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Native American Heritage Month: 7 Films to Illuminate Diverse Experiences

"Miss Navajo" director Billy Luther recommends films made by Native and Indigenous filmmakers.

Halpate
Courtesy of Adam Piron & Adam Khalil

For too long, the stories of Native and Indigenous people have been told by Hollywood through the eyes of everyone but us. It’s an exciting time in film and television, with more Natives writing, directing, and developing content. We’re challenging images and stereotypes and wiping the war paint off the lens.

These are the films, shorts, and documentaries that Native storytellers have shared with us in the past 20 years. A celebration of diverse voices within our community — as you’ll see, our tribes and experiences are all different from each other.

For Native American Heritage month, here is a selection of films, documentaries and shorts to seek out.

Four Sheets to the Wind”(2007) –  by Sterlin Harjo (Seminole/Muscogee)

This coming-of-age-film by Sterlin Harjo follows a young American Indian, Cufe, played by Cody Lightning, who leaves the reservation after his father dies. His father’s death prompts Cufe to seek life beyond the reservation and explore this life outside.

Sterlin Harjo’s feature debut will always be one of my favorites. He is an incredible storyteller and the performances of actors, especially Tamara Podemski who plays Cufe’s sister, Miri, resonates. I don’t remember enjoying a film so much about contemporary Native life since 1998’s “Smoke Signals.”

Watch “Four Sheets to the Wind” on Prime Video

“Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner” (2001) by Zacharias Kunuk (Inuit)

This film was historic in so many ways. It’s the first feature film to ever be written and acted in the Inuktitut language. It also features an almost entirely Intuit cast. This film is based on ancient myth. Set in the Canadian arctic, the epic drama tells a story of love, crime, murder and ultimately family and justice.

This film blew me away. And as a storyteller, Kunuk’s filmmaking and authenticity of capturing the Intuit people had a huge impact on the Native and Indigenous communities.

Watch “”Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner” on iTunes

Trudell”  (2005) – By Heather Rae

“Trudell” follows the extraordinary life of Native American poet and activist John Trudell. This documentary from Heather Rae traces Trudell’s impoverished childhood in Omaha to his leadership in the American Indian Movement (AIM).

Rae captures the tragedy that followed after Trudell burned the American flag at the FBI headquarters when his pregnant wife, children and mother-in-law were killed in an arson attack on the reservation.

Rae uses old Super 8 film, video footage and 16mm to paint this portrait of a man whose spirit never waned and a man who rose as an acclaimed musician and spoken word poet.

John Trudell is a fascinating and complex political artist. This is a revealing look into his life and story as an Indian in America. His story resonates especially today.

Watch “Trudell” on Prime Video

“Halpate” (2020) by co-directors Adam Piron (Kiowa/Mohawk) and Adam Khalil (Ojibway)

“Halpate” courtesy of co-directors Adam Piron & Adam Khalil

Filmmakers Adam Piron and Adam Khalil’s short is currently on the festival circuit.

Alligator wrestling is considered a staple of Florida tourism and the Seminole tribe has been practicing it for over a century. Piron and Khalil capture the hazards of the spectacle but also focus on how this “tourist attraction” is essential to the survival of the Seminole people.

The two Adams created something so visual and unique — the Seminole tribe’s relationship to alligators. People need to see the exciting work coming out of Native country, Piron and Khalil have a style and vision that makes this work so fresh and captivating. “Halpate” provides a unique insight and view into this spectacle from the side of the people who depend on it for survival.

“Shimasani”  (2009) by Blackhorse Lowe (Dine/Navajo)

“Shimasani” Smokey Nelson

Shot in gorgeous black and white, this elegiac period piece set in 1934 captures a moment of decision for two restless Navajo sisters living with their grandmother on the reservation. One must choose to either stay at home or leave to go to boarding school.

The majority of Americans have never heard of the boarding/residential schools many Native Americans and First Nations were forced into. Lowe crafts a moving and brilliant story by Blackhorse Lowe, who continues to explore reservation life in his own unique voice. His films are unapologetic, raw – check out his features too.

Watch “Shimasani” on Vimeo

“Sweetheart Dancers” (2019) – By Ben-Alex Dupris (Miniconjou Lakota)

“Sweetheart Dancers” is a story about Sean and Adrian, a Two-Spirit couple determined to rewrite the rules of Native American culture through their participation in the “Sweetheart Dance.” This celebratory contest is held at powwows across the country primarily for men and women couples. Sean and Adrian’s story is different — they are a gay couple living Native life on the powwow trail.

Dupris provides a fresh and engaging look – one that captures the vibrancy of this centuries-old tradition and how it continues today in modern America. Dupri’s access takes us into their world, it’s refreshing.

Watch “Sweetheart Dancers” on Vimeo

“Merata: How Mum Decolonized the Screen” (2018) By Heperi Mita (of Māori Ngāti Pikiao and Ngāi Te Rangi)

“Merata: How Mum Decolonized the Screen” New Zealand Herald

“Merata” resonates deeply because she is and was a mentor to so many Native and Indigenous filmmakers — Taika Waititi, Sterlin Harjo, Blackhorse Lowe, and Chelsea Winstanley.

The documentary is an intimate tribute from a son about his mother that delves into the life of the first woman from an Indigenous Nation to solely direct a film anywhere in the world. Known as the grandmother of Indigenous cinema, Merata’s independent political documentaries of the ‘70s and ‘80s highlighted injustices for Māori people, and often divided the country. Mita was fearless in her life, her activism and her art.

Chronicling the director’s journey to decolonize the film and television screens of New Zealand and the world, the film documents her work, her early struggles with her family and her drive for social justice that often proved personally dangerous.

Merata had a huge impact on my life when I was developing my first film “Miss Navajo.” (Streaming on WOW TV) and continues to inspire me in my writing and film work.

Billy Luther’s (Navajo, Hopi, and Laguna Pueblo Tribes) previous credits include the documentary “Miss Navajo” and the 2018 reality TV series “Alter-Native.” Luther’s narrative feature “Frybread Face and Me” was selected as part of the 2020 Sundance Institute/Film Independent Directors and Screenwriters Labs. Taika Waititi is on board to executive produce.