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Growing up, I remember being captivated by the vast landscapes and intricate tales of the American West.

The stories of Native Americans, with their rich traditions, struggles, and triumphs, always held a special place in my heart.

Over the years, I’ve sought out films that delve into these narratives, hoping to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of indigenous cultures, and let me tell you – it’s been a journey of discovery, emotion, and enlightenment.

In this article, I’ve compiled a list of 20 best Native American movies that have touched me profoundly. I hope they resonate with you as much as they did with me.

20. The New World (2005)

Directed by Terrence Malick, “The New World” is a visually stunning portrayal of the Jamestown settlement and the story of Pocahontas.

Set in the early 1600s, the film captures the first contact between the Native Powhatan tribe and English settlers.

The story revolves around the legendary Pocahontas and her relationships with settlers John Smith and John Rolfe.

The movie beautifully juxtaposes the untouched American wilderness with the encroaching European civilization.

Cultural Significance of The Movie

Starring Q’orianka Kilcher as Pocahontas, Colin Farrell as John Smith, and Christian Bale as John Rolfe, the film boasts of stellar performances.

While it takes creative liberties, “The New World” offers a unique perspective on the cultural exchange and conflict between Native Americans and settlers.

It’s a poetic reflection on love, loss, and transformation.

19. Smoke Signals (1998)

“Smoke Signals” is a groundbreaking film, being the first feature film written, directed, and co-produced by Native Americans.

This one is my sister’s favorite which is why I’ve watched it more than once.

The story follows two young Native American men, Victor and Thomas, from the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation in Idaho, as they embark on a journey to retrieve the ashes of Victor’s father.

Along the way, they confront their past and the complex relationship between fathers and sons. With Adam Beach as Victor and Evan Adams as Thomas, the film explores the modern Native American experience.

This is not just a tale of a road trip but a profound exploration of identity, forgiveness, and the power of storytelling.

Its humor, authenticity, and emotional depth make it a must-watch.

18. Wind River (2017)

This movie was directed by Taylor Sheridan and it is a gripping crime thriller set on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

In the icy terrains of Wyoming, a rookie FBI agent teams up with a local tracker to solve the murder of a young Native American woman.

The investigation unravels a web of mystery, leading them deep into the heart of the reservation and its haunting past.

Sounds interesting, right? Jeremy Renner plays the role of the tracker, while Elizabeth Olsen portrays the FBI agent.

The film sheds light on the often-overlooked issue of missing and murdered indigenous women.

“Wind River” is a chilling reminder of the challenges faced by Native American communities and the resilience they showcase in the face of adversity.

17. Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001)

This Inuit-produced film is an epic tale based on an ancient Inuit story passed down through centuries of oral tradition.

Set in the Arctic wilderness, it revolves around Atanarjuat, a young Inuit hunter who becomes embroiled in a bitter feud with a rival clan leader.

The film is particularly notable for its breathtaking sequences of Atanarjuat’s naked run across the icy tundra, a testament to human endurance and willpower.

Natar Ungalaaq takes the lead role, delivering a powerful performance that captures the essence of the Inuit spirit.

The film is a great representation of the ancient customs, traditions, and beliefs of the Inuit people.

It stands out not just for its storytelling but also for its authentic representation of a culture that’s rarely depicted in mainstream cinema.

16. Dances with Wolves (1990)

“Dances with Wolves” is a cinematic masterpiece that offers a fresh perspective on the American frontier and its indigenous inhabitants.

The film follows Lieutenant John Dunbar, who, after being assigned to a remote western Civil War outpost, befriends wolves and Native Americans, making him an intolerable aberration in the military.

As he becomes closer to the Lakota tribe, he becomes embroiled in the tensions between Native Americans and the US Army.

While Costner’s portrayal of Dunbar is commendable, it’s the performances of Native American actors like Graham Greene and Rodney A. Grant that truly shine.

The film was lauded for its efforts to authentically represent Native American culture and for its critique of Euro-American expansion.

