš Forma. For Will Sampson’s ( Muscogee Creek ) portrayal of Chief Bromden.

“The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976): Directed by Clint Eastwood. Again, for Chief Dan George.

“The Only Good Indian” (2009)

“Smoke Signals” (1998)

“Street Fighter” (1994)


Because Native American Heritage Month is in November, it’s hard to avoid the subject of Thanksgiving. Last year, Oestreich wrote an opinion piece that was published in the Huffington Post, “As a Native American, Here’s What I Want My Fellow Americans to Know About Thanksgiving.” In it she asks, “that you refrain from teaching the romanticized version of the holiday” and consider that “not every Native will have good feelings about this day.” When I asked Momaday about Thanksgiving, he said it was “an important holiday to me” and that he eats turkey and wants people to “strive to have good relations between Indians and non-Indians.” Palmer also celebrates Thanksgiving as “a good time for family to get together” but acknowledges that that some of the images could be harmful and that “things need to be changed in terms of the narrative.” Palmer explained, “I’m not saying we can’t have multiple narratives; indigenous voices have been kept out of the stories.”


Monday, November 4: “The Art of Home: A Wind River Story” 

Although neither Ken Williams (Arapaho/Seneca) nor Sarah Ortegon (Shoshone) currently live on the Wind River Reservation, both artists travel back to the reservation to reconnect with their ancestors and discover what it means to go home to a land of their ancestors.

Monday, November 11: “The Warrior Tradition” (9 p.m.)

Native Americans, men and women, tell about their service in the US military. They serve because: “This is our home; this has always been our home.”

Monday, November 18:  American Masters “N. Scott Momaday: Words from a Bear” (9 p.m. ET)

Momaday was the first Native American to win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his novel “House Made of Dawn.” In his feature-length documentary review, Jeffrey Palmer uses interviews, archival materials and animation to illustrate the life and powerful imagery of Momaday’s words.

Independent Lens “Conscience Point” (10:30 p.m.)

Members of the Shinnecock Indian Nation attempt to stop over development of their traditional lands which happen to be on Long Island around the so-called Hamptons where the wealthy, predominately white people reside.

Also airing and streaming in November (TBA): 

“Keep Talking” 

Can four women prevent the language loss by teaching the young their native language, Kodiak Alutiiq, now spoken by fewer than 40 fluent Native elders? This film won the Best Made in Alaska Film at the Anchorage International Film Festival.

“Mankiller” (2017)

Wilma Pearl Mankiller became the first woman elected as the principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. This film won the Jury Award (BZN Spirit Award) at the BZN International Film Festival in 2018. It also won Best Documentary Feature at the Maoriland Film Festival, the Rome International Film Festival and the Tulsa American Film Festival. It won the Audience Award at the Palm Springs International Film Festival.

“Medicine Woman” (2016)

Dr. Susan La Flesche Picotte (1865-1915) was the first Native American doctor in the United States and today Native American women healers from Omaha, Lakota and Navajo tribes have followed her footsteps.

“Navajo Math Circles” (2016)

Director George Paul Csicsery explores a project that incorporates Navajo culture and a student-centered approach in a collaboration with mathematicians to create educational opportunities for Navajo students. This 2016 documentary won the Nuwati Good Medicine Award at the Native American Film Festival of the Southeast.

“The People’s Protectors” (2018)

Four Native American Vietnam veterans–Valerie Barber, Art Owen, Sandy White Hawk, Vince Beyl, and civilian eyapaha (announcer) Jerry Dearly–recall their service during one of the most controversial wars in U.S. history in this 2018 documentary. Directed by Leya Hale, this documentary shows how service during that war fits in the Native American warrior legacy.

After the initial airdate (check local listings), the programs will generally be available to stream from the website.

PBS started the year with a January broadcast of “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World,” a worthwhile documentary that reveals Native American influence on rock music. While not streaming any more on the PBS website, you can stream it on Amazon, iTunes or Google Play. The mini series that premiered last year and inspired me to look further into Native American history is the four-part series, “Native America” which looks back 15,000 years to look at the social networks and science of America’s First Peoples. The series is also available for streaming on Amazon and iTunes




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