feature image: Shimasani

Exerts from Variety, “Native American Heritage Month: 7 Films to Illuminate Diverse Experiences

Billy Luther, November 2, 2020

 Four Sheets to the Wind”(2007) –  by Sterlin Harjo (Seminole/Muscogee)

This coming-of-age-film by Sterlin Harjo follows a young American Indian, Cufe, played by Cody Lightning, who leaves the reservation after his father dies. His father’s death prompts Cufe to seek life beyond the reservation and explore this life outside.

“Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner” (2001) by Zacharias Kunuk (Inuit)

This film was historic in so many ways. It’s the first feature film to ever be written and acted in the Inuktitut language. It also features an almost entirely Intuit cast. This film is based on ancient myth. Set in the Canadian arctic, the epic drama tells a story of love, crime, murder and ultimately family and justice.

Trudell”  (2005) – By Heather Rae

“Trudell” follows the extraordinary life of Native American poet and activist John Trudell. This documentary from Heather Rae traces Trudell’s impoverished childhood in Omaha to his leadership in the American Indian Movement (AIM).

Rae captures the tragedy that followed after Trudell burned the American flag at the FBI headquarters when his pregnant wife, children and mother-in-law were killed in an arson attack on the reservation.

“Halpate” (2020) by co-directors Adam Piron (Kiowa/Mohawk) and Adam Khalil (Ojibway)

Alligator wrestling is considered a staple of Florida tourism and the Seminole tribe has been practicing it for over a century. Piron and Khalil capture the hazards of the spectacle but also focus on how this “tourist attraction” is essential to the survival of the Seminole people.

“Shimasani” (2009) by Blackhorse Lowe (Dine/Navajo)

Shot in gorgeous black and white, this elegiac period piece set in 1934 captures a moment of decision for two restless Navajo sisters living with their grandmother on the reservation. One must choose to either stay at home or leave to go to boarding school.

The majority of Americans have never heard of the boarding/residential schools many Native Americans and First Nations were forced into.

“Sweetheart Dancers” (2019) – By Ben-Alex Dupris (Miniconjou Lakota)

“Sweetheart Dancers” is a story about Sean and Adrian, a Two-Spirit couple determined to rewrite the rules of Native American culture through their participation in the “Sweetheart Dance.” This celebratory contest is held at powwows across the country primarily for men and women couples. Sean and Adrian’s story is different — they are a gay couple living Native life on the powwow trail.

“Merata: How Mum Decolonized the Screen” (2018) By Heperi Mita (of Māori Ngāti Pikiao and Ngāi Te Rangi)

“Merata” resonates deeply because she is and was a mentor to so many Native and Indigenous filmmakers — Taika Waititi, Sterlin Harjo, Blackhorse Lowe, and Chelsea Winstanley.

The documentary is an intimate tribute from a son about his mother that delves into the life of the first woman from an Indigenous Nation to solely direct a film anywhere in the world. Known as the grandmother of Indigenous cinema, Merata’s independent political documentaries of the ‘70s and ‘80s highlighted injustices for Māori people, and often divided the country. Mita was fearless in her life, her activism and her art.

Chronicling the director’s journey to decolonize the film and television screens of New Zealand and the world, the film documents her work, her early struggles with her family and her drive for social justice that often proved personally dangerous.

Billy Luther’s (Navajo, Hopi, and Laguna Pueblo Tribes) previous credits include the documentary “Miss Navajo” and the 2018 reality TV series “Alter-Native.” Luther’s narrative feature “Frybread Face and Me” was selected as part of the 2020 Sundance Institute/Film Independent Directors and Screenwriters Labs. Taika Waititi is on board to executive produce.