Must-See Indigenous Movies and TV Shows That Are Streaming Now

These are a must-watch

A moment from the film AWAKE, A Dream From Standing Rock. (Photo: Netflix Canada)

Indigenous people and stories are a vital part of Canada’s past, present and future, and yet a recent study revealed that they are largely absent from our entertainment media landscape.

A 2019 report from the non-profit organization Women in View found that gender balance has improved in the Canadian media landscape, but there is *still* disproportionally fewer women of colour and Indigenous women on and behind the scenes. For instance, according to the study, there were 24 television series created in 2017 and 28% of the key creative roles (writing, directing and cinematography) were held by women—an 11% increase from 2014. And yet, there was not a single Indigenous woman on any of the 24 television series studied in 2017. The study concludes that at present, “Women of colour and Indigenous women are not sharing in the modest gains that other women are experiencing.”

In an interview with Global News, Tracey Deer, an award-winning Mohawk filmmaker and board chair for Women in View, noted that “What we are putting out on our television screens really does shape our society, so those stories need to be representative of the society we are in.”

In honour of Indigenous History Month, platforms like CBC Gem, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video Canada and Crave are now streaming numerous Indigenous movies and TV shows that bring some much-needed representation to the screen. Here are some of the must-see titles:

Rhymes for Young Ghouls

Where to find it: CBC Gem

Synopsis: It’s 1976 on the Red Crow Mi’g Maq reservation. By government decree, every “Indian” child under the age of 16 must attend residential school. In the kingdom of the Crow, that means imprisonment at St. Dymphna’s and being at the mercy of “Popper,” the sadistic agent who runs the school.

Why you should watch it: This is award-winning filmmaker, Jeff Barnaby’s first feature film and it made its debut at TIFF in 2013. Barnaby was born on the Mi’gmaq reserve in Listijug, Quebec and the film navigates hardships that he experienced in his own community. “The story of Rhymes for Young Ghouls is well-told, well-paced and nicely poised between moments of tension and tenderness,” wrote Wayne K. Spears in his review of the film for HuffPost.

Skindigenous

Where to find it: CBC Gem

Synopsis: A 13-part documentary series exploring Indigenous tattooing traditions around the world. Each episode dives into a unique Indigenous culture to discover the tools and techniques, the symbols and traditions that shape their tattooing art. In this series, the art of tattoo becomes a lens for exploring some of the planet’s oldest cultures and their unique perspectives on life, identity and the natural world.

Why you should watch it: This beautifully shot series, which aired on APTN last year, takes viewers to different corners of the world from Hawaii to Philippines and back to Canada, showcasing different styles and techniques of tattooing and peoples’ deep cultural roots. As one of the voiceovers in the trailer says, these tattoos are a way for Indigenous people to show how proud they are to be from their communities and their nations. “They’re not hiding it anymore. To see it happen, and to be a part of that is very exciting.”

Sober House

Where to find it: CBC Gem

Synopsis: When a small group of outspoken Cree youth in Northern Saskatchewan look to break the cycle of damage caused by alcohol in their communities, they turn to the “Sober House” concept as a way to facilitate change.

Why you should watch it: We often hear the young people are changing our future for the better, and this documentary short showcases exactly that. In Prince Albert, Sask., four teenagers took it upon themselves to transform their community—which was ranked as the fourth most dangerous community in Canada in 2019—into a sober community, one house at a time. And they haven’t stopped there. According to CBC, since the documentary finished shooting, the teens involved have taken their Sober House idea to other communities in the province.

Biidaaban: The Dawn Comes

Where to find it: CBC Gem

Synopsis: Since time immemorial, Indigenous people have harvested sap from trees to produce syrup, a practice that continues today. Two main characters—Biidaaban, a young Indigenous gender fluid person and Sabe, a Sasquatch shapeshifter—set out to harvest sap from sugar maples in their urban environment and private neighbourhoods of the city. Biidaabaan can see traces of time, people, creatures and land. By harvesting syrup in this way, they are continuing the work of their ancestors.

Why you should watch it: Watching this stop-motion animated short film, you’ll find yourself intrigued by the beautiful visuals and the mixture of a historical story within a contemporary setting. CBC described the film, which took two years to produce, as “a tale of magic and resistance”—one which earned filmmaker Amanda Strong a Canadian Screen Award nomination for 2019 Best Animated Short.

Black Rock

Where to find it: CBC Gem

Synopsis: Black Rock follows the intertwining stories of a community divided, those who are determined to protect the land and those who are working for a paycheque at the uranium mines to survive.

