Photo: Patagonia + Finback Films

7 Moving Documentaries That Show Indigenous Struggles and Successes

by Tim Wenger Oct 10, 2020

November is Native American Heritage Month. In addition to following Indigenous activists on Instagram and learning about Native food cultures, comprehending the societal and environmental issues facing Indigenous communities is key to better understanding what others of us can do to make the world a more equitable place to live. These seven documentary films offer a glimpse into modern issues faced by the Indigenous peoples of North America. Have a watch. You’ll come out better informed — and inspired.

1. What Was Ours

Thousands of ancestral artifacts belonging to Native Americans sit in storage at museums and churches, not even being displayed — much less understood and preserved. In Mat Hames’ 2017 documentary What Was Ours, an Eastern Shoshone Elder and two Northern Arapaho youth embark on a quest to bring these artifacts home and preserve the culture of their ancestors.

2. Water Warriors

Water Warriors begins as a story we’ve seen endless times, where extractive industries like fossil fuels and mining arrive seeking profit, disregarding the needs of Indigenous lands. This particular account is about a natural gas company looking to start fracking in New Brunswick, Canada. But at least in this tale, where Indigenous and white residents and activists fought back in order to protect the local water supply, the good guys come out on top. Water Warriors is a short documentary, and winner of multiple awards in 2018, about the battle for Mi’kmaq Elsipogtog First Nation culture, as well as the farming and fishing communities in New Brunswick.

3. The Radicals

Pro snowboarders and surfers embark on a journey across northern British Columbia and beyond in The Radicals, strengthening their relationship to the land as they learn about issues facing Indigenous communities and the environment along the way. The crux of the film, which premiered in 2018, is the importance of protecting land and rivers, and how outdoor recreationists can learn from Indigenous communities that have been stewards of the land for thousands of years. It highlights the Tahltan as they stand up for the headwaters of the Iskut River and how hydroelectric power threatens the fish populations on which the Xwisten First Nations of northern BC depend. The Radicals features ripping snowboarding and surfing along the way, but it’s the actionable takeaways and narrative storyline that make this one of the best action sports films ever made.

4. Lake of Betrayal

Released in 2017, Lake of Betrayal documents the construction of the Kinzua Dam on the Allegheny River in Pennsylvania and the dramatic fight against it by the Seneca Nation. Beginning in the 1950s, the Seneca Nation rallied against the building of a dam on their sacred land. The dam was eventually completed in 1965, and the reservoir formed behind the dam flooded Seneca ancestral land to mitigate flood risk in Pittsburgh. Yet beyond the sad and all too familiar tale of betrayal, the Seneca people found strength and hope.

5. We Breathe Again

Suicide among Native Americans in Alaska has been on the rise over the past 40 years, in large part the result of a destruction of their once rich traditions by outsiders seeking to claim their land. We Breathe Again, which first screened in 2017, follows four Native Alaskans struggling with the personal impacts of suicide in their community and working to break from the mold. This moving film is set against the contrasting backdrop of the aurora borealis and icy natural whiteness against the paved streets of modernity.

6. We Still Live Here

The Wampanoag of Massachusetts helped the early pilgrims survive, and they paid dearly for it. Many Wampanoag men were sold into offshore slavery while many women were kept as slaves by colonists. In their native tongue, a language nearly forgotten to time, s Nutayuneân means “we still live here.” The film, which won numerous awards after its 2010 debut, is an important story about the Wampanoag, a people nearly wiped from the face of the Earth.

7. The Refuge

This film was made in 2016 but is of particular relevance at this time, since the Trump administration moved to open parts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas exploration in August. The Refuge chronicles the Gwich’in people of Alaska and northern Canada and their fight to protect the area and the wild caribou that roam there, and upon which they depend on for survival.

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