Sherman Alexie’s Favorite Films About Native Americans

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Sherman Alexie (Credit: Alton Christensen)

Sherman Alexie’s Native American heritage features prominently in his work, including Smoke Signals, the 1998 film he wrote based on his short story “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona.” We asked Alexie what films by or about Native Americans he would recommend to our viewers. His list spans four decades and includes fictional films and documentaries; some are classics, others are under-the-radar indies. Here are trailers and clips from each film.

1. Barking Water, written and directed by Sterlin Harjo, 2009

Frankie, a Native American man living in Oklahoma, has been diagnosed with cancer. Before he dies, he wants to make amends with his daughter and granddaughter who live on the other side of the state. Too weak to travel alone, Frankie convinces his ex-wife to accompany him on the journey that takes them through Oklahoma’s Native American communities. The trip reminds them why they fell for one another, and why they ultimately split. Barking Water premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

2. Frozen River, written and directed by Courtney Hunt, 2008

This film takes place near a little-known border crossing on the Mohawk reservation between New York State and Quebec. On the banks of the St. Lawrence River, the lure of fast money from smuggling presents a challenge to those who would otherwise be earning minimum wage. The film follows two single mothers — one white, one Mohawk — who give in to that temptation.

3. Clearcut, written by M.T. Kelly and Richard Forstyth, directed Ryszard Bugajski, 1991

In this surrealistic thriller, a lawyer representing a Canadian Native American tribe fails to block a logging company from clear cutting tribal land and a militant member of the tribe, named Arthur, kidnaps him, along with the manager of the logging mill. Once in the forest, Arthur begins to torture the logging manager, drawing parallels to how his clear cutters torture the environment, as the lawyer watches.

You can watch the whole film on YouTube. Warning: it gets bloody.

4. Little Big Man, written by Calder Willingham, directed by Arthur Penn, 1970

Starring Dustin Hoffman and Faye Dunaway, this film follows the fictional life of Jack Crabb, a white man raised by a Cheyenne chief during the 19th century. After adventuring around the American West and observing the atrocities committed by George Custer’s armies, Crabb ends up tricking the general into charging to his defeat at Little Bighorn.

5. Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, directed by Zacharias Kunuk, 2001

Based on Inuit legend, The Fast Runner tells the story of an evil spirit menacing a Native American community in the eastern Arctic, and a warrior’s battle to defeat it. The film is the first Inuktitut-language feature ever produced. It won the Caméra d’Or at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival and was named the Best Canadian Feature Film at the 2001 Toronto International Film Festival.

6. Miss Navajo, directed by Billy Luther, 2007

This documentary follows 21-year-old Crystal Frazier, an introverted contestant in the Miss Navajo competition. The title has been awarded every year for over five decades to a woman who can best showcase skills that are crucial to Navajo daily life including sheep butchering, fry-bread making and rug weaving, and who has substantial knowledge of Navajo history and the tribe’s disappearing traditions.

7. Indian Country: Native Americans in the 20th Century, directed by Chris Eyre, in production

Native American director Chris Eyre is working on a yet-to-be-released follow-up to the 1995 TV miniseries 500 Nations, which chronicled the history of America’s indigenous people up to the end of the 19th century. Eyre’s new four-part documentary, titled Indian Country: Native Americans in the 20th Century, will pick up where 500 Nations left off. The Katahdin Foundation, which is producing the documentary, writes, “The series will show how Native American populations have grown eight-fold since Wounded Knee, how they are in the process of reviving their cultural traditions, preserving their languages, prospering in new enterprises and even occasionally forcing the U.S. government to uphold its treaties.”

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  • jdwhitesf

    Great list – thx. I’d also like to know what films he hates, and why . . . .

  • Benji

    jdwhitesf – me too! Would be a great counter point. Excellent comment, are you listening Bill Moyers and staff? Fascinating topic for cinephiles.

  • Lori Moskwa

    I would very much like to see that list as well. Mine would include the 2nd National Treasure movie. I’m getting annoyed just from typing the title, lol.

  • Lori Moskwa

    I know it’s not a movie about Native Americans, but the ‘Mt. Rushmore treasure discovery’ makes me really angry.

  • Rene Handren

    What about the one that started it all: Powwow Highway.

  • Kent Elliott

    Alexie’s own Smoke Signals is still my favorite

  • Doc Mercer

    I am hungry like the wolf for more N.A. movies! It is a narrative that must be told to prick the consciences of the Wasichu whose heart is tender to injustice!

  • Filmanthropic

    Have you seen UnBowed – winner of Best Film & Best Actor at the American Indian FF? Produced by Filmanthropic it is the story of interracial love between a Lakota Warrior and a young Black woman – set in a traditional “Black College” in the late 1800′s.

  • Brian McGuire

    My favorite might be “Skins”. I think it’s a great movie and one that non-NAs should see. It gives some insight into the problems on reservations like Pine Ridge and the scourge of White Clay (which I was told was finally shut down this year, but who knows for how long). It’s very humorous at times, especially Graham Greene’s character, but very true in many ways. The movie always reminds me of the time that I stayed there.

  • Pam Bradford

    I wonder if either Sherman or Bill has had a chance to see “Warm Hearted Woman”? It’s a very touching TV movie by PBS.

  • Stephanie

    Any other list would have Mr. Alexie’s “Smoke Signals,” in the number one slot!

  • Turtle Heart

    Alexi only writes about American Indians at the fringes of tribal culture. He has never expressed a single word or thought about the language, religion, culture or tribal elders that struggle to preserve those things. His works are stories with very little context other than the dysfunctional personalities of the characters. In this way he has done nothing, ever, to promote understanding or insight into American Indian culture in any meaningful way. I have enjoyed his films, but they, all of them, could have taken place inside any culture. As an American Indian he has done essentially nothing to advance any understanding of any important American Indian issue. Why should anyone cares what films he likes? While he is a good writer, he actually knows nothing about American Indian culture, at all.

  • bayonneboy

    It might be true that he doesn’t advance or communicate the values of tribal culture, but as a white man, he has opened my eyes to what struggles Indians face and why, and therefore has opened my mind and heart on how to be more understanding of Indian issues and problems. As he says Alexi knows more about the white culture than the white culture knows about the Indian.

  • Tanitoy

    Sherman Alexi is very clever as he tells stories enmeshed within the all-too-prevalent dysfunctional family life on the rez, and that’s new and innovative. He both entertains and instructs.

    His choice of the film Little Big Man, a good fictional comedy mixes in truth, but confuses with it’s depiction of the Sand Creek Massacre placing Custer there when he wasn’t, and deleting the fact that over 200 Indian men, women and children were shot and their bodies mutilated. Those are hard facts to face, as well as the fact that the attack was led by a former Methodist minister.

  • Maybenice

    Thunderheart. Even though it focuses largely on the character development of a white man, at least it’s in the right direction. There are other criticisms but it does a pretty good job of showing life from the point of view of the oppressed at Pine Ridge.

  • Tenie Casto

    Wind Walker one of my favorites.

  • beppecolo

    I really liked The Education of Little Tree and The Business of Fancydancing but, really, when is someone going to make a movie from Reservation Blues, enit?

  • David B. Schock

    May I offer another for your consideration, one I just completed, “The Road To Andersonville; Michigan Native American Sharpshooters in the Civil War” (www.roadtoandersonville.com)?