Native American Heritage Month: Smithsonian List of Movies

Cynthia Benitez took the time to make an amazing list for people interested in learning more about indigenous people. 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.

In an phone interview, she thought that while all of the films she listed are amazing, “the one film that always stands out is the 2001 Canadian film “Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner” which is the first Native-language feature film written, directed and acted by Inuit. This thriller is about a life-and-death struggle between natural and supernatural characters in Arctic Canada. It’s a film that is a beautiful universal story” about “good versus evil.” She believes it is the “best Canadian film of all-time.”

Her favorite documentary is also Canadian: “Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance.” The now 87-year-old Alanis Obomsawin  has directed over 50 films with the National Film Board of Canada, focusing on the lives and and tribulations of Canada’s First Nations. She was actually born in New Hampshire, but raised in Quebec, Canada. “Kanehsatake” is about the 1990 Oka Crisis in Quebec, a land dispute between a group of Mohawk and the town of Oka that lasted 78days and ended with two fatalities. Although I haven’t seen the documentary, part of the conflict concerns a golf course and that immediately brings to mind the PBS documentary, “Conscience Point.” 

One of the reasons Canada shines is that “Canada has a multitude of funding that they give to Native Americans,” Benitez said. In many countries, the indigenous population doesn’t have that kind of funding. “If they don’t get funding from something like PBS,” they might not get funding at all or resort of guerrilla-style shooting. That’s not always bad. “Latin America, they are the epitome of guerrilla filmmaking.” But also phones and laptops makes filmmaking easier. “I’ve worked in this industry for 15 years and seen the ebb and flow. It makes my heart so happy to see young Native American filmmakers, to see that kind of spark, that fire. It is very encouraging.”

I was happy to see one of the films that sparked my interest in Native American life on Benitez’s list: “Miss Navajo.” Since this list began as a way of commemorating Indigenous Peoples’ Day, “The Columbus Legacy” seems particularly pertinent as it explores the conflict between pride (Italian-Americans in Christopher Columbus) and anger at being “discovered.”  Another name that is currently in the news is Taika Waititi. His 2010 “Boy” looked at New Zealand, but this year his “Jojo Rabbit” takes on his Jewish heritage and World War II.

Benitez said, “Every year, I’m learning something new” and there are more stories that could be told in movies. She’s dying to hear the story of Jim Thorpe or to see a cinematic treatment of journalist David Grann’s 2017 book, “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI.” At least 20 Osage Native Americans were murdered after oil was found beneath their land in the early 1920s. She’d also love to see more films my Native women and “see what they want to tackle.”


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. 

Angry Inuk 

(Canada, 2016, 85 min.)

Director: Alethea Arnaquq-Baril (Inuk)

An Inuk filmmaker takes a close look at the central role of seal hunting in the lives of the Inuit, the importance of the revenue they earn from sales of seal skins, and the negative impact that international campaigns against the seal hunt have had on their lives



(USA, 2005, 80 min.)

Director: Heather Rae (Cherokee)

A chronicle of legendary Native American poet/activist John Trudell’s travels, spoken word performances and politics.


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.


Pi’õnhitsi, Mulheres Xavánte Sem Nome/Pi’õnhitsi, Unnamed Xavánte Women

(Brazil, 2010, 56 min.)

Directors:  Divino Tserewahú (Xavánte) and Tiago Campos Tôrres

After years of attempts to make a film about the Xavánte female initiation ritual, which now only survives only in Tserewahú’s own village, the filmmakers change course and offer a fascinating account in which young and old discuss the difficulties and resistance involved in carrying out the celebration.


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. 


Bastion Point: Day 507

(New Zealand, 1980, 26 min.)

Directors: Merata Mita (Maori), Leon Narbey, Gerd Pohlman

Documents the occupation of Bastion Point when the government proposed to subdivide Maori land in the center of Auckland. The film concentrates on the 507th day of occupation, when the protesters were forcibly removed.


Little Caughnawaga: To Brooklyn and Back

(Canada/USA, 2008, 57 min.)

Director: Reaghan Tarbell (Mohawk)

For over 50 years, the Kahnawake Mohawks of Quebec, Canada, occupied a 10-square-block hub in the North Gowanus section of Brooklyn, which became known as Little Caughnawaga. The filmmaker explores her roots and traces the connections of her family to the once legendary Mohawk community.




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. 



(New Zealand, 2010, 90 min.)

Director: Taika Waititi (Māori)

A New Zealand youth (James Rolleston) finds that his father (Taika Waititi) is a far cry from the heroic adventurer he’s imagined the man to be.


Sami Blood

(Sweden, 2016, 110 min.)

Director: Amanda Kernell (Sámi)

A reindeer-breeding Sámi girl who is exposed to the racism of the 1930’s at her boarding school, starts dreaming of another life. But to achieve it, she has to become someone else and break all ties with her family and culture.


Smoke Signals

(USA,1998, 89 min.)

Director: Chris Eyre (Cheyenne/Arapaho)


A story that connects the histories and destinies of Victor and Thomas, who grew up together along the Spokane River on the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation. The film follows Victor as he is called across the country to retrieve his father, but Thomas is the only one around who can help him get there.


Rhymes for Young Ghouls

(Canada, 2013, 86 min.)

Director: Jeff Barnaby (Mi’gMaq). 

Red Crow Mi’kmaq reservation, 1976: By government decree, every Indian child under the age of 16 must attend residential school. In the kingdom of the Crow, that means imprisonment at St. Dymphna’s. That means being at the mercy of “Popper”, the sadistic Indian agent who runs the school.


Samson and Delilah

(Australia, 2009, 101 min.)

Director: Warwick Thornton (Kaytetye)

A glue-sniffing boy and his girlfriend escape the government-controlled no-hope Aboriginal community they live in and go to the city, Alice Springs, looking for a better life.


SGAAWAAY K’UUNA (Edge of the Knife) 

(Canada, 2018, 100 min.) 

Directors: Gwaai Edenshaw (Haida) and Helen Haig-Brown (Tsilhqot’in) 

At a seasonal fishing camp in Haida Gwaii in the1800s, two families endure conflict between the nobleman, Adiits’ii, and his best friend, Kwa. After Adiits’ii causes the accidental death of Kwa’s son, he flees into the rainforest, descending into madness and transforming into Gaagiixid—“the Wildman.” 



(New Zealand, 2018, 90 min.) 

Directors: ‘Ofa-ki-Levuka Guttenbeil-Likiliki, Amberley Jo Aumua, Becs Arahanga, Dianna Fuemana, Marina Alofagia McCartney, Mīria George, Matasila Freshwater and Sharon Whippy with Nicole Whippy 


A portmanteau feature film by 9 female Pacific filmmakers and filmed on seven Pacific islands. It is about the journey of empowerment through culture over the lifetime of one woman, Vai. 


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