An Examination of Native Americans in Film and Rise of Native Filmmakers

By Julia Boyd
Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications
2015, Vol. 6 No. 1 | pg. 2/2 |

VI. Contemporary Native American Films

Several relatively recent films that have been garnered critical acclaim exemplify the shift to narrative film. Smoke Signals (1998), a feature film written by Sherman Alexie and directed by Chris Eyre, is widely regarded as the best example of contemporary Native filmmakers taking agency over their own story. Amanda J. Cobb wrote an essay for the 2003 edition of Hollywood’s Indian titled “This Is What It Means to Say Smoke Signals” in which she discusses the films’ impact. She writes that the film, the first feature to be written, directed, acted and co-produced by Native Americans, “is an achievement because it exists at all” (Cobb 206). Joanna Hearne’s book Native Recognition: Indigenous Cinema and the Western posits that the film is a breakthrough because of the extent of Native control over a studio-backed feature that ended up appealing to Native and non-Native audiences alike, all while being a Native production in a Native location (Hearne 267).

The primary themes of Smoke Signals are father-son relationships and identity, which results in a story that, while told by American Indians, is widely relatable. John Mihelich wrote “Smoke or Signals? American Popular Culture and the Challenge to Hegemonic Images of American Indians in Native American Film” and uses his appreciation for Alexie’s work and interest in how it impacted popular perception of Indians to base his essay around a series of questions about the film that he posed to young students. His essay is unique in that it takes an almost survey-like approach to generating information about cultural impact. Interestingly, his students identified the alcoholism plot line as negatively impacting Indian image, so he draws mixed conclusions from his research (Mihelich 134).

Students found the film enlightening because of its realistic portrayal of reservation life, while they also found it to reinforce the modern stereotype of rampant alcoholism on Native American reservations. Other scholars interestingly pinpoint the stereotypes in Smoke Signals. Seeing Red: Hollywood’s Pixeled Skins, a book edited by LeAnne Howe, Harvey Markowitz, and Denise J. Cummings, spends each chapter analyzing a specific movie with Indian characters, so naturally they include a chapter on Smoke Signals. Howe writes about how she grew up surrounded by Indians who held diverse occupations and that she was never exposed to alcoholism, thus she wishes the film relied less on some stereotypes such as alcoholic, absent fathers and abused mothers (Howe 115). Still, it remains accepted by scholars that Smoke Signals is a seminal work for Indian filmmaking.

VII. The Sundance Institute’s Native Film Program

Another major development in Native cinema in the last twenty years has been the creation and evolution of the Sundance Institute’s Native American and Indigenous Program, commonly referred to as the Native Film Program. The Sundance Institute is one of the foremost outlets for independent filmmakers and works to support them both financially and creatively (Sundance). The Institute famously organizes the annual Sundance Film Festival, one of the most renowned independent film festivals in the country, a place where talented filmmakers showcase their films and potentially acquire distribution opportunities that would not otherwise be possible. Sundance Founder and President Robert Redford has a long-standing commitment to supporting indigenous filmmakers and believes wholeheartedly in the program because “Native American and Indigenous filmmakers are rooted in a long and deep tradition of storytelling” (Sundance). Redford’s commitment underscores the fact that, perhaps more than any other group, Native Americans are generally most equipped to be expert filmmakers because storytelling is so entrenched in their culture.

Beverly R. Singer, author of Wiping the War paint Off The Lens, quotes scholar and art curator Rick Hill of the Tuscarora tribe as saying that creating visual art “comes from our ancestors to which we are bound to add our own distinctive (traditional) patterns” (Singer 9). The oral tradition is an integral part of Indian culture. Stories are passed down through generations to teach history and morals to young members of the tribes. Logically, oral tradition would be crucial in a time before technology or even a written language, and as technology evolved, filmmaking and visual art would follow suit as a powerful medium to share stories and aspects of a culture that drastically need to be preserved and have their integrity retained. Many generations of Native Americans grew up in an era where they were faced the dual nature of what they knew to be true about their cultures and what Hollywood told the masses was true. Since the beginning of the Sundance program, Redford has relied on Native American filmmakers to lead the institute.