Why you should watch it: As an award-winning author and professional photographer, Tenille Campbell returned to her English River First Nation’s community to photograph the stories from residents for her art gallery project. The stories you’ll hear from this documentary short capture both sides of the conflict from people who worked at the mines, and those fighting what they call “the invasion” of these industries in the North.

Future History

Where to find it: CBC Gem

Synopsis: Directed by Jennifer Podemski, this series sees hosts Kris Nahrgang and Sarain Fox embark on a personal journey of discovery. By seeking out those who are harnessing Indigenous Knowledge and amplifying Indigenous Perspectives, Nahrgang and Fox gain a deeper understanding of what it means to have an Indigenous World View. Committed to exploring the diversity of perspectives and knowledge within the Indigenous community in an effort to create a deeper understanding of our shared history while looking forward to a brighter future anchored by Indigenous Knowledge.

Why you should watch it: This documentary series is an immersive way of learning about Indigenous history, which all too often is absent from history books and classrooms. Through two of the hosts’ personal experiences, viewers discover the meaning of Indigenous life from a past and present perspective—and get a look at what the future could hold. With this series, viewers get a chance to witness and learn about Indigenous life, as told by Indigenous people themselves.

Bighetty & Bighetty

Indigenous muppets posing for a group shot.
(Photo: Courtesy of CBC Gem)

Where to find it: CBC Gem

Synopsis: Four brothers—and their Cree-speaking puppets—Marcel, Baptiste, Michel and The Chief—show the silly, joyful side of Indigenous life.

Why you should watch it: This documentary about four brothers and their fun-loving Indigenous puppets will remind you of The Muppets or Sesame Street. They showcase the happy points of Indigenous life, which they note, often gets overlooked. You’ll be laughing and learning about the beauty of the Cree language, which these brothers don’t want to see get lost.

RUMBLE: The Indians Who Rocked the World

Where to find it: Crave

Synopsis: Filmmaker Catherine Bainbridge examines the role of Native Americans in contemporary music history. She exposes a critical missing chapter, revealing how Indigenous musicians helped influence popular culture.

Why you should watch it: The popular music we listen to today, from its melodies and rhythms to its beats, was in some way influenced by Indigenous artists. This multiple award-winning documentary features some of the century’s biggest pop stars, including Steven Tyler, Tony Bennett and Buffy Sainte-Marie, as it traces the Indigenous roots of the music we love. According to The New York Times review, “If you couldn’t name two Native American musicians at the beginning of the documentary, you’ll remember at least a half-dozen after the end. And it’s a good bet you’ll be searching for their albums, too.”

Kayak to Klemtu

Where to watch it: Crave

Synopsis: A 14-year-old girl readies for a kayak trip along the shores of the Great Bear rainforest with her family to protest oil tanker traffic.

Why you should watch it: Winning the 2017 imagineNATIVE Audience Choice Award, this movie follows the journey of a young girl, Ella, making a dangerous trek to an Indigenous land to pay homage to her dead uncle and protest against building a pipeline that threatens the people’s only source for water. Ella is played by Indigenous singer and activist Ta’Kaiya Blaney, well-known for her work as an environmentalist who also speaks at UN meetings around the world.

Indian Horse

Where to watch it: Crave

Synopsis: A Canadian First Nations boy, Saul Indian Horse, survives a residential school in the 1970s. A talented hockey player, Saul must find his own path as he battles stereotypes and alcoholism.

Why you should watch it: This movie is more than the story of an athletically gifted boy surviving the trauma of residential schools. It’s a riveting reflection of Canadian oppression that still impacts generations of First Nations peoples. Based on the best-selling novel by Richard Wagamese with executive producer Clint Eastwood, this film created lots of buzz at TIFF last year and won the people’s choice award at the Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary international film festivals.

The Lesser Blessed

Where to watch it: Crave

Synopsis: A teen (Joel Nathan Evans) from Canada’s Ticho tribe tries to rise above the drugs and violence that threaten to pull him down.

Why you should watch it: Being in high school is hard, but especially so when you’re an alienated First Nations teen trying to start fresh after “the accident.” It took seven years to get this compelling story to the screen, but the result was worth the wait. The 2013 Canadian film is set in the Northwest Territories but was shot in Sudbury, Ont. with a mostly Canadian cast. And while The Lesser Blessed is an Indigenous story, it is also a relatable film for people of all different backgrounds who are struggling with identity and trauma.

Our People Will Be Healed

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime Video

Synopsis: Alanis Obomsawin’s 50th film reveals how the Cree community in Norway House, Man. has been enriched through the power of education. This documentary conveys a message of hope: that in an appropriate school environment, one that incorporates a people’s history, language and culture, Indigenous youth can change their lives.

