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date: 02 July 2022

Native People and American Film and TVfree

Native People and American Film and TVfree

  • Liza BlackLiza BlackIndiana University System


Native people have appeared as characters in film and television in America from their inceptions. Throughout the 20th century, Native actors, writers, directors, and producers worked in the film and television industry. In terms of characterization, Native employment sits uncomfortable beside racist depictions of Native people. From the 1950s to the present, revisionist westerns come into being, giving the viewer a moral tale in which Native people are depicted with sympathy and white Americans are seen as aggressors. Today, a small but important group of Native actors in film and television work in limiting roles but turn in outstanding performances. Native directors, writers, and documentarians in the 1990s to the early 21st century have created critical interventions into media representations, telling stories from Indigenous viewpoints and bringing Native voices to the fore. The 2021 television show Rutherford Falls stands out as an example of Native writers gaining entry into the television studio system. Additionally, we have several Native film festivals in the early 21st century, and this trend continues to grow.


  • 20th Century: Pre-1945
  • 20th Century: Post-1945
  • Cultural History
  • Native American History

Native Characters in American Film

Native characters have been a part of American film from its inception. Some scholars suggest film was influenced by earlier representations of Native people in live performances including fairs, museums, theater, and shows of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For instance, fairs especially represented Native people and Native Americans as grotesque, sexualized, intellectually inferior, or bizarre. Museums took this representational power a step further as they built themselves on and around the theft of Indigenous lands and the subsequent theft of Native ancestors’ graves. Archaeologists and anthropologists built their careers and discipline upon the bones of Native people, displaying them to make assertions about Native intelligence based on their skeletons and burial objects. When live human beings were brought into museum spaces for exhibition, this intervention was refracted through the lens of death and used to remind audiences of the death of Native culture. Ishi was used in exactly this way by Alfred Kroeber at the University of California Museum of Anthropology at Berkeley (later changed to Hearst Museum).1

Other live representations of Native people influencing representations of Native Americans in film include Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows. Buffalo Bill Cody hired dozens of Native people to depict themselves recreating American history, including wars between tribes and the US Army, though these reenactments limited Native people to a handful of roles, usually as defeated warriors. We also see film being influenced by early theater and Native actors, such as Pauline Johnson and Te Ata performing in the late 19th and early 20th century.2 However, in theater we also see non-Native actors playing Native characters, using makeup and costume to generate the idea that audiences were watching Native characters on stage, which was also used in film.

Thus, at the beginning of the 20th century, representations of Native people occupied a spectrum from being part of an ancient past in museum spaces to historical recreations in outdoor arenas and live theater. Such depictions occurred through the bodies of both Native Americans and non-Native Americans in makeup and costume.3

Into this landscape came Thomas Edison and his use of the motion picture. With his intention to capture movement, Edison filmed Native people dancing and looking straight into the camera in Buffalo Dance (1894), creating a sense of connection with the audience. Sioux men give a remarkable seventeen-second performance in Hair Coat, Last Horse, and Parts His Hair, and that same day they performed in Sioux Ghost Dance.4 Although Edison used a wide range of subjects, filming women dancing, men giving haircuts and working with iron, and athletes flexing and posing for his camera, Native people were there and just as important a subject as any at the very inception of learning to recreate movement on film in the United States.

Scholars Andrew Brodie Smith, Angela Aleiss, Joanna Hearne, and Michelle Raheja provide enormous content on the silent period and the decades of talkies that followed. Films such as The Indian Massacre (1910), Redskin (1929), and Vanishing American (1925) stand as the bedrock for understanding how Native characters occupy a space riddled with tensions around sovereignty, family, and land. Native creators in Hollywood in the early 20th century such as Edwin Carewe (Chickasaw) and James Young Deer (Nanticoke) must be seen for their contributions to early film history. Native people in the early film period used the industry to their own ends. Native actors, likewise, including Elijah Tahamont, Red Wing (married to James Young Deer), and Luther Standing Bear also took on roles both to support their careers but to also intervene in representations of Native people. Talkies differed from silent films in the obvious ways of audio, but talkies also created new demands on actors, some of whom successfully navigated silent but struggled to find their way in talkies. Actors with voices less accepted in the film industry were pushed aside. These early filmic images differed most from the museum experience where Native people were placed in a quite distant past. Silents and talkies continued this by using the idea that Native people were vanishing, yet Native people were never placed next to dinosaurs in films as they had been in museums. The active participation you see in the Wild West shows of Native people continued in early film history.

