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.
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.”