8 Important Films That Explore What It Really Means to Be Indigenous

Devery Jacobs in the movie Rhymes for Young Ghouls

It's been over 15 years since Sherman Alexi's iconic film Smoke Signals was released to critical fanfare. The all-indigenous production has been required viewing for anyone interested in Native directed-produced-acted cinema ever since. While Smoke Signals remains a classic, it is no longer the end-all-be-all of Native cinema, as over the last few years, there have been stunning releases within the community from North America to New Zealand.

A number of young indigenous directors are using their projects to employ fellow Native artists and promote continued Native cultural production. More importantly, the next generation of filmmakers are bringing to the silver screen the Native community's stories, hopes and struggles in an insightful and personal way that we haven't seen before.

Their stories are often dark, gritty and even difficult — confronting gender, politics, anti-colonialism, activism and cultural survival in a world that has oppressed and attempted to eliminate these populations through orchestrated violence and forced assimilation. But they're also fantastical, beautiful and spirited, drawing attention to humanity even in the midst of terror and tragedy. 

Here are eight recent films that can't be missed.

1. 'Rhymes for Young Ghouls'

Written and directed by Jeff Barnaby of the Canadian First Nation's tribe Mi'kmaq, Rhymes for Young Ghouls is a revenge-fantasy set in 1976 in the notorious Indian boarding schools.

For roughly 100 years, aboriginal children were taken from their families and forced into residential schools that were offshoots of Christian missionaries and supported by the Canadian government. The purpose was to forcefully assimilate First Nation people, essentially stripping the children of their identities and subjecting them to physical, mental and even sexual abuse. But Barnaby wasn't interested in telling a story that was "pity porn." As he told CBC, "If I was going to do a film on that particular topic, I was going to do it in a way that was really irreverent … something that kind of subverted the idea that Native people were victims."

The outcome: A brash, brutal film about a 15-year-old Aboriginal girl who is ready, willing and plotting to fight the people who have hurt her community.  

2. 'The Activist'

While The Activist may have been written by French national Cyril Monin, it tells the story of two American Indian Movement activists imprisoned during the 71-day occupation of Wounded Knee. The 1973 protest was the catalyst following claims that Ogala Sioux leader Richard Wilson was corrupt, as well as a call for the U.S. government to reassess its relationship with the tribe. The movie stars Lakota Sioux actor Michael Spears and Tongva and Kumeyaay actress Tonantzin Carmelo.

Spears told ICTMM the film "embodies the whole [American Indian Movement]. It's hard, and it's about fighting against a government that wanted to exterminate us since its founding."

3. 'Winter in the Blood'

Based on the debut novel of the late Native author James Welch, Winter in the Blood boasts a cast of indigenous actors — Lakota Sioux and rising star Chaske Spencer of Twilight fame and Choctaw and Chickasaw actress Julia Jones. It's a modern-day odyssey set on a Montana reservation as protagonist Virgil First Raise searches for his wife and his rifle, all the while confronting his fears and his own addictions.

The story is a personal journey, but it's an important piece of Native cinema artistically and culturally, bringing to life one of the iconic works of First Nation literature. 

4. 'The Lesser Blessed'

A contemporary film, The Lesser Blessed tells the story of a teenage Tlicho boy, Larry Sole, struggling with his identity as an indigenous man and trying to fit into his largely non-Native school. Based on the novel by Tlicho author Richard van Camp and directed by Ukrainian-Canadian Anita Doron, the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2013 to immense acclaim.

The Lesser Blessed is a universal coming-of-age story but it is one underscored by Larry's struggles with abuse and isolation, drug use and codependency — issues that have disproportionately affected indigenous youth. 

5. 'Maori Boy Genius'

Indigenous communities don't only exist within the borders of mainland North America. In New Zealand there is a thriving Maori community of filmmakers and actors.

Directed by Pietra Brettkelly, the documentary follows a year in the life of Ngaa Rauuira Pumanawawhiti, a promising 16-year-old and pride of much of his tribe. Accepted into a summer school program at Yale, he returns to New Zealand and galvanizes the Maori community to resist continued colonialism.

The film is only an episode of one young person's life, but it highlights the role the next generation of indigenous youth can have within their communities if supported.

6. 'The Cherokee Word for Water'

This docu-drama about Wilma Mankiller, the first contemporary female chief of the Cherokee nation, was directed by her husband Charlie Soap. The Cherokee Word for Water focuses on Mankiller and Soap's Bell Waterline Project, which successfully, thanks to the help of the whole tribe, brought indoor water to homes in the Cherokee Nation in Bell, Okla.

The film not only explores the early life of Mankiller and the beginning of her political career, it's a testament to the power of a tribal nation when it unites. Even more importantly, it draws attention to a major problem facing indigenous people: access to clean water on reservations. As of 2011 in Canada, more than half of the 1,500 members of the Cree community Northeast of Winnipeg did not have indoor plumbing

7. 'Drunktown's Finest'

Premiering at Sundance last January, Drunktown's Finest is an exploration of three people on a New Mexico reservation and the complexities of their daily lives. There is Sick Boy, an alcoholic father-to-be headed to basic training for military service; Nizhoni, a Christian adoptee desperately looking to reconnect with her birth family; and Felixia, a transgender woman aspiring to be a model while earning money selling sex.

The film is a slice of reality, inspired by director Sydney Freeland's own upbringing on a reservation in Gallup, N.M. Freeland told Indie Wire the film was also a way to counteract stereotypes about Native people: "On a broader level, I feel like there are some misconceptions about Native Americans. Like, we are all drunks, we are all looking for government handouts, etc. One of my goals with this film was to show that, while these issues do exist, there are a lot of other people who are doing just the opposite."

8. 'The Haumana'

Much different than any other film on this list, The Haumana is a lighthearted film about the commercialization of indigenous Hawaiian culture and re-assertion of more traditional ways. The protagonist, Jonny, is a Waikiki lounge singer and drunk, drifting far from authenticity and his Hawaiian roots.

The Haumana is ultimately a conventional story of coming into one's own identity and culture, but it's unique in that the project boasts a cast and crew of Native Hawaiians, a group often overlooked in major motion pictures. Awarded the audience choice for narrative at last year's Hawaii International Film Festival, the film tackles questions of identity and self-worth: How do you remain genuine when your culture is packaged and sold to willing tourists?