Films on Indians

See also:  Films on Contemporary Indians

The way Native American Indians have been treated is a national disgrace. We fail to remember what our ancestors did to the American Indians. This was their country we are living in today, but because we were more powerful we took it from them with a war of genocide. We then moved the few survivors from one barren location to another in the name of greed. Sad how this country has used a double standard to condemn the rest of the world for the way they do things, yet have never been accountable for doing the same thing to Native Americans.


Ishi, The Last Yahi

Documentary 1992 NR 56 minutes. Ishi, the sole survivor of California’s Yahi Native American tribe before his death in 1916, is the subject of this documentary featuring interviews and historical footage that tell Ishi’s story of survival in the face of non-native encroachment. Narrated by Oscar Award-winning actress Linda Hunt, the enlightening presentation chronicles not only Ishi’s story, but also the fledgling science of anthropology as it existed in the early 20th century. See Full Review

The story of Ishi, The Last Yahi documentary is also told in the docudrama The Last of His Tribe.

The Last of His Tribe

Docudrama 1992 PG-13 91 minutes. Decades after his entire tribe was slaughtered, the sole survivor of the attack, Ishi, (Graham Greene) comes out of hiding having lived for years in isolation. Anthropologist Alfred Kroeber (Jon Voight) learns of Ishi’s story and makes it his subject of study. Impressed with the man’s courage and eager to learn the tribe’s history, Kroeber takes Ishi in and devotes his research to finding out the truth. I came across this gem looking for movies on Native Americans. I am not ashamed to admit that I had no idea who Ishi was. Not only did this movie enlighten me to this interesting historical fact, it was well acted and very well directed. Graham Greene, who I am convinced can play any Native American on the planet, is heartbreakingly splendid in his role as Ishi. This story spans the four years these men spent together and manages to touch on the important points.

The story of The Last of His Tribe docudrama is also told in the documentary Ishi, The Last Yahi.

Coming to Light:
Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indians

Documentary 2000 NR 1hr 23m. Coming to Light interweaves the story of Curtis’s life with the results of his work, and through it, we see the world he sought to preserve — one man’s incredible effort to capture insights about Native Americans before time washed away important details. The photos alone should bring tears to your eyes. The later days of Edward Curtis reveal a sad conclusion to a life well spent over 30 years in preserving the record of many American tribal groups that were so poorly treated by the United States government. This is just a beautiful heart-rending presentation. Present day Natives are incredibly lucky this man a had burning desire to record what he discovered was vanishing before America’s eyes. This is a wonderful documentary.

(See also the silent film Curtis made in 1914 titled In the Land of the Head Huntersfictionalizing the world of the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples of the Queen Charlotte Strait region of the Central Coast of British Columbia, Canada. It was re-edited in 1974 and released then as In the Land of the War Canoes.)

Legacy: Native American Photogravures

Documentary 2003 NR 60 minutes. Take an in-depth look at Native American culture through the perspective of Edward S. Curtis’s photogravures of images from native civilization that he made between 1890 and 1920. The music of Mary Youngblood, Joanne Shenandoah and Laurence Laughing provide a spiritual backdrop to the presentation of the images.

Frontier Visionary
George Catlin and the Plains Indians

Documentary from Smithsonian American Art Museum 26.4 minutes. Experience Catlin’s epic journey up the Missouri River, following parts of the Lewis and Clark trail, hear about his frontier adventures as told by Catlin himself, and learn about his incredible encounter of two cultures through the voices of Native Americans today. In the 1830s, Catlin was the first major artist to travel beyond the Mississippi and live with American Indians, eventually recording the “manners and customs” of 50 Plain tribes in his Indian Gallery. Catlin embodies many characteristics that we think of as quintessentially American — he was a visionary, an explorer and an entrepreneur who risked everything for his art. “If my life be spared, nothing shall stop me short of visiting every nation of Indians on the Continent of North America.” – George Catlin. The half-hour documentary, titled “Frontier Visionary: George Catlin and the Plains Indians,” presents Catlin’s remarkable life within the wider context of Westward expansion, and includes on-camera interviews with scholars and members of American Indian tribes that Catlin visited. This video, co-produced with Northern Light Productions in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts, is available for $24.95 from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s online shop at

Reel Injun

Documentary 2009 NR 85 minutes. This engrossing documentary reveals the film industry’s effect on the experiences of North American native people in the United States and Canada, who’ve been depicted in movies in a variety of ways — many of them wildly inaccurate.

Dances with Wolves

Drama 1990 PG-13 236 minutes. In Dances with Wolves, wounded Civil War soldier John Dunbar (Kevin Costner) is assigned to his dream post on the remote Western frontier, and soon makes unlikely friends with the local Sioux tribe.  This story doesn’t portray Indians as savages as so many movies do. Gone are the Bad Indians and Wholesome Soldiers stuff you see infesting most movies of this type. The message is a wide-eyed awakening for those of us who grew up thinking (wrongly in retrospect) that the Indians were the bad guys, and the soldiers were the good guys. See Full Review

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Docudrama 2007 NR 132 minutes. A dark chapter of U.S. history comes to light in this epic saga of the U.S. government’s deliberate extermination of the American Indians. Beginning after the Sioux victory at Little Big Horn, the film traces the stories of three men: a Sioux doctor (Adam Beach), a lobbying senator (Aidan Quinn) and the Lakota hero Sitting Bull (August Schellenberg). (Earned an Emmy Award for Best Made-for-Television Movie). See Full Review

Little Big Man

Drama 1970 PG-13 139 minutes. Dustin Hoffman stars as Jack Crabb, a 121-year-old man who recounts a long and colorful life in the Wild West, including being raised by Native Americans. His recollections form a Western epic that includes the infamous Battle of the Little Bighorn.