It played a pivotal role in reshaping Hollywood’s portrayal of these communities.

15. Black Robe (1991)

Set in the 1630s, the film follows Father Laforgue, a young Jesuit priest, as he journeys through the wilderness of New France to convert the Huron tribe.

Along the way, he grapples with his faith, the harsh realities of colonialism, and the profound cultural differences between the Europeans and Native Americans.

Lothaire Bluteau’s portrayal of Father Laforgue is both intense and introspective. The film doesn’t shy away from showcasing the cultural clashes and the often tragic consequences of colonialism.

“Black Robe” serves as a poignant reminder of the sacrifices, misunderstandings, and resilience of the indigenous tribes during the colonial era.

This historical drama explores the complex relationship between Jesuit missionaries and the indigenous tribes of North America.

14. The Last of the Mohicans (1992)

This adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s classic novel is a riveting tale of love, war, and survival during the French and Indian War.

It’s such an intense movie, I was feeling all kinds of emotions while I was watching it. The story takes place in 1757.

Amidst the rugged terrains of colonial America, it follows Hawkeye, a white man adopted by the last members of the Mohican tribe.

As the British and French battle for control, Hawkeye finds himself protecting the daughters of a British colonel while navigating a passionate romance with one of them.

Daniel Day-Lewis’s portrayal of Hawkeye is both charismatic and intense. The film also features stellar performances from Native American actors like Russell Means and Eric Schweig.

“The Last of the Mohicans” is celebrated for its breathtaking cinematography, gripping action sequences, and nuanced portrayal of Native American culture and the complexities of colonial warfare.

13. “Powwow Highway” (1989)

“Powwow Highway” is a heartwarming road movie that captures the essence of modern Native American life which is why you must see it!

The film follows two Cheyenne men, Philbert and Buddy, as they embark on a road trip across the American West.

Their journey, filled with humor and introspection, becomes a quest for personal discovery, redemption, and the reclamation of their indigenous identity.

Gary Farmer and A Martinez deliver memorable performances, bringing depth and authenticity to their characters.

The movie stands out for its humor, its genuine portrayal of Native American experiences, and its underlying message about the importance of cultural preservation and self-discovery.

12. Frozen River (2008)

This gripping drama explores the struggles of two women living on the US-Canada border.

Set in upstate New York, near the Mohawk reservation, the story revolves around Ray and Lila, who form an unlikely partnership to smuggle immigrants across the frozen St. Lawrence River.

As they navigate the dangers of their illegal enterprise, they also grapple with their personal demons and the harsh realities of poverty.

Melissa Leo and Misty Upham deliver powerful performances, capturing the desperation and resilience of their characters.

“Frozen River” is a poignant exploration of motherhood, survival, and the lengths people go to secure a better future.

The film also sheds light on the challenges faced by indigenous communities living on the fringes of society.

11. Skins (2002)

The story is about Rudy, a police officer, and his elder brother Mogie, a war veteran turned alcoholic, who live on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

As Rudy grapples with the rampant crime and poverty on the reservation, he also confronts his tumultuous relationship with Mogie and the haunting memories of their past.

Eric Schweig and Graham Greene deliver compelling performances, capturing the complexities of their characters.

It is a raw and unfiltered portrayal of life on a reservation, highlighting the challenges of poverty, alcoholism, and the lingering effects of historical trauma.

10. Thunderheart (1992)

“Thunderheart” is a thrilling mystery set on a Native American reservation.

Inspired by real events from the 1970s, the film follows Ray Levoi, an FBI agent with Sioux heritage, as he investigates a murder on the Oglala Lakota reservation.

As he delves deeper into the case, Ray confronts his own identity and the political tensions simmering on the reservation.

Val Kilmer plays the role of Ray, while Graham Greene and Sam Shepard deliver standout performances.

“Thunderheart” is more than just a mystery; it’s an exploration of identity, heritage, and the ongoing struggle for Native American rights.

The film offers a nuanced perspective on the political and social issues faced by indigenous communities.