Native participation continued into the 1930s with actors like Ray Mala in Eskimo (1933).5 During the 1940s and 1950s, casting agents placed Native actors in supporting and minor roles, significant ones but less significant than that of leading roles. This has remained a problem in Hollywood since the talkies and perpetuates the problem of low pay and limited exposure for Native performers. Native participation can also be documented when looking at the Native characters en masse in the background, sometimes played by Native Americans. In films like Buffalo Bill (1944), Valley of the Sun (1942), Warpath (1951), Escape from Fort Bravo (1953), or Drum Beat (1954), just to name a few, Native people can be seen working as extras in the long, background shots.6

Perhaps the most serious affliction in the representation entertainment industry for Native people rests in erasure. Despite the fact that Native performers were earning a wage in a modern profession, they were consistently cast in films set in the past, thus perpetuating popular stereotypes about the vanishing Indian. Erasure is the key problem in film and television, despite the very real presence of Native people in the industry. Films such as The Searchers or Broken Arrow feature dozens if not hundreds of Native performers in the background, but they were never the focus of the story, despite the fact that Ford repeatedly filmed on Diné (Navajo) land with Diné workers, who lived on their sets, and received pay for being filmed and photographed.7 Even seeing Native extras in the backgrounds of persistently popular westerns, such as those directed by John Ford and starring John Wayne, does not adequately capture the role of Indigenous workers in Hollywood. Looking at the background and seeing Native people there tells a story of Native survivance amid destructive federal policies like termination of sovereignty and resource extraction projects in the post–World War II United States.8 Despite the often exploitative nature of the relationship between film studios and Native peoples, in the mid-20th century, Indigenous workers were central to the creation of cinematic westerns, and those jobs helped them navigate continued assaults on their sovereignty and identity. Return of Navajo Boy (2000) speaks to some of these issues in showing how film studios exploited Navajo workers throughout the 20th century but beginning especially in the 1930s.9


Television in many ways embraced the western genre, finding solid audience support for shows like Gunsmoke (1952–1961) and The Lone Ranger (1949–1957). Although, like westerns, these shows centered on white male protagonists; Native characters, and sometimes Native American actors, held supporting roles. These shows garnered significant and long-lasting support from midcentury America, and their plots and characters satisfied consumers. These shows transcended age boundaries as well, appealing to younger audiences who played “cowboys and Indians,” as much as it appealed to their parents with its reliance on a ubiquity of stock, narrow, and often negative depictions of Native people. Native characters showed up in midcentury science fiction television shows as well, but the mainstay was the western genre on television in the mid-20th century.

With television, Native people often make one-time appearances on shows that primarily do not engage Native characters, themes, or content. The Andy Griffith Show, Beverly Hillbillies, I Love Lucy, and F Troop provide examples of this. These shows, on the whole, engaged a narrative of nationalism in which America’s past and present is a bucolic one. Heading into the 1980s, we see shows like The Brady Bunch, Barney Miller, Diff’rent Strokes, and Saved by the Bell also bringing in Native characters briefly and episodically to confirm a multicultural television landscape. King of the Hill (1997–2010) makes a stronger statement than previous television shows, featuring a recurring character, John Red Corn, who both perpetuates and challenges older stereotypes of Native people on television.10 We also see the Tony Hillerman series on PBS, which challenged previous stereotypes as well, including Skinwalkers (2002), Coyote Awaits (2003), and Thief of Time (2004).

Rutherford Falls burst on the television scene as the first television sitcom about Native people, with Native people playing Native characters, and written by a team including a Native woman. The show premiered on Peacock TV in 2021 to rave reviews. The writers come from The Office (2005–2013) and Brooklyn Nine-Nine (2013–2021), including Sierra Teller Ornelas, a citizen of Navajo Nation. These immensely popular and funny shows bring comedic insights to their dialogue and plot. Together, they turn life in small-town America into a funny look into Native and white relations today as they engage the tense issues of the past. We see the story through the friendship of townie Nathan (Ed Helms), who is white and quite proud of his family’s past, and Reagan (Jana Schmieding, Cheyenne River Lakota Sioux), who is Native and trying to support her tribe, their museum, and her friendship with Nathan. The Native characters in this show shine both because of their acting talent and the excellent writing. Native America finally gets their own complexity mirrored back to them. Rutherford Falls gives audiences not just Reagan, but Terry (Michael Greyeyes, Nêhiyaw from Muskeg Lake Cree Nation), the Native entrepreneur who has always sought ways to increase revenue while protecting his tribal nation. The casino employees, Wayne and Sally, tease Reagan yet love her and support her in their own way, allowing her to see the museum from a new perspective. Rutherford Falls is an important television show about Native America.

