The depiction of Native Americans in cinema is a complicated, problematic — sometimes wince-worthily so — and dynamic subject.
Recent years have seen some exciting stories featuring quality characters come from what has been a longtime simplified, fetishized and misunderstood — when not outright ignored — culture. For every rousing success story, though, there is still a whole heap of cliche-ridden, ignorant drek.
So, November being National American Indian Heritage Month, and the simplified, sanitized, sacrosanct story of the first Thanksgiving being fresh as a just-baked pie in our collective conscience, it seems the perfect time to explore some of the better entries in the fascinating sub-genre of movies by or about American Indians.
Not every title on this list is a perfectly progressive affair by any means. Almost all of them carry their own cultural baggage, or are open to legit criticism from the wary watcher. But, I submit them as some of the best, and quality viewing options all, for those seeking to view life through a less familiar lens.
For more information about National American Indian Heritage Month, visit www.nativeamerican heritagemonth.gov.
1 “The Last of the Mohicans” (1992)
This flick made one of my previous lists — “The movie was better: Books I read so you don’t have to” — but it most definitely belongs here, too. I love everything about this movie, even the gruesome and violent moments, which so wonderfully rip away the strange veneer of simplistic glory we seem to coat historical warfare with. Cannons, swords, really big knives — these things are brutal tools of harm and this film does not flinch away from that.
Daniel Day-Lewis gets all the love. And, yeah, I get it. He’s a genius and a psychopathically dedicated character actor. I’m dutifully impressed.
However, watch Wes Studi’s awesome performance as the racist Huron mercenary Magua, a truly complex and nuanced character played to perfection. He steals every scene he’s in.
It’s an obvious choice to begin this list with, perhaps, but I would be criminally remiss to leave it off — just as you’d be if you haven’t seen it yet, and fail to do so now.
2 “Wolfen” (1981)
This one, too, I’ve recommended before, as part of my annual Halloween movie list. It’s one of my favorites. Based on the novel “The Wolfen” by Whitley Strieber, it follows the delightfully curmudgeonly Albert Finney, who plays a New York detective investigating a string of murders which seem to have been committed by a large, vicious animal — maybe, despite their scarcity, a wolf.
First, a high-profile magnate, his wife and bodyguard are slain, and then a homeless man or two end up offed in much the same manner. What’s the connection?
This is, for my money, the smartest, most inventive take on the werewolf legend ever. Finney’s cop, along with his buddy the coroner, and a sexy criminal psychologist, slowly begins to take seriously the tall tales of shape shifters and immortal God-like wolf beings, that still lurk and hunt in the underbelly of our modern metropolises, spun for him by former American Indian activist he arrested years ago.
3 “Reel Injun” (2009)
For those seeking something a little more reality-based, this 2009 Canadian documentary, directed by Cree filmmaker Neil Diamond, Catherine Bainbridge (any relation?) and Jeremiah Hayes, explores the portrayal of Native Americans in film.
Made up of excerpts from classic and contemporary portrayals of Native people in Hollywood movies and interviews with filmmakers, actors and film historians, the movie also goes with Diamond as he travels across the United States to visit iconic locations in motion picture and American Indian history.
Interview subjects include Sacheen Littlefeather (she of Academy Awards speech fame), Zacharias Kunuk, Clint “Make My Day” Eastwood, Adam Beach, Jim Jarmusch, Robbie Robertson, Russell Means, Wes Studi and scholars Angela Aleiss and Melinda Micco, as well as film critic Jesse Wente.
I loved this documentary. It explores the expected stereotypes — the “noble savage” and the “drunken Indian,” etc. — and examines the formerly rampant practice of using Italian Americans to portray Indians.
Definitely worth a watch.
4 “Smoke Signals” (1998)
This Canadian-American indie film was directed and co-produced by Chris Eyre, with a screenplay by the Northwest’s own Sherman Alexie (based on a short story in his iconic book, “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven”).
It won a slew of awards, including “Best Film” at the ’98 American Indian Film Festival and the Audience Award at Sundance. The film was also unique for being an all-Native American production, including all producers, the director, screenwriter, actors and technicians.
According to rottentomatoes.com (where the film boasts an 86 percent “fresh” rating): “The unavoidable synopsis — two young American Indians leave the reservation to resolve their problems and to find themselves — belies the poetry of this well-acted, well-directed and largehearted movie.”
I couldn’t agree more. Just see it.
5 “The White Buffalo” (1977)
It’s the other American Indian movie Bronson did.
The better known “Chato’s Land” (1972) is a great movie, in which Charles “if Clark Gable got left out in the sun too long” Bronson plays the Rambo-esque Apache tough guy Pardon Chato, who finds himself in a bar fight with a bigoted sheriff and kills the guy in self defense. The locals, led by an angry Civil War vet (Jack Palance), say nuts to that and round up a gang of toughs to track down Chato — who proves more than they bargained for in every way. It’s fantastic, and you should see it.
But, it’s not my pick for the Bronson flick to be on this list.
In “The White Buffalo,” Bronson plays an aging Wild Bill Hickok, who is haunted by dreams of a giant, demonic white buffalo. So much so, in fact, that he travels the West to find the beast and kill it. Along the way, he meets Crazy Horse (Will Sampson, best known for playing Chief Bromden in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”), who is also searching the plains for the giant white buffalo after it killed his daughter.
The two legendary figures team up to kill the monster — and it is as awesome as you think it’s going to be.
Against all logic, and despite the film’s budget, the raging buffalo is actually pretty scary. The producer reportedly had an animatronic, full-size bison that would slide around on tracks designed for the fight scenes, an expense that paid off big in the surprisingly effective climax.
6 “American Experience: We Shall Remain” (2009)
Not for a single sitting, obviously, but well worth the time it asks, this eight-hour documentary series, part of the PBS “American Experience” collection, explores the history of Native Americans spanning the 17th century to the 20th century.
Benjamin Bratt — he of “Law & Order” and “Miss Congeniality” fame — narrates.
The episodes are: “After the Mayflower,” “Tecumseh’s Vision,” “Trail of Tears,” “Geronimo” and “Wounded Knee.”
I can’t recommend this as heart-warming holiday viewing by any means, but it’s objective, impeccably researched and, in its own way, enthralling.
It should be required viewing in schools, especially at this time of year.
“Dances with Wolves” (1990) – Duh. It swept the Academy Awards, and deservedly so.
“Dead Man” (1995) – Gary Farmer steals the show, even from Jim Jarmusch’s creepy brilliance. Johnny Depp’s trademark quirkiness (which, for me, usually wears thin pretty fast) works well here.
“Wind River” (2017) – It got mixed reviews, but I really liked it. And I wasn’t alone. In “Why do white writers keep making films about Indian Country?” Native commentator Jason Asenap called it “a thinking-person’s thriller,” and described the film’s focus on the issue of missing Native American women as “admirable.”
“Mohawk” (2017) – Haven’t actually seen it yet, but I’ve read great things. Also, the main writer, Grady Hendrix, is a great novelist. So I’m very hopeful.