Avatar: 10 Compelling Films of Real-Life Indigenous
Condensed by Native Village
Little Big Man (1970)
Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway, this
darkly humorous and tragic film is about the
real life-struggles of the Cheyenne people.
Little Big Man was the first film to
flip all the old stereotypes of Cowboys and
Indians on their heads. Dustin Hoffman plays
a young white settler adopted by Cheyenne
elder Old Lodge Skins (Chief Dan George was
nominated for a best supporting actor
nomination for this role). Little Big Man
casts the Indians as victims the
arrogant U.S. cavalry under George Custer.
results is a film as politically charged as
A thriving indigenous community living in
their ancestral lands. A government
determined to use their natural resources.
These are the plot elements for
Waterbuster, a true story of the Mandan,
Hidatsa, and Arikara on the Fort Berthold
Reservation. Their lives were swept away in
1953 with the huge Garrison Dam project on
the Missouri River.
Waterbuster tells the emotional story of a
community that resisted the government and
lost and the wounds that still remain.
Thunderheart, tells about band of
Sioux Indians who, despite inner strife,
stand together at times of enormous
pressure. Val Kilmer plays an FBI agent who
investigates a series of crimes on a
reservation in South Dakota's Badlands. At
the same time, he must confront his own
The conflict between corrupt U.S. officials
and local Indian activists is taken from
real life. Director Michael Apted later made
Incident at Oglala. That film
tells of the real-life shootout between
Indian activists and FBI agents in 1975.
Leonard Peltier is
currently serving two life sentences for the
deaths of two FBI agents. Today, activists
around the world question Peltier's guilt
and use him as a rallying cry for injustice.
Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002)
Fence is the true story about one of the
ugliest chapters in Australian history.
Three young aboriginal girls are kidnapped
from their mothers and sent to a government
school for "re-education." The girls
promptly escape. On their epic 1,500 trek
home across the Australia outback, they must
battle the desert, an aboriginal tracker,
and the Chief Protector of Aborigine.
Rabbit Proof Fence tackles the uncomfortable
racial policies of the past which led to the
6. The Exiles (1961)
on a shoe-string budget with untrained
actors by inexperienced filmmakers, The
Exiles is about the everyday lives of
young urban Indians in Los Angeles. It
follows a group of young Native men and
women on a Friday night as they go bar
hopping, get into fights, and dream of
Exiles captures the very
essence of native struggle in the big city.
Despite positive reviews from critics, the
film was nearly lost. It was discovered
almost half a century later.
Twelve-year-old Paikea is the only living
heir to succeed the chief but her
grandfather refuses to teach her the
traditions reserved for a first born son.
Pai secretly learning the Maori ways, which
only serves to upset her grandfather when he
finds out. Whale Rider share the enduring
struggle between tradition and modern
This brilliantly acted film features many
first time Maori actors.
Smoke Signals (1998)
Based on The Lone Ranger and Tonto
Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie,
Smoke Signals broke new ground
in indigenous cinema. The struggle for
authentic native voices found its
strongest yet with native director Chris
Eyre. The film follows two young Native men
travelling from their Idaho reservation to
Arizona to settle legal affairs for one of
their fathers. The film addresses violence,
racism, poverty, identity, and the very real
struggles of indigenous communities. Smoke
Signals, however, maintains its humor and
heartwarming tale of friendship.
The Mission (1986)
Indigenous rights, world politics, and the
quest for souls violently clash in the epic
film The Mission. The story follows
Jesuit priest Father Gabriel who enlists a
former slaver to guide him to minister the
native Guarani community. Caught between the
politics of Portugal and Spain, the
missionaries are the only to defend the
indigenous community from the colonial
forces. In the end, the question becomes not
will they resist but how.
The Mission was nominated for a Best
Frozen River (2008)
Frozen River addresses the grim
realities of life on the "rez." To
save her house and feed her children, Ray
Eddy needs one more smuggling run across the
the frozen St. Lawrence River. Ray
joins forces with smuggler Lila Littlewolf,
Mohawk, to carry illegal immigrants from
Canada onto the U.S. side of a Mohawk
reservation. The films show how the two
women struggle to make ends meet in the face
of utter economic desperation.
River won the
Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2008.
Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993
)Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance
is a Canadian documentary about the Oka
Crisis, a 1990 land dispute between Oka,
Quebec and the Mohawk Kanehsatake Indian
community. They fought over the
expansion of a nine-hole golf course onto
traditional Mohawk land. Mohawks who
faced the bureaucrats and the army
were ready to sacrifice their lives for the
cause. Kanehsatake showcases the raw
emotions of this bitter struggle through
grainy videotape that pulls us into the
Few films have succeeded so brilliantly
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