Likewise, Reservation Dogs (2021) features many Native characters and actors, all of whom are directed, written, and produced by Native talent, including Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi. The show tells the story of four young Natives, men and women, living on a small reservation town, struggling to find money and meaning in that space. They participate in legal and illegal activities to relieve their boredom and get cash, while other Native characters in the show bring comedy, wisdom, and even magic. Beloved by many, this show has tremendous possibility, much like Rutherford Falls, to be a game changer in the television industry for Native people.

Revisionist Westerns

Revisionist westerns are said to begin in the 1950s with films such as Broken Arrow (1950), Devil’s Doorway (1950), and Walk the Proud Land (1956), although some scholars say they begin in the 1970s. Broken Arrow centers a friendship between a white man and an Apache man, demonstrating their high morals. Devil’s Doorway features a beleaguered Shoshone veteran as a good guy who is blocked from his hopes by duplicitous white men. And Walk the Proud Land brings the story of an Indian agent who reverses previous policy by being a kind, honest, and generous man in his dealing with Apaches. These significant films of the World War II and postwar initiated a cycle of pro-Indian westerns, perhaps even continuing into the 21st century. Looking at the historical context, we need to understand that Red Power is a movement led by Native Americans of the United States beginning in the 1960s, although some say earlier, to restore treaty rights, expose injustices to Native Americans, and to occupy significant spaces such as Alcatraz Island, the Bureau of Indian Affairs office, and Wounded Knee. Additionally, young white Americans embraced an antiwar sentiment and advocated for broader civil/social rights movements in the 1960s and 1970s. This is the historical backdrop for many revisionist westerns.

The revisionist western genre continued into the 1960s and beyond. We see the Billy Jack series beginning in 1971 featuring a Native American character, Billy Jack, as the male protagonist and lead character. This was a huge move and quite different in placing a Native character in the lead. The character of Billy Jack was also a veteran, placing him firmly in the contemporary 20th century moment. Little Big Man (1970) also stands out for its contribution to the revisionist western genre. The movie revises our understanding of the American military by depicting them as bloodthirsty and villainous while depicting Cheyennes as kind and gentle, especially toward the main character, Jack Crabb, played by Dustin Hoffman. Little Big Man shows Custer as a lunatic rather than a war hero. The film also features a Two Spirit character, and this is done with a surprising level of respect. These films mark a shift in representations of Native people, and many would say those changes are significant and a direct result of the Red Power and antiwar movements. Scholarly literature tells us these films revise early 20th century westerns in depicting Native people as victims of white aggressors. This seems clear with other films as well such as Soldier Blue (1970) or Buffalo Bill and the Indians (1976). Other films grouped with revisionist westerns include Dances with Wolves (1990); thus revisionist westerns do not have a clear ending point. While some say revisionist westerns begin in the 1970s, other scholars point to Ince, Griffith, and Ford films that depicted the American military in negative terms well before 1950. Still other scholars say revisionist westerns continue today with films such as The Only Good Indian (2009), although this film did not have commercial distribution, and The Lone Ranger (2013), a popular film featuring Johnny Depp.

Turning to films made after 1960, audiences should know of The Exiles. Although in early film history we see all Native casts in films such as Hiawatha (1913), In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914), and Before the White Man Came (1920), The Exiles was the first film in quite some time to use a largely Native cast who in many ways controlled and influenced the script and dialogue. Additionally, this film about young Native people living in downtown Los Angeles highlights the lives of Native women in an unparalleled way. Yvonne, the female protagonist, bares her soul to the viewer, telling of her sudden break with her childhood in a religious institution separated from her family, her disappointments with her husband, and her abiding faith in nightly prayers to be part of a happy family in her future as an urban Native woman in Los Angeles.11

Despite their potential for reflecting or advancing real social change, some argue that revisionist westerns reversed nothing in Hollywood. Sacheen Littlefeather burst on the Hollywood scene in 1973 to make the point that revisionist westerns had reversed nothing in Hollywood. When Marlon Brando was nominated for an Oscar for Best Actor for his role in The Godfather, he decided to use his possible win to highlight American Indian issues. Brando met Littlefeather through her political work in the Red Power Movement, including a role in the occupation of the island of Alcatraz by Native people in 1969. Brando asked her to attend and potentially decline his Academy Award should he be honored. Wearing a buckskin, Littlefeather approached the stage when Brando’s name was announced as the winner and declined the Oscar because of the treatment of Native people by Hollywood.12 In using the word “today,” Littlefeather emphasized the ongoing mistreatment of Native people by the film industry. Before she could continue, she was loudly booed by many members of the audience and had to stop because of the noise. She had to speak over the boos and some applause to go on. When allowed to speak again, she added that Brando was also declining the award because of television reruns of older movies negatively depicting Native people. The occupation of Wounded Knee rounded out her list of reasons for Brando’s rejection of the award.

