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Five Native Films You Should Be Streaming In 2021
by Ryan Winn - Tribal College Journal

A month before COVID ran rampant in the United States, fans of Native film had reason to celebrate. What now seems like years ago, Maori filmmaker Taika Waitiki took the stage on February 9th, 2020, at the Academy Awards ceremony to accept the Oscar for best adapted screenplay. Set in Nazi Germany in the waning days of WWII, the winning film, Jojo Rabbit, was justly lauded for conveying a cathartic message of hope and humor during a time of unspeakable horror. Yet it’s the message Waitiki spoke from that elite podium that resonates loudest. The first Indigenous person to be nominated and to win the award, Waitiki stated before an international audience of television viewers, “I dedicate this to all the Indigenous kids that live in the world who want to dance and write stories. We are the original storytellers and we can make it here as well.” Native filmmakers are telling stories that run the gamut of emotions, employing both new technology and ancient wisdom to create cinema that reflects their people’s experiences. I’m once again honored to be an advocate for the powerful Native films you should be streaming in 2021.

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band

Inspired by Mohawk guitarist Robbie Robertson’s autobiography Testimony, this film shares the story of the group known simply as The Band. Mixing exclusive interviews and archival footage, the documentary captures the inspiration and musicianship behind hits like “Up on Cripple Creek,” “The Weight,” and “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” Yet beyond the craftsmanship, the film conveys the kinship the five group members enjoyed within the creative space they shared. Addiction and egos deepened the divide that famously split the group after Martin Scorsese’s film The Last Waltz, but this documentary captures why they inspired both their peers and the generations of artists who followed them.

The Grizzlies

Based upon the true story of a non-Native high school history teacher who taught lacrosse to a remote Inuit community in Canada, this film depicts both the power of hope and tragedy that festers in its absence. While it would be easy to churn out a script depicting the tired, problematic story of “the white savior cometh to Native people,” what gives this film its heart are the elders who unexpectedly expound upon the value of adaptation grounded in traditional teachings. This story does not shy away from the hardships of isolation, abuse, and suicidal thoughts, but it pairs them with the truth that generational change is possible through empathy, education, and firm ties to cultural values.

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open

Beginning with a chance meeting of two women on a public street, this film dramatizes both the wounds of domestic abuse and some of the reasons why victims remain with their abusers. Shot in continuous action scenes that often linger on a single speaker, viewers watch as pregnant teen Rosie, portrayed by Violet Nelson (Kwakwaka'wakw/Honduran), both condemns and defends the father of her unborn child. Meanwhile, Aitla, portayed by the co-writer and co-director Elle-Máijá Apiniskim Tailfeathers (Blackfoot/Sámi), offers kindness and accepts humorous jabs from the young women she hopes to deliver to a safe haven. The true-to-life complexity of Rosie’s struggle demonstrates that abuse victims’ choices are rarely simple.

nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up

Cree filmmaker Tasha Hubbard’s documentary follows the story of fellow Cree tribal member Colten Boushie, who was killed by gunshot for trespassing on non-Native land. Outraged by the dehumanizing social media vitriol directed at Boushie’s memory, the victim’s family and peers contest the narrative that Boushie and his friends were looking to steal from the rancher who killed him. The film’s revelation of intergenerational racism is nearly as appalling as the inexcusable incompetence with which the crime scene was processed. Yet this is a story about how justified indignation inspires a family to stand up and carry Boushie’s story to the highest offices in both Canada and the United Nations.


The progression of settler-colonialism supplanted many tribes’ food cultivation practices through encroachment and land desecration, but this documentary film conveys stories of how Native people are reclaiming their traditional foods. In one segment, Chef Nephi Craig (Apache) converts an abandoned gas station into a restaurant serving his ancestors’ foods. Another follows Elsie Dubray (Cheyenne) who applies her family’s knowledge of buffalo ranching to her biochemistry studies. And in another story, Sammy Gensaw III (Yoruk) directs a group called the Ancestral Guard, which advocates for and practices traditional salmon harvests. The film’s subjects personify what Gensaw asserts—the Industrial Revolution is over; the Restorative Revolution has just begun.

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While 2020 will go down in the history books as a year filled with unimaginable loss, the films in this list collectively convey a message of hope. Whether it is music, sports, parenthood, sovereignty, or cultural reclamation, Indigenous people are resilient. As Waitiki stated, Native people are the original storytellers, and their stories resonate whether they’re shared around a campfire or on a flat screen. Although 2021 is off to a rough start, there’s cause for optimism. May the films on this list help to fortify and inspire you to persist wherever this year takes you.

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Ryan Winn teaches in the Liberal Studies Department at College of Menominee Nation.

Schaffstall, K. (2020, February 9). Oscars: Taika Waititi Dedicates Best Adapted Screenplay Win to Indigenous Kids, “the Original Storytellers.” Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved from:

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Inquisitive Academic or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

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