Larry Littlebird and Chris SpottedEagle, two highly respected Native filmmakers, have held leadership roles since the program’s inception (Sundance). Littlebird is an actor and director as well as a storyteller in the art of oral tradition, and he believes that “the word is what we hold precious” (Bezdek). Chris SpottedEagle is a documentary director, and these two men were at the forefront of a surge in Native films in the eighties and nineties. The current director of the Native Film Program, N. Bird Runningwater grew up on the Mescalero Apache Reservation in New Mexico (Sundance). During his time as the head of the program, Runningwater has taken the Native Film Program’s initiative and gone global, establishing filmmaking workshop and labs for indigenous filmmakers in New Zealand and Australia (Sundance).

While Smoke Signals earned well-deserved praise and status as a major and oft-cited example of Native film, the fact remains that the film was released in 1998. Thus in 2014, sixteen years after Smoke Signals hit the mainstream, it is important to continue to reshape the collective consciousness as new Native works are created. Younger generations have taken up the mantel of the older, trailblazing creators. Drunktown’s Finest is a more recent example of successful Native cinema, having been released in 2014 at Sundance through the Native Film Program. This film is especially timely because 2014 marked the twentieth anniversary of the program. The anniversary was celebrated by a film exhibition at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art in July 2014, titled “Carte Blanche: Sundance Institute’s Native American and Indigenous Program” (Michelson).

Drunktown is one of the films that premiered at “Carte Blanche” and while it received mixed reviews, its existence inarguably makes it a success in Native filmmaking. Thirty-four-year-old director Sydney Freeland identifies as both Native American and transgender, which influenced the narrative of her film (Michelson). Drunktown follows three protagonists: an alcoholic young father, a transgender woman with self-esteem issues, and a college student dealing with her adoptive parents while yearning to discover her biological family (Rapold). Freeland is quoted as saying that she was inspired to make this film because she did not see realistic representations of her people growing up, and she wanted to tell a story that she could relate to (Michelson). This film is important because it achieves the goal of telling a human story that is set in the context of Native American lives. Journalist Simon Moya-Smith writes, “Demons, discovery, humiliation, redemption—there have been plenty of films that offer stories on the complexities of the human condition, but very few have put a Native face to it” (Moya-Smith). This sentiment sums up the larger picture of Native representation in popular culture. When the creators themselves are American Indians, this representation becomes possible.

Drunktown’s Finest is not without its critics. Several noted that the acting seemed flat, and the complicated plot required a more intricate telling than was presented. But Redford, for one, stands behind this movie, stating that “it’s a tough movie, but it’s a tough life” (Moya-Smith). Drunktown’s Finest and other recent films that follow in the same vein show the complexities of life for Natives on and off the reservation, a subject that films did not address until Native creators like Freeland took control of the cinematic narrative.

VIII. Conclusion

Native peoples have worked hard in the past decades to create narrative stories in the context of their culture. Kristin Dowell explains in her journal article, “Indigenous Media Gone Global” for American Anthropologist, “A burgeoning field of scholarship on indigenous media has examined how media technologies are appropriated and transformed to meet the needs of local indigenous communities” (Dowell 377). The digital age has created many new opportunities for filmmaking in general, all of which American Indian directors and storytellers can take, and have taken, advantage. Today, an individual can buy a relatively low-priced digital single-lens reflex camera to shoot footage, use professional editing software on a personal computer, and choose from one of many sharing platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo to share a product with the world. Because the means of film production and distribution are more accessible, a greater number of Native filmmakers are able to tell their stories using film as the medium. These films sometimes even depict stories traditionally used by elders to teach moral lessons to youth and transform them into dramatic narrative pieces, thus employing multiple aspects of their culture in the media space Indians have created (Dowell 378).

Images of Native Americans in film throughout American history have told a great deal about the social position of the population. Ugly stereotypes persisted for years, yet waves of activism and a newfound sense of agency allowed Native filmmakers to take control of telling their own stories. The Native film world has flourished in recent years, and trends indicate an encouraging incline in Indian film production. Society must support Native people as they push for more true and accurate representation and foster a climate in our nation where popular culture represents the interests, cultures and lives of every member of its population.


The author extends sincere thanks to Dr. Michael Frontani, associate professor of communications at Elon University, for his guidance, support, and help with revisions, without which this paper could not have been published. The author is also thankful to Dr. Clyde Ellis, professor of history at Elon University, for his advice and recommendation of additional resources, which greatly influenced the trajectory of this paper.


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