Popular Male Native Actors, 1970s to Present

Native people have always worked in the film industry, even in the most racist films of the 1940s and 1950s. When they work in films whether as extras or central subjects, their friends, fans, and family members watch with much anticipation. Native actors turn in incredible performances in films, sometimes including those not seen as positive by some Native people. Nevertheless, a survey of some of the most influential Native actors can provide a useful window into the industry.

Steering far from the western genre is the Academy Award winning One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975). Will Sampson, citizen of Muskogee (Creek) Nation, silent for most of the film, made all the difference in a film about madness, surveillance, and manhood. Sampson loomed over the protagonist, Jack Nicholson/Randle McMurphy, in his moments of realizing his predicament as a white man in a hospital for those struggling with mental illness. Sampson, racialized as “chief” by McMurphy, looms over the characters with his immense height of six feet seven inches. Always silent, he listens carefully and selectively engages in the patients’ attempts to wring joy out of their confinement. When Sampson’s character finally speaks toward the end of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, McMurphy unleashes a torrent of words of shock. Sampson simply smirks as McMurphy realizes that Sampson faked an inability to speak during their time in the hospital. For some, this move confirmed that Native people create meaningful performances outside of the usual tropes of narratives set in the past and rooted in conflicts between white Americans and Native Americans.

Some Native American actors came into Hollywood from the Red Power Movement. Acting as a crucial member of the American Indian Movement (AIM), Russell Means’s involvement began at the occupation of Alcatraz when over 10,000 Native people occupied the small island of Alcatraz in the San Francisco Bay. In the 1990s, Means made a sudden and dramatic move into acting, beginning with the part of Chingachgook in The Last of the Mohicans (1992). Although his lines were limited, Chingachgook had a real presence in the film and required genuine acting on the part of Means. Audiences felt he delivered a strong performance, albeit confused by his move from AIM into mainstream Hollywood. Means worked in film often over the coming years in Natural Born Killers (1994), Windrunner (1994), and Buffalo Girls (1995). But Disney’s Pocahontas (1995) became his breakout role in which he played Chief Powhatan, a significant part in a film that has grossed $347 million globally. Born in the Alaska Native village of Koyuk, Iñupiat actor Irene Bedard played Pocahontas, but even with Native actors, critics shared their negative reviews and accused the film of perpetuating well-worn stereotypes. This led to a flurry of smaller roles. Means always occupied a complicated place between Indigenous activism and Hollywood where some praised him for his versatility while others called him a sellout.

The late 20th century saw many Native American actors entering Hollywood, earning a modicum of fame beyond Means and Sampson. Gary Farmer, Wolf Clan of the Cayuga Nation, took up many parts in tv, film and theater but Powwow Highway (1989) stands out from other films for its embrace of a story made up almost entirely of Native characters, although they employed non-Native actors. Handmade Films produced Powwow Highway which was later distributed by Warner Bros. Farmer plays Philbert, a man entranced by the spirit world who sees their signs all around him. Because of Philbert’s kindness and generosity, he offers his childhood friend Buddy (A. Martinez) a ride to Santa Fe to help his sister who is in jail. Powwow Highway turns into a road trip movie in which Philbert lovingly attends to every happy coincidence, and Buddy slowly gives into this worldview and concedes to Philbert’s wishes. Even westerns fall sway to the power of Philbert when he watches one, becomes inspired, and breaks Bonnie out of jail using his broke down car that he calls his “war pony,” a nod to the past.

Farmer also turned in an important performance as Nobody in Dead Man (1995). Although Farmer’s role was a supporting one and less significant than the main character, audiences continue to regard this important performance with respect. Farmer stood out in Dead Man for his emotional expression. His role spoke to a certain wisdom without giving into clichés of the noble Indian. In Farmer’s hands, this came across as serious, inspiring, comedic even, and multidimensional. Farmer asked the director to go against the script and let his character live through to the end of the film, but the power of the dying Indian meant the director gave in and killed off Nobody.