The Thick Dark Fog

Documentary 2011. This film shines a light on the traumatic Indian boarding school experience through the telling of personal stories. From 1879 until the 1970s, more than 100,000 American Indian children were forced to attend boarding schools. Children were forcibly removed or kidnapped from their homes and taken to the schools. Families risked imprisonment if they stood in the way or attempted to take their children back. Generations of children were subjected to dehumanization, cruelty and beatings, all intended to strip them of their Native identity and culture. The ultimate goal was to “civilize” the children. The film focuses on Walter Littlemoon, a Lakota who was forced to attend a federal government boarding school on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota in the 1950s. Littlemoon says his culture, language and spirituality were brutally suppressed. “The government school had tried to force me to forget the Lakota language and I wouldn’t do it,” he says in the film. “We had a deep sense of preservation for our culture, so we would go and hide in order to speak Lakota. If we got caught, they were allowed to beat us with whatever they could, but we took that chance. The Lakota language is something that comes from deep inside of you. It comes from how you look at things and how you see things.” The Thick Dark Fog profiles Walter’s healing process and attempt to reclaim his heritage. “It wasn’t until my sixtieth year that I began to realize that there was more to me. Something was missing. It was like I was a nonbeing,” he says. “I didn’t know the medical words of multigenerational trauma or the complex post-traumatic stress disorder, so I called the problem what I felt it to be: the thick dark fog.” Many of the country’s 100 Indian schools were still active up until 1970s. Will the US government ever come to terms with and acknowledge its dark brutal past?

We Shall Remain

Docudrama 2009 NR 3 discs / 5 episodes. With depth, breadth and richness, Native American history is told through indigenous eyes in this revolutionary docudrama. Exploring five pivotal periods, the series spans 300 years of Indian adversity, resilience and self-determination.

The Searchers

Docudrama 1956 NR 119 minutes.  After his entire family is viciously wiped out, hardened war veteran Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) embarks on a long journey to find his only surviving niece, Debbie (Natalie Wood), who has been captured by hostile Comanche Indians. Director John Ford’s richly scenic Western also stars Vera Miles, Hank Worden, Ward Bond and Jeffrey Hunter, as Edwards’s riding companion, Martin Pawley.  Loosely based on a true story.

500 Nations

Documentary 1995 NR 4 discs. Kevin Costner hosts this documentary that explores various American Indian nations and their fall to European conquerors. The program chronicles North and Central American tribal history from the pre-Columbian era to the end of the 19th century.

How the West Was Lost

Documentary 1993 three-volume set. This compelling documentary explains how the American West was irretrievably lost to the indigenous people of North America. Witness the tragic plight of the Navajo, Nez Perce, Apache, Cheyenne, and Lakota tribes through their eyes and their words. Poignant recollections from Indian descendants, astonishing video, rare historical documents, and archival photographs are included in this.

Links to View How the West was Lost Episodes Online Free:

How the West was Lost – Apache
How the West was Lost – Cheyenne
How the West was Lost – Dakota
How the West was Lost – Iroquois
How the West was Lost – Lakota (Sioux) 1
How the West was Lost – Lakota (Sioux) 2
How the West was Lost – Navajo
How the West was Lost – Nez Perce
How the West was Lost – Seminole

How the West Was Won

Drama 1962 G 164 minutes.  A film so epic, it demanded the talents of three directors, including the master of Westerns, John Ford. You’ll follow three generations of the adventurous Prescott family, who risk life and limb to carve out a new existence on the American frontier. The stellar cast includes Karl Malden, James Stewart, Debbie Reynolds, Gregory Peck and George Peppard.

The Last of the Mohicans

Drama 1992 R 122 minutes.  When rugged frontiersman Hawkeye (Daniel Day-Lewis) saves the Munro sisters — two newly arrived English settlers — from a Huron ambush, he ends up in the midst of the battle between the British and the French for control of the American colonies. Director Michael Mann’s first-rate production also stars Madeleine Stowe as the Munro sister who wins Hawkeye’s heart, and Wes Studi as the Huron warrior who has a score to settle with her father.

Black Robe

Drama 1991 R 101 minutes. In 1634, Jesuit missionary Father Laforgue (Lothaire Bluteau) arrives in the Canadian wilderness to convert the Huron and Algonquin Indians to Catholicism. Although the Algonquin chief (August Schellenberg) offers guidance and friendship, Laforgue doesn’t endear himself to the natives. On a journey up the St. Lawrence River, a devastating chain of events causes Laforgue to question his beliefs and forever changes the natives’ way of life.