9. A Man Called Horse (1970)

This film is a unique blend of Western and ethnographic drama, offering a fresh perspective on the Sioux culture.

The story takes place in the early 19th century. The narrative follows an English aristocrat, John Morgan, who is captured by the Sioux tribe.

Initially treated as a slave, Morgan gradually earns the respect of the tribe and undergoes a profound transformation, eventually becoming a revered warrior.

His journey is so inspiring! Richard Harris delivers a captivating performance as John Morgan.

The film is notable for its detailed depiction of Sioux customs, rituals, and way of life.

It challenged Hollywood’s stereotypical portrayal of Native Americans, showcasing them as a complex, proud, and deeply spiritual people.

8. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (2007)

Directed by Yves Simoneau, this HBO film adaptation of Dee Brown’s classic book offers a harrowing look at the events leading up to the Wounded Knee Massacre.

Spanning the late 19th century, the narrative chronicles the systematic dispossession of the Sioux tribe from their ancestral lands, culminating in the tragic events of the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890.

The film intertwines the stories of key historical figures, including Sioux leader Sitting Bull and Senator Henry Dawes. With a cast including Adam Beach, Aidan Quinn, and August Schellenberg, the film brings depth and nuance to its characters.

“Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” serves as a powerful reminder of the injustices faced by these communities and the devastating consequences of colonial expansion.

It’s a poignant reflection on loss, resistance, and the quest for justice.

7. The Missing (2003)

“The Missing” is a gripping Western thriller that delves into the complexities of family, culture, and survival.

Set in New Mexico in 1885, the story follows Maggie Gilkeson, a frontier woman, as she teams up with her estranged father to rescue her kidnapped daughter from an Apache brujo (witch).

Their perilous journey forces them to confront their past and the cultural tensions of the era. Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones lead the cast with powerful performances.

The film is known for its portrayal of Native American spirituality and the clash between indigenous beliefs and Western skepticism. It offers a nuanced perspective on the cultural mosaic of the American West and the enduring bonds of family.

6. Little Big Man (1970)

Directed by Arthur Penn, “Little Big Man” is a satirical epic that offers a revisionist take on the American West and its history.

The film chronicles the life of Jack Crabb, a 121-year-old man who claims to be the only white survivor of the Battle of Little Bighorn.

Through a series of flashbacks, Jack recounts his life as an adopted member of the Cheyenne tribe, his encounters with historical figures, and his perspective on key events of the Old West.

Dustin Hoffman delivers a memorable performance as Jack Crabb. The film is celebrated for its humor, its critique of American imperialism, and its sympathetic portrayal of Native American culture.

It challenges traditional Western narratives, offering a fresh and often irreverent take on history.

5. The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)

This is a classic Western that explores the themes of vengeance, redemption, and cross-cultural understanding.

The film is set during and after the Civil War, and it follows Josey Wales, a Missouri farmer who becomes an outlaw after his family is brutally murdered by Union militants.

As he seeks revenge, Wales encounters a diverse group of individuals, including an elderly Cherokee named Lone Watie, and forms an unlikely community.

Eastwood’s portrayal of Wales is both gritty and nuanced, while Chief Dan George’s performance as Lone Watie is both humorous and profound.

The Outlaw Josey Wales presents the post-war trauma, the complexities of frontier life, and the evolving relationships between Native Americans and settlers.

4. Geronimo: An American Legend (1993)

Directed by Walter Hill, this film offers a historical account of the legendary Apache leader, Geronimo, and his resistance against U.S. expansion.

The narrative chronicles the final days of the Apache resistance, as Geronimo and his band of warriors elude capture by the U.S. Army.

The film delves into the strategies, negotiations, and skirmishes that marked this tumultuous period. Wes Studi delivers a commanding performance as Geronimo, capturing the leader’s dignity, determination, and complexity.

The film provides a balanced portrayal of both the Native American perspective and the challenges faced by the U.S. military.