Three years later, Farmer entered an even bigger orbit with Smoke Signals (1998), the film produced by Chris Eyre and written by Sherman Alexie. Although the film only made about $7 million, America media reported the film as a signal moment in Native American cinema as it featured Native actors, a Native-written script, and a Native producer. The media took no note and made no comparison to Edwin Carewe, a Native man, who in the 1910s and 1920s wrote stories with his brother, produced and directed some fifty-eight movies, and occasionally cast Natives. Nor did they take note of Pomo writer Greg Sarris and the film adaptation of his novel, Grand Avenue, with many Native characters and actors in 1996. In Smoke Signals, Adam Beach and Evan Adams play the lead roles of two friends on a road trip. Beach plays Victor, a young man traveling to the home of his estranged father who has just passed away. Adams plays his best friend, Thomas, an eminently likable young man with a kind heart. Farmer plays Victor’s father and embodies the painful past of Native American history and the survivance spoken of by Gerald Vizenor with his ability to weather all storms and create something poignant and mesmerizing with his life. The film is rooted in Victor’s complicated feelings of loyalty, hate, confusion, and love toward his father for struggling with alcoholism, domestic violence, and abandoning his family. Like Powwow Highway, Thomas and Victor find themselves on a road trip when they learn of Arnold’s death in Phoenix, Arizona. Through the female character, Suzy Song, played by Iñupiat actor Irene Bedard, Victor learns more of his father and comes to accept the reasons that he drowned his emotional pain drowned in alcohol and abuse.

Yet another Native actor making major contributions to film and television is Cherokee actor Wes Studi. He received an Academy Honorary Award in 2019, that being the first time a Native American from the United States received the award. The New York Times created a list of the twenty-five greatest actors of the 21st century and placed Studi at number nineteen.13 When Studi received the award, Christian Bale stood behind Studi along with Joy Harjo, while he accepted the award. He quipped, “It’s about time” to begin his speech and credited directors Michael Mann and Walter Hill for much of his success while also crediting himself for his immense work. He went on to point out that Avatar (2009) was the highest box office movie of its time and thanked director James Cameron for casting him in the film, noting his luck at having been cast in many highly successful films.14

One of Studi’s early roles was that of Buff in Powwow Highway (1989), where he worked alongside Farmer. One year later, he appeared in Dances with Wolves (1990). Studi played an anonymous Pawnee in Dances and sees this film as the one that got him started in Hollywood. Although he had no name in the film, audiences and filmmakers liked what they saw. Studi says even Pawnees liked his portrayal in the film. Studi went on two years later in a similar role and look to Dances in his work in Last of the Mohicans (1992). Studi played Magua, a Huron. Dances and Last both placed Studi in the role of a fierce warrior, with a partially shaved head, and overall an appearance meant to be intimidating. Studi is proud of his work in embodying nonspecific ethnic identities in Street Fighter (1994) and Heat (1995), moves he sees as progressive. Studi also played in (1999) Mystery Men and the Tony Hillerman-inspired (2002) Skinwalkers and Coyote Waits (2003) as Joe Leaphorn. He worked with Smoke Signals producer Chris Eyre on the television movie Edge of America (2003). In 2005, Studi went back to historical Native American roles in New World as Opechancanough, the leader of the Powhatan Confederacy and the man who captured John Smith. In 2007, these types of roles continued as he played Wovoka in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Studi says his favorite film was The Only Good Indian (2009).

Studi’s roles in Avatar (2009), Being Flynn (2012), and Hostiles (2017) have almost nothing in common. They are completely different stories taking place in different eras and genres. This shows both Studi’s range as an actor and also how the representation industry is changing and creating new spaces for Native actors. Perhaps because of Studi’s consistently excellent work, James Cameron offered him a supporting role as Eytukan in Avatar (2009). As the patriarch of the Omaticaya clan, he was the father of Neytiri and together with his partner Mo’at, decided to train Jake Sully in Na’vi ways. Unfortunately, the character died in the final attack at the Hometree, much like many Native characters in film. Some would say Avatar fits into the revisionist western genre tradition quite well with its depiction of the military as mindless and greedy and the Na’vi as wise, spiritual, and excellent caretakers of the land. After many years, Studi once again played a nonspecific ethnic part, something quite rare in his career, when he played Captain in Being Flynn (2012). The melancholic film looks at homelessness, suicide, and parenting through the eyes of Flynn, a man who comes to work at a homeless shelter with the training of his boss, Captain, a formerly homeless man with an unclear ethnic identity. Last, in Hostiles (2017), Studi returns to yet another historic Native American man: Cochise. Studi worked alongside Christian Bale playing the Cheyenne chief Yellow Hawk. The film takes place in the late 19th century, as do many films including Native characters. Hostiles presents an unlikely story of Captain Joseph Blocker who hates Indians (played by Bale) escorting Yellow Hawk and his family back to their reservation. Yellow Hawk and Captain Joseph Blocker befriend one another and Blocker defends Yellow Hawk and his family from attacks by malicious whites and Native Americans repeatedly. Meant to be inspiring, the film situates itself in the revisionist westerns in Blocker’s discovery of sympathy for Studi’s character.

