Indigenous Representation in Cinema

by Chris La Tray

Indians seem to be invisible in movies as much as we are anywhere. Hell, even when Hollywood puked out a Lone Ranger movie in 2013, they got a white dude (the long-irrelevant Johnny Depp) to play arguably America’s most famous Indian: his Comanche sidekick, Tonto. I haven’t seen the movie, but I don’t need to to know it’s awful.

I’m no expert, but there are some excellent, recently-made Indian-themed movies out there. If you are tired of watching Smoke Signals and Powwow Highway—or even Billy Jack, for that matter—on rotation, here are three solid options you might have missed.

These are films that—while discussed here because they are about, and even in one case made exclusively by, Indians—all work as thoughtful, entertaining cinema, the kind that, when I step out onto the street afterward, I wonder why I ever bother with the usual orgy of CGI and overblown budgets that pass for movie experiences these days. I urge you to be on the lookout for these films, and show with your time and money that there is a market for movies that feature something other than attractive, privileged white people.

The Rider

Contemporary Western The Rider was one of the big underground success stories of 2018, winning a few awards and even pulling in some decent box office (for an indie release). It was the second film (written and directed) from Chinese filmmaker Chloé Zhao. Shot entirely in the badlands of South Dakota and on the Lakota reservation of Pine Ridge, Rider does more to show the world as it is in modern Indian Country, as opposed to some other romantic notion of what it might be. Rider is a must-see if only for that reason. The cinematography is sublime and every performance is top notch, particularly notable when one considers that most of these actors aren’t even actors.

The Rider is the story of fictional rodeo up-and-comer Brady Blackburn. Blackburn is a rising star on the circuit until a brain injury, suffered at the hoof of a bronc, ends his career, not to mention any kind of life involving any real interaction with horses. We see this young man trying to reinvent himself as something else, someone else, without a lot of prospects for his future. His family lives in poverty, and there aren’t many opportunities for gainful employment. Most of his interactions with other people are painful reminders of what he used to be, and what he thought he would become, which only steepens his climb back to any kind of livable existence. He tries, fails, and tries again.

What makes this movie special is it is loosely-based on the real-life of Brady Jandreau, the young man who plays Brady Blackburn in the movie. The lost future is his real-life lost future; the scars, physical and emotional, are real, from his real-world accident. His real-life father plays his father in the movie. His autistic teenage sister in the movie is his real-life sister. You don’t need to know this to enjoy the film, but if you do? Wow. It’s an amazing story, and Zhao captures it with a light and incredibly deft hand. The Rider is a must-see, and fortunately the most readily-available of these three films via the various online streaming/downloading/purchasing outlets.

Indian Horse

As a young boy, Saul Indian Horse and his family head for the bush—the wilderness—to live traditionally in an effort to avoid he and his brother being taken away by authorities to live in a Catholic school. When his brother dies and his mother and father leave and fail to return, Saul is left alone with his grandmother. With winter falling on them, the two try and make it back to civilization; circumstances unfold accordingly, and Saul ends up in a boarding school—or, as they were known in Canada, an “Indian Residential School”—anyway. A friendly priest with a love for hockey is the catalyst for Saul’s awakened natural aptitude for the sport, and it appears that his incredible talent for the game might be his ticket out of poverty. Things don’t turn out as Saul might have hoped. Nor had they always been what they seemed, even in the best of times.

This movie is an adaptation of the brilliant novel by the late Canadian Ojibwe writer Richard Wagamese.

Indian Horse the novel is a profound work of empathy and redemption, and the movie more than holds its own against it. The movie deals with the dark history of boarding schools in Canada, one they share with the United States, where Indigenous children were taken away from their families in an effort to “civilize” them. It is a shameful legacy, with reverberations still echoing across both countries today. The book, and the movie, shines a bright spotlight on the practice.

There is joy here too, found mainly in the world of hockey, Canada’s most beloved sport. The portrayal of the sublime grace that Saul Indian Horse brings to the game is a thrill to watch. That too is ultimately spoiled for Saul, as racism raises its ugly head against him over and over, turning his happiness to rage. The historic and ongoing racism directed against Indians by colonialist settlers is also a key theme to the story.

For a small production the standards are high. Saul Indian Horse is played by three different actors to address his age at various points in the story; Sladen Peltier (at age 6) Forrest Goodluck (at age 15), and Ajuawak Kapashesit (at age 22). The transitions could be jarring, but they aren’t. Less so, to my eyes, than when bigger budget productions lean on digital trickery to age a single actor. That isn’t innovation, it’s creepy. Director Stephen Campanelli and writer Dennis Foon do a fine job adapting the book for film (it was originally to be a television series), despite neither man being a veteran in the particular chairs they find themselves in for Indian Horse. Indian Horse isn’t just a good adaptation, it’s straight-up an excellent movie.

Falls Around Her

Falls Around Her is the story of Mary Birchbark, an internationally known singer/songwriter from the Atikameksheng Anishnawbek First Nation Reserve in northern Ontario, Canada, on the shores of Whitefish Lake. The feature film was written, directed, and produced by Darlene Naponse, an Ojibway filmmaker from Canada. It stars Tantoo Cardinal (Métis), possibly the most recognizable Indigenous actor of our time, with starring roles in films including Dances With Wolves (1990), Black Robe (1991), Smoke Signals (1998), and Wind River (2017). Amazingly, this was her first lead role after decades of work in the film industry. She has more than earned the opportunity, and proves it here.

The film opens with Birchbark taking the stage to perform a show, then, in mid-performance, exiting out a side door and walking away. She returns to her home, an old cabin on the shore of the lake. It is early spring, but still wintery. We see her stacking wood, walking through the snow, observing the natural world. We get long, lingering shots of the frozen lake, snow falling on pines. Mary peels slabs of birchbark from the tree whose name she bears, then uses it to start a fire in her woodstove. The visual experience of the film is sublime, almost meditative.

Falls Around Her focuses on female characters, and how they relate and interact with each other in their community. Many of the themes are subtle, but they are there. We see poverty, abuse and neglect, but Naponse doesn’t beat us over the head with them. The authenticity of these interactions, of what the camera shows us of the community, are key to the film.

The film’s distinction of being Indigenous-made, with Indigenous actors portraying tough, Indigenous women telling a real story of Indigenous life, was a highlight for Cardinal.

“It was like medicine,” she says, describing the experience. “To look around and see all these Indigenous faces, laughing and working together, was medicine.”

Honorable Mention: Hostiles

Indians can’t agree on anything, and reaction was split on this story about an army man (Christian Bale) escorting a dying Comanche chief (Wes Studi) to Montana so that he might die (from cancer) in his homeland. It has its share of problems, but it does a fine job of portraying how the so-called “Indian Wars” affected both sides. I mention it here because it’s a fine piece of storytelling. It also allows me to relate this anecdote of my wife, leaning over in the theater—after a fat, wealthy, white rancher and his crew of thugs show up near the end of the film to holler, “Get off of my land!”—to whisper in my ear, “You can sure tell they’re in Montana!”

The more things change, the more they seem to stay the same.

Chris La Tray
Chris La Trayis a writer, a walker, and a photographer. His freelance writing and/or photography has appeared in various regional and national anthologies and periodicals. His first book, One-Sentence Journal: Short Poems and Essays From the World At Large won the 2018 Montana Book Award.
Chris is Chippewa-Cree Métis, and is an enrolled member of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians. He lives near Missoula, MT.

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