3 Best Native American Films Movies to Watch

Staff & contributors

To Hollywood's shame, it wasn’t until 1998 that a major feature made by Native American filmmakers was released. It was this charming indie gem that belatedly broke that new ground: based on author Sherman Alexie’s The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Smoke Signals retains the irreverent humor hinted at in its source material’s title while also being a genuinely heartfelt drama. Set across two cleverly interweaving timelines, it follows the fraught relationship between Victor and Thomas, two young men living on Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene Reservation who are forever linked by tragedy: as a baby, Thomas was saved from the house fire that killed his parents by Victor’s father Arnold (a great Gary Farmer), who soon spiraled into alcoholism and abandoned his young son. When Arnold dies suddenly, then, the duo embark on a perspective-changing road trip to collect his ashes.

Thomas’ nerdy earnestness and happy-go-lucky personality have always gotten on the nerves of the stoic Victor — who’s eaten up by resentment at his father for leaving — but the trip brings the disparate duo together. Though the movie honors their meaningful journey with a serious dramatic focus, it’s also shot through with sharp humor satirizing clichés about Native American people — a tonal complexity that makes it uncommonly accomplished, even without the added value of its all-too-rare perspective.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Adam Beach, Cody Lightning, Cynthia Geary, Elaine Miles, Evan Adams, Gary Farmer, Irene Bedard, John Trudell, Michael Greyeyes, Molly Cheek, Perrey Reeves, Robert Miano, Simon Baker, Tantoo Cardinal, Tom Skerritt

Director: Chris Eyre

Rating: PG-13

Frybread Face and Me is a little indie gem: though rough around the edges, it’s full of charm and heart. Drawn from its director's own childhood experiences, the movie charts a formative moment in the life of Benny, a city boy of Navajo, Hopi, and Laguna Pueblo heritage who’s carted off to his grandmother’s ranch on a Navajo reservation for a summer. It's suffused with all the specificity of real memories in a way that never distances us from it, only enfolding us closer into its nostalgic embrace. That effect largely comes from the tender bonds between Benny and his cousin Dawn (unsympathetically nicknamed Frybread Face and played by newcomer Charley Hogan), who acts as translator between him and their non-English-speaking grandmother (Sarah H. Natani, also a non-professional actor). Though he’s constantly berated by male family members for not being “masculine” enough, Benny finds unconditional acceptance from his grandmother and misfit camaraderie with Frybread, who also gives the film a dry comedic edge — a welcome touch in a usually saccharine genre. Ultimately, though, it’s the movie’s soft sweetness and intimate depths that are most distinctive: it’s so gently told, and with such genuine feeling behind it, that it’s impossible not to be swept away by its charms.

Genre: Comedy, Drama

Actor: Charley Hogan, Jeremiah Bitsui, Kahara Hodges, Keir Tallman, Leilani Taliaferro, Martin Sensmeier, MorningStar Angeline, Nasheen Sleuth, Sarah H. Natani

Director: Billy Luther

Rating: R

War Pony is not easy to get through. The film, helmed by first-time directors Riley Kough and Gina Gammell, is slow to move and tackles weighty subjects like poverty, child abuse, and cultural appropriation. You’d be forgiven for asking if it was all too much, especially as the film makes its 12-year-old lead (a stellar LaDainian Crazy Thunder, who plays Matho) perform appalling things children are usually protected from. But ultimately, it also feels necessary. Kough and Gammell co-wrote the script with real-life Rez residents Franklin Sioux Bob and Bill Reddy, whose personal experiences inform much of the film’s story. Additionally, indigenous actors inhabit most of the screen and turn in naturalistic performances, adding to the film’s sense of urgency. And War Pony also weaves traces of magic into its realistic tale, making it an awe-inspiring and beautiful (albeit heavy) watch. 

Genre: Drama

Actor: Anjeliq Aurora, Ashley Shelton, Jordan Robinson

Director: Gina Gammell, Riley Keough

Rating: R