I Will Fight No More Forever

Docudrama 1975 PG 106 minutes. Chief Joseph (Ned Romero) takes a stand against the U.S. government in this drama about the famous Nez Perce leader. Tensions mount when Gen. Howard (James Whitmore) orders the Indian chief to relocate his people to inadequate reservation lands. The defiant leader makes a dangerous attempt to lead his tribe 1,500 miles to Canada. Sam Elliott and John Kauffman also star in this made-for-television drama, which first aired in 1975. The movie is okay as far as 1970s television movies were concerned, but this is such an important moment in American history and it really deserves better treatment from a film maker.

A Man Called Horse

Drama 1970 R 114 minutes. In perhaps his greatest role, Richard Harris plays an English aristocrat named John Morgan, who is captured by Dakota Sioux in 1825 and eventually becomes their leader. But Morgan must first take the Sun Vow to prove his courage. Withstanding all tests of pain, Morgan will gain the hand of Running Deer (Corinna Tsopei), sister of Chief Yellow Hand (Manu Tupou).

The Return of a Man Called Horse

Drama Sequel 1976 PG 129 minutes. Lord John Morgan (Richard Harris) has returned to civilized life in England, but his disdain for the aristocracy inspires him to embrace the simplicity of the American West — and the Yellow Hands Sioux tribe he left behind. When Morgan reaches the tribe’s land, he discovers they’ve been decimated by ruthless, government-backed fur traders. Now, to help his friends survive, he must lead the fight to regain their land.

The Silent Enemy

Docudrama 1930 NR.  Directed by H.P. Carver, this meticulously authentic 1930s docudrama chronicles the plight of a hunger-stricken Native American tribe forced to embark on a perilous journey north to find the food they desperately need. Led by the courageous Chief Chetoga (Chief Yellow Robe), the Ojibwe tribe members battle merciless weather conditions, vicious wild animals and even one another as they trek through Canada’s expansive frozen tundra.

Nanook of the North

Documentary 1922 NR 79 minutes. In what’s considered the first documentary ever made, director Robert Flaherty’s landmark film grippingly chronicles the often-brutal relationship between humans and nature’s unforgiving elements. Over the course of a year, the movie’s subjects — Inuit Nanook and his family — must hunt, fish and build an igloo to survive in the pristine but inhospitable environs of Canada’s frigid Hudson Bay region.

In the Land of the War Canoes (1974)
(In the Land of the Head Hunters) (1914)

Docudrama 1914. In the Land of the Head Hunters is a silent film fictionalizing the world of the Kwakwaka’wakw peoples of the Queen Charlotte Strait region of the Central Coast of British Columbia, Canada, written and directed by Edward S. Curtis and acted entirely by Kwakwaka’wakw natives. It was selected in 1999 for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” It was the first feature-length film whose cast was composed entirely of Native North Americans; (the second, eight years later, was Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North). Although critically praised, the film was a commercial failure. In the Land of the Head Hunters has often been discussed as a flawed documentary film. The film combines many accurate representations of aspects of Kwakwaka’wakw culture, art, and technology from the era in which it was made with a melodramatic plot based on practices that either dated from long before the first contact of the Kwakwaka’wakw with people of European descent or were entirely fictional. Curtis appears never to have specifically presented the film as a documentary, but he also never specifically called it a work of fiction. Some aspects of the film do have documentary accuracy: the artwork, the ceremonial dances, the clothing, the architecture of the buildings, and the construction of the dugout, or a war canoe reflected Kwakwaka’wakw culture. Other aspects of the film were based on the Kwakwaka’wakw’s orally transmitted traditions or on aspects of other neighboring cultures. The film also accurately portrays Kwakwaka’wakw rituals that were, at the time, prohibited by Canada’s potlatch prohibition, enacted in 1884 and not rescinded until 1951. A single damaged, incomplete print of the film was salvaged from a dumpster and donated to Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History in 1947. Bill Holm and George Quimby re-edited this print in 1974, added a soundtrack by Kwakwaka’wakw musicians, and released the result as In the Land of the War Canoes. Independently, some other damaged clips from the film made their way to the UCLA Film and Television Archive. The score had been filed at the library of the Getty Research Institute, but without a title that tied it to the film. The 2008 restoration brought together these materials. Milestone Films has announced plans to release a restored “One-Hundredth Anniversary” DVD of the film with the original score in 2014.

(See also the documentary film about Curtis made in 2000 titled Coming to Light: Edward S. Curtis and the North American Indians)

The Fast Runner

Drama 2002 R 172 minutes.  In this Cannes Film Festival award winner that’s faithful to the native Inuit lifestyle in the ancient past, two Inuit brothers (Amaqjuaq, the Strong One, and Atanarjuat, the Fast Runner) struggle to save their nomadic tribe from evil. Atanarjuat romances the beautiful Atuat, much to the chagrin of the arrogant son of the tribe leader, Oki, who won’t stand for the humiliation. Oki stages an ambush in which Amaqjuaq is killed, but Atanarjuat miraculously escapes.

See also:

Films on Contemporary Indians


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