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Know the West

5 films to Indigenize your watch-at-home movie list

Searching for fresh entertainment during the pandemic? Try these Indigenous-centered movies.


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Over the last few months, as COVID-19 changed day-to-day life in communities under stay-at-home orders, quarantined people have been spending an inordinate time at, well, home. People across the world are streaming movies and shows at an all-time high as they find ways to entertain themselves. Indigenous-centered cinema is a requisite to any movie-watching list, featuring storylines that only Indigenous actors and directors could imagine and produce.

Here are five films from the last decade that showcase Indigenous talent. They should be on your quarantine watchlist, whether they’re new to you or a revisitation of a classic:

Boy (2010) by Taika Waititi (Māori) 

James Rolleston in a scene from “Boy” (2010).
Unison Films

Taika Waititi tore through barriers earlier this year when he accepted an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for JoJo Rabbit and became the first Indigenous filmmaker to go home with an Oscar. One of his great talents is his ability to balance painful issues with a laugh-out-loud-worthy, dark sense of humor, evident in JoJo Rabbit as well as in Boy, his film from a decade ago. The titular character is a young Māori kid on the east coast of New Zealand in the ’80s, whose world of awkward crushes and ice pops is turned upside down when the father he never knew, portrayed by Waititi himself, comes home.

Rhymes for Young Ghouls (2013) by Jeff Barnaby (Mikmaq)

Devery Jacobs stars in “Rhymes for Young Ghouls” (2013).
Prospector Films


The historical trauma of residential schools is a common theme in Indigenous filmmaking, but Jeff Barnaby’s Rhymes for Young Ghouls is particularly empowering. Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs (Kanienʼkehá꞉ka) is Aila, a resourceful teenage girl on the Red Crow Mi'kmaq Reservation in 1976, who resists the colonizing laws of Canada and the corrupt Indian agent who attempts to force her to comply with them. When Aila’s father reappears, her suppressed anger resurfaces and pushes her family’s issues to the forefront. Rhymes for Young Ghouls is different from other “coming of age” films. 

Mekko (2015) by Sterlin Harjo (Seminole-Muscogee)

Rod Rondeaux in a scene from “Mekko” (2015).
Indion Entertainment Group

Sterlin Harjo is a hardworking filmmaker whose résumé includes everything from documentary to television. His latest feature film tackles a specific diaspora that Oklahoma Natives will understand, given the state’s history as Indian Territory. This underlying historical tension is at work in Mekko as the main character tries to find his way on the streets of Tulsa after serving a 19-year prison sentence. As he settles into his post-prison life, disturbing visions of an evil spirit among his community force Mekko to re-examine his own past. 

Lorena, Light-footed Woman (2019) by Juan Carlos Rulfo

Lorena Ramirez is a Tarahumara runner and the subject of the documentary, “Lorena, Light-footed Woman” (2019).

Among the hills of the Chihuahua region of Mexico Lorena Ramirez, an Indigenous Rarámuri woman, honors the legacy of her people by running miles upon miles in her traditional skirts and sandals. This short documentary — originally released under the title Lorena, la de pies ligeros — looks at Lorena’s experience as not only a runner, but an ultra-marathon competitor who travels to big cities to showcase her natural ability. Not only does Lorena enjoy running, she uses her physical activity to connect with her ancestors, who are known to this day for their long-distance running capabilities. Lorena is a beautiful portrait of strength and a reminder of the resilience of Indigenous peoples.

The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open (2019) by Kathleen Hepburn, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers (Blackfoot and Sámi)

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Violet Nelson star in “The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open” (2019).
Experimental Forest Films/Violator Films


Appearing as one long continuous shot in real time, the poetic story in The Body Remembers tackles tough topics like domestic abuse and the ownership of one’s body while also questioning fate and coincidence. Could there be a reason for this chance encounter on a rainy day between two Indigenous women? Co-writer and director Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers also portrays Áila, one of the two women, and newcomer Violet Nelson (Kwakwakaʼwakw) shows promise as an actor in the blossoming world of Indigenous filmmaking.

Shea Vassar is a freelance journalist and citizen of the Cherokee Nation who is currently based out of Brooklyn, New York. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.