3. Dreamkeeper (2003)

“Dreamkeeper” is a magical journey through Native American legends, as told by a Lakota elder to his grandson.

It is one of my favorite films on the list! Spanning various landscapes and eras, the film weaves together a tapestry of indigenous tales, from the creation myths of the Cheyenne to the heroic exploits of the Kiowa.

As the elder recounts these stories, his grandson begins to understand the significance of his heritage and the power of storytelling.

August Schellenberg and Eddie Spears shine in their roles as the storyteller and his grandson, respectively.

This movie is a celebration of Native American oral traditions, emphasizing the importance of preserving cultural narratives for future generations. It’s a mesmerizing blend of folklore, history, and spirituality.

2. War Party (1988)

Directed by Franc Roddam, “War Party” is a poignant drama that juxtaposes modern racial tensions with historical conflicts between Native Americans and settlers.

Set in a contemporary Montana town, the story unfolds as a reenactment of a historical battle between Native Americans and cavalrymen takes a tragic turn, leading to a violent confrontation.

The film portrays the aftermath of this incident, exploring themes of guilt, revenge, and the lingering wounds of the past.

Billy Wirth and Kevin Dillon deliver compelling performances, capturing the complexities of their characters and the weight of history that bears down on them.

“War Party” is a stark reminder of the unresolved tensions and injustices faced by these communities. It’s a powerful exploration of the cyclical nature of violence and the need for reconciliation.

1. Dance Me Outside (1994)

It is a captivating coming-of-age tale set against the backdrop of a First Nations reserve in Canada.

The narrative follows Silas Crow, a young Native man, as he navigates the challenges of life on the reserve, dreams of attending mechanic school, and grapples with the murder of a friend.

Infused with humor, romance, and drama, the film offers a nuanced portrayal of contemporary indigenous life. Ryan Black shines as Silas, bringing depth and authenticity to his role.

The film is celebrated for its genuine depiction of First Nations culture, its vibrant characters, and its exploration of identity, love, and community.

“Dance Me Outside” stands out for its ability to tackle serious issues with warmth and wit, making it a deserving top pick in our countdown. It truly deserves the first place!


Are there any Native American directors or producers who have made significant contributions to this genre?

Yes, there are several directors and producers who have made significant contributions. Notable names include Chris Eyre, who directed “Smoke Signals” and “Skins,” and Zacharias Kunuk, the director of “Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner.”

Their works provide authentic representations and narratives from indigenous perspectives.

How do these movies differ from typical Hollywood portrayals of these communities?

While typical Hollywood portrayals have often leaned towards stereotypes or one-dimensional characters, the movies on this list aim for authenticity, depth, and nuance.

They portray the complexities of Native American life, history, and culture, offering a more genuine and informed representation.

Are there documentaries that complement these narrative films?

Absolutely! There are numerous documentaries that delve into Native American history, culture, and contemporary issues.

Titles such as “500 Nations,” “We Shall Remain,” and “Reel Injun” provide factual and in-depth explorations that complement the narrative films on this list.

How can one ensure that the movies they’re watching are authentic and not inappropriate?

It’s essential to research the filmmakers, writers, and consultants involved in the movie.

Films that involve Native American directors, writers, or cultural consultants are more likely to offer an authentic portrayal.

Additionally, reading reviews and discussions from these communities and critics can provide valuable insights.

Why are some of these movies not well-known despite their cultural significance?

Several factors can influence a movie’s visibility, including marketing budgets, distribution challenges, and mainstream audience preferences.

While some of these films may not have received widespread commercial attention, they remain critically acclaimed and cherished within communities that value authentic storytelling and cultural representation.

The Bottom Line

These films have not only entertained but also educated, bridging gaps and fostering understanding. They’ve allowed me, and I hope many of you, to connect with the rich tapestry of Native American history and culture.

In a world where it’s easy to remain in our own bubbles, cinema offers a window into diverse experiences, reminding us of our shared humanity.

I encourage everyone to explore these films and let them inspire a deeper appreciation for the stories that shape our world.