8 Native American People Who Revolutionized the Film Industry
Native Americans have made extraordinary contributions to film — both in front of and behind the camera — throughout the medium’s history. Even when Hollywood’s depictions of Native Americans were offensive and inauthentic, standout performers like Black Cree actor Woody Strode made strong impressions on audiences in John Ford Westerns and other classics.
From the success of FX’s Reservation Dogs to the recent release of Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, a new generation of Native American movie-makers — from actors like Paulina Alexis and Lily Gladstone to behind-the-camera talent like Sterlin Harjo and the in Native Oklahomans Scorsese recruited — are forging a new future for the industry.
In honor of National Native American Heritage Month, here is a (short) list of eight Native Americans whose contributions have changed the course of film history.
1. Wes Studi
Wes Studi, a Cherokee Nation actor, has made memorable appearances in a number of Michael Mann films, mostly notably Last of the Mohicans (1992), as Magua. In the film, Magua is a villain, to be sure, but he also represents the plight of Native Americans caught between warring factions. Studi’s other film roles include Mann’s Heat (1995) and Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves (1990).
Studi received an Academy Honorary Award in 2019 and was the first Native American to be honored by the Academy solely for acting. The New York Times also placed him on its list of the 25 Greatest Actors of the 21st Century (So Far). This list praised him as a “master of expressive opacity,” in that Studi “shows you the mask and what lies beneath, both the thinking and the feeling.”
2. Chris Eyre
Writer-director Chris Eyre, described by People magazine as “the preeminent Native American filmmaker of his time,” was born in Oregon in 1968. Eyre’s breakthrough film was the Sundance hit Smoke Signals (1998), a tender coming-of-age film written by legendary Native novelist Sherman Alexie and based on his book of short stories.
Smoke Signals broke new ground with its intimate and authentic look at Native American life. It was also noted as the first film with national distribution to have a predominantly Native cast and key crew. At Sundance, the film won the Audience Award and Filmmaker’s Trophy New York University Tisch School Of the Arts graduate Eyre. Since then, Eyre has created films and television series, including the current series Dark Winds, a period piece about two 1970s Navajo police officers in the Southwest.
3. Sterlin Harjo
As mentioned above, filmmaker Sterlin Harjo’s FX series, Reservation Dogs, has charmed critics and audiences with its depiction of teen life on the reservation. Harjo’s characters feel real and flawed as they cope with the death of a friend and attempt to make lives for themselves off the reservation. Harjo is a citizen of the Seminole Nation of Oklahoma and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. In addition to Reservation Dogs, Harjo has directed numerous short films and features, including Barking Water (2009), which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. His documentary, This May Be the Last Time (2014), tells the true story of his grandfather’s disappearance.
Reservation Dogs is produced by popular filmmaker Taika Waititi, a New Zealand filmmaker with Maori heritage, whose success as the director of JoJo Rabbit (2019) and the Thor films were integral to bringing Reservation Dogs to a wide audience. The success of this series illustrates the power of Indigenous collaboration in film and television.
4. Erica Tremblay
Erica Tremblay is a filmmaker from the Seneca-Cayuga Nation. She worked with Sterlin Harjo on several projects, including Reservation Dogs, and her short Little Chief, starring Lily Gladstone, premiered at Sundance in 2015. It’s a moving tale of the relationship between a teacher and student in Oklahoma and represents a realistic “story of contemporary Native America.”
In Tremblay’s words: “How do colonized cultures grapple with educating their youth in culturally-aware ways? What are the burdens on the next generation, and how are these children emotionally coping with a grim reality that they neither chose nor control?”
5. Amber Midthunder
Last year, Amber Midthunder proved her action-star chops as the survivor protagonist in Hulu’s Predator film Prey (2022). Midthunder, whose father is Native actor David Midthunder, is a member of the Fort Peck Sioux tribe.
Amber is reimagining how Native Americans are portrayed in Hollywood movies by bringing new representation to mainstream action and genre hits like Prey and, before that, the FX series Legion.
6. Alethea Arnaquq-Baril
Alethea Arnaquq-Baril (Iqaluit, Nunavut Territory) is making her mark as a documentarian and chronicler of Native culture in films like Angry Inuk (2016), which takes an unflinching look at the culture of seal hunting. Arnaquq-Baril’s production company, Unikkaat Studios, is known for presenting all sides of issues that frequently attract controversy.
7. Sydney Freeland
The Emmy-nominated Sydney Freeland, of Navajo descent, is best known for her work as director of Drunktown’s Finest. With a 2014 Sundance premiere, this film explores LGBTQIA+ issues in Native communities through the story of three young people on the Navajo reservation where Freeland grew up. The film was praised for its realism and its light touch, despite bleak themes. Freeland has also been active in TV directing, including the groundbreaking Native comedy Rutherford Falls.
8. Ray Halbritter
Ray Halbritter is the CEO of Oneida Nation Enterprises, which initiated Standing Arrow Productions. Standing Arrow’s purpose is to increase authentic representation of Native American people and culture on-screen.
Since producers often influence how stories are told, Halbritter’s commitment is valuable to the future of Native American storytelling. Initiatives like Sundance’s Indigenous Lab will continue to amplify Native American voices. But it’s also critical for commercial producers like Halbritter to support and give sizable budgets to Native American filmmakers.
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