Native Village
Youth and Education news
October 2010 Volume 4

Forget Avatar: 10 Compelling Films of Real-Life Indigenous Struggles
Condensed by Native Village

10. Little Big Man (1970)

Starring 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.

 What results is a film as politically charged as any.


9 Waterbuster (2006)

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.

8. Thunderheart (1992)

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 native heritage.

The conflict between corrupt U.S. officials and local Indian activists is taken from real life. Director Michael Apted later made the documentary, Incident at Oglala. That film tells of the real-life shootout between Indian activists and FBI agents in 1975. Native activist 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. 

7. Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002)

 Rabbit-Proof 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 "Stolen Generations,"


6. The Exiles (1961)

Shot 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 bigger things.

 The 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.

5. Whale Rider

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 indigenous communities.

This brilliantly acted film features many first time Maori actors.


4. 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.

3. 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 Picture Oscar.

2. 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.

Frozen River won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2008.

1. 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 struggle.

Few films have succeeded so brilliantly

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