Popular Native Female Actors, 1970s to Present

Although fewer in number, Native women in American film and television have made major interventions in the industry from its inception. With an astonishing 124 credits, Cree and Métis actor Tantoo Cardinal has maintained a constant and steady stream of work from 1978 to present. Although Canadian-born, many of her films take place in the US and have an American audience. Some of her more popular films include Dances with Wolves (1990), Black Robe (1991), Legends of the Fall (1994), Grand Avenue (1996), Smoke Signals (1998), Wind River (2017), Falls Around Her (2018), and Killers of the Flower Moon (TBA). Cardinal deserves far more recognition and awards than she has received. Her work consistently brings an edgy dynamism deeply embedded in compassion and clarity. Falls Around Her finally places Cardinal in the role of the main character. As a famous, independent, and successful rock singer, Mary Birchbark returns to her reservation, partly to avoid her abusive manager. She settles into her new life there with pressures from her sister to be more social but refusing to budge on her life of solitude in a small cabin. She begins cautiously, dating a Native man from the reserve but quickly turns to suspicion when an unknown person or entity meddles with her home. In turning to a Native man with a disability who watches traffic on the reservation daily, she learns that her abusive manager has been stalking her home when she is out. Tantoo consistently turns out powerful acting no matter how small the role, but Falls is special because it yields the floor to her immense talent.

Actor Irene Bedard stands out for her work in Hollywood both working with and against type. Her roles in films like Lakota Woman (1994) and Smoke Signals (1998) contrast nicely with her roles in the Pocahontas films (1995 and 1998). Bedard received criticism for the Pocahontas films, but she also appeared as a Native woman in Naturally Native (1998) and The New World (2005). Many Native actors in Hollywood accept roles they might prefer not to and wait for scripts they find challenging and inspiring. Bedard is a fine actor and an enrolled member of the Native Village of Koyuk in Alaska. She deserves respect for the body of work she offers as an actor.

Other popular Native American female actors include Sheila Tousey of Menominee and Stockbridge-Munsee descent. Tousey appeared in Thunderheart (1992), Grand Avenue (1996), and Skinwalkers (2002), among many other credits. Tousey also worked in television, including some appearances on Law and Order. Still other Native female actors include Navajo actor Geraldine Keams who worked in tv shows Twin Peaks (1991), Northern Exposure (1991), and Rutherford Falls (2021) as well as films such as Skinwalkers (2002), The Slaughter Rule (2002), and Arcadia (2012). Elaine Miles (Cayuse/Nez Perce) began her career with the popular television show Northern Exposure in 1990, which ran until 1995. She continued her acting career with Smoke Signals (1998) and Skins (2002) among others. Other female Native actors from the late 20th century include Misty Upham, citizen of Blackfeet Nation, who appeared in Skins (2002) and Frozen River (2008). She later landed a part in August: Osage County (2013) with Meryl Streep.15 Some scholars have suggested Native male actors receive more significant parts and attention, but Native female actors are just as present in film and television as the male actors, and their contributions are noted.

Native Filmmakers, Including Documentarians

A consideration of Native American filmmakers in the United States is vital to the history of Native Americans in television and film. Analyzing their work reminds us that Native people have always been present in film and television, and their contributions and interventions are of note. These artists include people working independently, in commercial film, and documentarians.

Sky Hopinka, citizen of Ho-Chunk Nation and descendant of the Luiseño Nation, presents an independent body of work. His only feature film, Maɬni: Towards the Ocean, Towards the Shore, contemplates spirituality, the afterlife, and rebirth, almost all of which is spoken in an Indigenous language with some subtitles. Hopinka’s cinematography centers on the landscape with audio accentuating this vision of the natural.16

Other Native filmmakers began independently but made their way into commercial filmmaking. This includes Sterlin Harjo, citizen of the Seminole and Muskogee Nations. Harjo began making films in 2004 with the short, Goodnight, Irene, followed up by the feature, Four Sheets to the Wind in 2007. Barking Water, his 2009 film, won the best drama film at the American Indian Film Festival. Harjo then ventured into documentary with This May Be the Last Time in 2014. Not afraid of any genre, Harjo created the thriller Mekko. Together with Taika Waititi, the first person of Māori to win an Academy Award for a screenplay, Harjo produces, directs, and co-writes of Reservation Dogs, a 2021 television featuring a group of four young Native characters, all played by Native actors, living in a small town on a reservation with no means toward upward mobility. Steeped in melancholy but also determination, the friends engage in crime but also sell meat pies to try to gain access to wealth in America.

