11 Brilliant Native American Films to Watch This Thanksgiving
Forget the over-cooked turkey. What you need this holiday is a dose of creativity from some of the coolest indigenous filmmakers in North America.
In the United States, it’s that time of year where we reenact the original harvest dinner between the Pilgrims and the Indians of the ‘New World.’ Wait, which Indians are we talking about? Maybe you’ve forgotten that the tribe is the Wampanoag; they have not. (Anne Makepeace’s documentary We Still Live Here would be a good refresher on that topic.) Also, the world wasn’t new. Comprised of over 15 million people from 500 tribes with completely different cultures and distinct languages, the first Americans had already been living here quite successfully for thousands of years.
After centuries of systemic cultural obliteration, the newest generation of Native Americans bring with them a wholly complex identity. And today, more indigenous filmmakers are bringing their voices to film than ever before, interweaving diverse worldviews, languages, and traditions of storytelling.
To shine a spotlight on some of these freaking cool films, here's a short and in no way comprehensive sampling of talented filmmakers whose work you can stream right now, for pennies or less.
1. Steven Paul Judd (Kiowa-Choctaw)
Steven Paul Judd is part filmmaker, part graffiti artist, part entrepreneurial-pop-graphic-design satirist. Check out his instagram feed and you'll see renditions of Campbell's Instant Fry Bread Spray and the Indigenous Hulk. ("Indigenous Hulk gets mad when treaties are broken. Red Hulk smash," reads the caption.) In one of his recent films, Ronnie BoDean, actor Wes Studi takes on 1970s exploitation films as the ‘worst babysitter ever.’ Until it comes out on digital demand, peruse Judd's Vimeo page for an arsenal of clever shorts, like the perfect-for-Thanksgiving short comedy above.
2. Michelle Latimer (Métis/Algonquin)
Michelle Latimer's exquisitely directed VICELAND series titled RISE takes us to different indigenous communities across America for anything from the Dakota Access Pipeline, MMA, poisoned water, and hiphop. You can watch episodes for free directly through Vice here.
3. Neil Diamond (Cree)
A must-see for any filmmaker, Reel Injun is a seminal film essay by Neil Diamond, Catherine Bainbridge (Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World) and Jeremiah Hayes that looks at a long history of Hollywood's questionable depiction of Native Americans on film. You can watch this humorous, revelatory story through Amazon's Doc Club sign-up, or if you have Sundance Now, and go on a journey with Diamond as a filmmaker himself on the quest to make sense of it all.
4. Sterlin Harjo (Seminole/Creek)
Having directed three narrative features and one documentary so far, Sterlin Harjo has proven himself a veritable force in independent film over this decade. His latest film, a gritty thriller that follows a Native American parolee living on the streets of Tulsa, is still touring the festival circuit. But not to worry, you can stream his other work now on all the big digital platforms: Barking Water, Three Sheets to the Wind, or his documentary This May Be the Last Time. Have a marathon!
5. Jeff Barnaby (Mi'gmaq)
First-time filmmaker Jeff Barnaby's frighteningly stylized Rhymes for Young Ghouls is a 1970s heist-meets-revenge story of a teenage girl against a sadistic Indian agent who runs the local (mandatory) boarding school. It's an artistic, unflinching film that leaves you wondering what Barnaby will do next. And, you can stream this film for free if you have Netflix or Amazon Prime!
6. Sydney Freeland (Navajo)
Being both Navajo (or Diné) and a trans woman, Sydney Freeland brings a refreshingly original point-of-view to her work. While her first feature Drunktown's Finest was a critically acclaimed film about the three Native Americans trying to escape Reservation life, her latest work shows that Native American filmmakers aren't restricted to stories about the Native American experience. You can watch Freeland's latest film, about two African American girls solidifying their finances through theft, as a Netflix Original under the title Deidra & Laney Rob a Train.
7. Andrew Okpeaha MacLean (Iñupiaq)
After winning Best Short at Sundance for the above short film set in the Polar-bear country of Northern Alaska, filmmaker Andrew Okpeaha MacLean set out to make it into a feature. The result is a dramatic, cinematic thriller called On the Ice, which won Best Feature at Berlinale, landed MacLean on Filmmaker's 25 Faces of Independent Film, and can be streamed on all the big digital platforms.
8. Julianna Brannum (Comanche)
Having started out as a festival programmer, and earning her chops as a producer on PBS’s a 5-part series on Native American history, We Shall Remain, filmmaker Julianna Brannan has figured out how to tell a great, true story. That's exactly what she's down with LaDonna Harris: Indian 101, a compelling portrait of Comanche activist LaDonna Harris that can be streamed on PBS throughout November for free.
9. Blackhorse Lowe (Navajo)
Blackhorse Lowe's work often features striking black & white imagery cut with an equally ethereal, psychotic pacing that rightfully put him on Filmmaker's 25 New Faces of Independent Film over a decade ago. His most recent film, Chasing the Light, a hangover-inducing dark comedy about a depressed screenwriter, will hopefully be coming out in a year. In the meantime, watch the above film B. Dreams for free, or mine Lowe's Vimeo page for more cool stuff.
10. Ciara Lacy (Kanaka Maoli)
The work of Native Hawaiian filmmaker Ciara Lacy is focused on the intersection of investigative journalism and nuanced character portraits, like her feature documentary about Hawaiian inmates shipped to private prisons in Arizona, Out of State. Until that film finishes its festival run and comes out on digital, you can watch her contribution in the 11/8/16 omnibus, as well as her short documentary on Hawaii's homeless population, which can be streamed on The Guardian for free.
11. Billy Luther (Navajo/Hopi/Laguna Pueblo)
The first Native American filmmaker ever to receive funding from Creative Capital, Billy Luther creates complex, delicate portraits of reservation life. His first film, Miss Navajo, explores women's roles through a young girl's quest for the Miss Navajo Nation crown, while his second film Grab, chronicles the Laguna Pueblo rooftop-festival, narrated by Parker Posey; both can be streamed on Amazon Video.
Still hungry for more?
There are hundreds more exceptional artists. Here's a shortlist of other talented and/or emerging indigenous, North American filmmakers to keep your eye on, with links to their work:
- Cory Mann & Luke Griswold Turgis' Smokin' Fish (Streaming for free on PBS through November)
- Lynn Salt's A Good Day to Die
- Shane McSauby's Mino Bimaadiziwin: a love story about decolonization
- Adam Khalil and Zack Khalil’s Experimental INAATE/SE/ [it shines a certain way. to a certain place./it flies. falls./]
- Sky Hopinka's Visions of An Island
- Michelle Derosier's The Grandfather Drum
- Ramona Emerson's The Mayors of Shiprock
- Amanda Strong's Hipster Headdress
- Kyle Bell's Dig It If You Can
- Vision Make Media: Five Films Streaming Free in November on PBS
- Indian Country Media Network: 50 Must-See Modern Native Films and Performances
- PBS & Independent Lens: Celebrate Native American Heritage Month with 8 Documentaries
Have you seen some exceptional work from Native American or indigenous filmmakers that should be on our radar? Please share in the comments.