Why you should watch it: This 2017 documentary, from legendary filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin, showcases Manitoba’s Helen Betty Osborne Ininiw Education Resource Centre where Cree students learn about their culture alongside the regular school curriculum. When the film premiered, TIFF listed it as one of the top ten Canadian films.

Holy Angels

Streaming: Amazon Prime Video

Synopsis: In 1963, Lena Wandering Spirit became one of the more than 150,000 Indigenous children who were removed from their families and sent to residential school. Jay Cardinal Villeneuve’s short documentary Holy Angels powerfully recaptures Canada’s colonialist history through impressionistic images and the fragmented language of a child.

Why you should watch it: The 13-minute documentary follows the story of Lena Wandering Spirit, who was taken to a residential school in Northern Alberta. Her story, told with beautiful and haunting visuals, is equally difficult and important to hear. According to the National Film Board of Canada, “Holy Angels speaks of the resilience of a people who have found ways of healing—and of coming home again.”

American Gods (Season 2)

(Photo: Amazon Prime Canada)

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime Video

Synopsis: The battle between Old Gods and New Gods continues to brew as we join Mr. Wednesday just a few short hours after his declaration of war and the epic showdown that ensued at Easter’s party. While Mr. World plans revenge for Wednesday’s attack, Mr. Wednesday continues his quest to pitch the case for war to the Old Gods with Shadow, Laura and Mad Sweeney in tow. Canadian actor Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs plays Sam Black Crow, a two-spirit college student from the Cherokee Nation.

Why you should watch it: This American supernatural drama is especially groundbreaking for its Indigenous representation of a 2S character, Sam Black Crow, known for having a bold personality and chainsaw art—and actor Jacobs says she relates to her character on a personal level: “I’m also college-aged. I’m also queer. The character was just me,” she told Indian Country Today

Stolen

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime Video

Synopsis: A young Indigenous girl escapes from a foster home, only to be picked up by a dangerous stranger. In Canada there are more than 1,200 documented cases of missing and murdered Indigenous girls and women. This film shines a light on the issue.

Why you should watch it: Directed by Indigenous actor Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs, the documentary follows the life of a young Native girl wgo mysteriously goes missing. On the 2016 Kickstarter page for the film, Jacobs said, “With this ever-increasing epidemic, and the Government’s refusal for a National Inquiry, STOLEN has never been more important to tell… It’s also never been more important for Canadians to hear.” The National Inquiry did eventually happen, and in the final report, the chief commissioner recognized the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls as genocide.

Two Spirited 

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime Video

Synopsis: This short tells the empowering story of Rodney “Geeyo” Poucette’s struggle against prejudice  as a two-spirit person. After registering as a dancer in the Kamloopa Powwow under the Jingle Dress category (normally reserved for women), Geeyo is deeply humiliated by a misguided elder.

Why you should watch it: There are still challenges for two-spirit Indigenous peoples inside and outside of their communities. Geeyo’s story shines a light on these hardships. According to The National Filmboard of Canada, this six-minute doc was part of the “First Stories” program for emerging filmmakers from the Indigenous community.

AWAKE, A Dream from Standing Rock

Where to watch it: Netflix Canada

Synopsis: Capturing global attention, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe leads a peaceful protest against an oil pipeline threatening the drinking water of millions.

Why you should watch it: Josh Fox, the director of Emmy-winning GasLand, brings to life the controversial event that captured the world’s attention. On its website, the documentary is described as “cautionary tale, as these kinds of battles against the oil industry are becoming more prevalent in the United States and the World.” All proceeds made from the film are donated to support future pipeline battles and Indigenous journalists.

Keepers of the Game

Where to watch it: Netflix Canada

Synopsis: As they set their eyes on a championship, an all-Native American girls’ lacrosse team seeks to change their tribe’s attitudes about gender roles.

Why you should watch it: The inspirational and emotional documentary was a New York Time‘s Critics’ Pick in 2016. Watch some amazing lacrosse games as the young women in the film challenge gender norms and cultural traditions.

When Two Worlds Collide

Where to watch it: Netflix Canada

Synopsis: This documentary takes a hard look at how Indigenous peoples clashed violently with the Peruvian government over land and economics in the Amazon.

Why you should watch it: The Spanish documentary was filmed in Peru and follows the political hostility the country faced when the Peru government killed its own people fighting for their land. With a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and multiple award wins and nods, this compelling doc is well-worth a watch.

Related:

7 Indigenous Designers Redefining Traditional Accessories
PSA: Indigenous Cultures Aren’t Ancient History—They’re Rich, Vibrant and Evolving
What Indigenous Activists Want You to Know About the MMIWG Inquiry

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