The filmic world of documentary has yielded toward Native creators and Native content far more than mainstream Hollywood. The documentary genre has proven itself to be more interested in listening to and featuring Native people. Obscure yet fascinating is the work of Navajo film student Arlene Bowman. Her film, Navajo Talking Picture (1986), a documentary of her attempt to film her grandmother, puzzled audiences then and now. Her grandmother seemed unwilling to participate in the filming, and for some audiences, Arlene broke Diné expectations and norms around treatment of family and elders. Bowman pushed her grandmother and continued filming her even when her grandmother resisted, refused, and even walked away. Bowman’s struggle spoke to the disconnect between some Native people growing up in cities when they try to deepen their relations with those living on reservations. She also created Song Journey (1994), but Talking Picture has remained her signature film.17

Return of Navajo Boy (2000), a documentary in which Bill Kennedy visits the Diné or Navajo reservation to learn more about his father, the man who made The Navajo Boy (1950s, no exact date) as a film made by Kennedy’s father for his personal use. The film was never screened. As Bill’s father photographed the Cly family in The Navajo Boy, he begins his filmic journey in conversation with them, asking them to tell him about his father, a man he did not understand. In conversations with Elsie Mae Begay, a woman who appeared in Kennedy’s father’s film as a little girl, the producers learn her mother, Happy, died of lung cancer. This turns the film toward the subject of uranium mining on the reservation and the devastating health effects to Navajos as a result. Because of a newspaper story about the film, Elsie’s brother who was taken by missionaries when her brother was a baby, reads about Elsie and is reunited with her through the production of the movie.

With many documentaries to choose from given how prolific Native filmmakers have been in the genre, 100 Years (2016) stands out as a documentary featuring Eloise Cobell of the Blackfeet Nation, who went to the Supreme Court to take back some of the money embezzled by unknown entities from Native people’s trust accounts held by the United States government.18 Eloise estimated the amount embezzled to be around $27 billion, and the payout was only $3 billion. The film presents the story of a heroic Native woman and its exposure of the men who stood in her way. Amá (2019) documents the sterilization of Jean Whitehorse of the Diné Nation and her spiritual recovery toward healing and her efforts to expose the forced sterilization of Native women by the American government. Gather (2020) produced by Jason Mamoa enters the world of Native people bringing back Native foods to reservation and border communities through education and restaurants. Basketball or Nothing (2019) tells the story of the high school team on the Navajo Reservation striving to go to the all-state championship as winners. By Blood (2016) delves into the anti-Black racism of Cherokee Nation, chronicling the saga of Cherokees descended from freedmen being disenrolled, fighting for inclusion with the support of Marilyn Vann, David Cornsilk, and many others, to eventually be reenrolled after a serious court battle. Kind Hearted Woman (2013) consolidates three years of filming Robin Poor Bear, who leaves her abusive husband only to discover his abuse of her daughter. Native documentarians have produced dozens of documentaries, but these films can be difficult to access as they are sometimes not screened at all, rarely screened, or not streamed.

Film festivals remain the bedrock of independent Native filmmakers in the early 21st century. Many film festivals today showcase the work of Native artists, both as feature filmmakers and documentarians. Film festivals devoted to Indigenous content in the United States continue to grow each year. Some notable events include: Red Earth Film Festival in Oklahoma City, imagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival, American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco, First Nations Film and Video Festival curated by Ernest M. Whiteman III in Chicago, Navajo Film Festival in Farmington, New Mexico, Smithsonian Native Cinema Showcase in Washington, DC, Indigenous Film and Arts Festival in Denver, and the LA Skins Fest in Los Angeles.

Discussion of the Literature

Scholars approach the topic of Native Americans in film and television using textual analysis. Wild West shows are considered the precursor to film, and scholars such as Linda McNenly and L. G. Moses have demonstrated the participation of Native people in this industry. Independent writer Andrew Brodie Smith tells a story of Native people in early film from a business vantage point, suggesting that commercial interests took over the western genre where Native characters resided. The literature on westerns touches on images of Native people, and the most important scholar here would be Professor of English Richard Slotkin, who argues that violence in the American West is foundational not just to representation, but to American history itself. Slotkin devoted his career to this topic, writing an entire series of tomes on the topic. Professor of English Armando José Prats shows that Native people can be represented without their presence through the use of arrows and other symbols of violence. Jacqueline Kilpatrick critically engaged filmic representations of Native people, finding many opportunities to critique the historically inaccurate 20th century films and suggesting the social and psychological damage done by such films. Lecturer in Business Communication Angela Aleiss provides an analysis of Native people in film with more of an archival approach and noting the biographical details of those involved in film. Edward Buscombe of the British Film Institute emphasizes the early period as a dynamic one. Professors of English Gretchen Bataille and Michael Hilger both published numerous books on Native people in film, some of which were critiques and others served as annotated filmographies.19

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Joanna Hearne, Randolph Lewis, Michelle Raheja, and Dustin Tahmahkera have contributed to the scholarly literature about Native film and television media. In Native Recognition, Joanna Hearne sees westerns and Natives involved in a dialectic in which westerns need Native people, and Native people have used westerns in their own cinematic representations for their own ends. Hearne makes the case that Smoke Signals is the most important film of the 20th century for Native people. For Hearne, filmmakers Sherman Alexie and Chris Eyre methodically appropriated mainstream pop culture to tell a uniquely Native American story. Professor of English Michelle Raheja painstakingly details how films have represented Native people as a people on the point of extinction and a people incapable of adaptation and change. But these representations are complicated by the presence of Native people themselves who participated in their creation. Raheja also offers close readings of several films such as Imprint (2007), It Starts with a Whisper (1993), and Atanarjuat (2001). Professor of American Studies Randolph Lewis wrote Alanis Obomsawin and Navajo Talking Picture to highlight the work of Native female documentarians Alanis Obomsawin and Arlene Bowman. He shows that documentary was the preferred genre of many Native filmmakers in the 20th century, suggesting a certain futurity around this form. Last, Dustin Tahmahkera’s book on Native people in television makes the innovative argument that these images are not necessarily steeped in stereotype or absurdity but instead present humorous possibilities and commentary on the history of relations between settlers and Native people. His second book on Comanches in cinema approaches the topic with a historic organization beginning in 1875 when Comanches entered their reservation to the present with LaDonna Harris adopting Johnny Depp during the filming of The Lone Ranger. There continues to be a gap in the literature on Native people in television, with very few scholars writing about the 20th and 21st century television representations of Native people.

Primary Sources

Further Reading

  • Black, Liza. Picturing Indians: Native Americans in Film, 1941–1960. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2020.
  • Black, Liza. “The Exiles: Native Survivance and Urban Space in Downtown Los Angeles.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 42, no. 3 (2018): 155–182.
  • Buffalohead, Eric L., and M. Elise Marubbio, eds. Native Americans on Film: Conversations, Teaching, and Theory. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2013.
  • Cummings, Denise K., ed. Visualities: Perspectives on Contemporary American Indian Film and Art. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2011.
  • Cummings, Denise K., ed. Visualities 2: More Perspectives on Contemporary American Indian Film and Art. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2019.
  • Evans, Michael Robert. “The Fast Runner”: Filming the Legend of Atanarjuat. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2010.
  • Fitzgerald, Michael Ray. Native Americans on Network TV: Stereotypes, Myths, and the “Good Indian.” Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013.
  • Hearne, Joanna. Native Recognition: Indigenous Cinema and the Western. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2012.
  • Hearne, Joanna. “Smoke Signals”: Native Cinema Rising. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2012.
  • Howe, LeAnne, Harvey Markowitz, and Denise K. Cummings, eds. Seeing Red: Hollywood’s Pixeled Skins. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2013.
  • Lewis, Randolph. Alanis Obomsawin: The Vision of a Native Filmmaker. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2006.
  • Lewis, Randolph. “Navajo Talking Picture”: Cinema on Native Ground. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2012.
  • Marubbio, M. Elise. Killing the Indian Maiden: Images of Native American Women in Film. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2006.
  • McNenly, Linda Scarangella. Native Performers in Wild West Shows: From Buffalo Bill to Euro Disney. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2012.
  • Moses, L. G.Wild West Shows and the Images of American Indians, 1883–1933. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.
  • Prats, Armando José. Invisible Natives: Myth and Identity in the American Western. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002.
  • Rader, Dean. Engaged Resistance: American Indian Art, Literature, and Film from Alcatraz to the NMAI. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2011.
  • Raheja, Michelle H.Reservation Reelism: Redfacing, Visual Sovereignty, and Representations of Native Americans in Film. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2011.
  • Rosenthal, Nicolas, and Liza Black, eds. “Representing Native Peoples: Native Narratives of Indigenous History and Culture.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 42, no. 3 (2018): 1–10.
  • Schweninger, Lee. Imagic Moments: Indigenous North American Film. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2013.
  • Singer, Beverly R.Wiping the War Paint Off the Lens: Native American Film and Video. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001.
  • Slotkin, Richard. Gunfighter Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Harper Perennial, 1992.
  • Tahmahkera, Dustin. Tribal Television: Viewing Native People in Sitcoms. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.
  • Ware, Amy M.The Cherokee Kid: Will Rogers, Tribal Identity, and the Making of an American Icon. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2015.