Why 2023 Was the Year Indigenous Stories Finally Broke Through in Hollywood

We’re witnessing an undeniable Native American awakening right now. From Washington, D.C. to Hollywood, centuries of historic erasure and exploitation are slowly being righted with a focus on honest Indigenous stories and discussions. Just look at the groundbreaking run of creators Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi’s coming-of-age dark comedy, Reservation Dogs. Or Martin Scorsese’s epic Killers of the Flower Moon, which delves into the gruesome 1920s murders of the Osage people. Or sci-fi thriller Prey, centered around a female Native superhero, snagging six Emmy nominations. These authentic depictions are wooing mainstream audiences while shattering outdated stereotypes and moving the entertainment industry beyond its often extractive tendencies.

But like many overnight sensations, this breakthrough has actually been years in the making. “It’s the fruits of decades of work, and there were a lot of people who came before me that helped chip away at that block,” Harjo (Seminole/Muscogee) tells me of the resoundingly positive response to Reservation Dogs. “I have been making films for 20 years and have been in countless conversations about how to break through in this industry. It feels like a long time coming.”

For Indigenous viewers like myself, Reservation Dogs, which ran for three seasons on FX/Hulu from 2021–2023, set a gold standard for authentic Native depictions. Featuring an all-Indigenous team of writers, directors, and regular actors, the Peabody Award–winning show follows four teens navigating life on a fictitious Indian reservation in Oklahoma (it was filmed on the real Muscogee Nation in the same state). Beautifully blending humor and heartbreak, the series managed to confront colonialism-driven concerns plaguing tribal communities like forced assimilation, boarding school atrocities, and disproportionate rates of poverty, addiction, disease, and suicide. Native and non-Native audiences alike laughed, cried, and felt deeply connected to the show’s characters—proof that these so-called ‘Indigenous problems’ are really just human issues at their core.

“I made Reservation Dogs for Native people, but it’s so specific and also universal in its thematic storytelling that non-Natives came to the party,” Harjo says. “To truly be human, we have to show everything—we have to show our darkness. The gamble was hoping people would be more excited to see the truthful side of who we are, and that thinking was right.”

A still from Reservation Dogs

Shane Brown/FX

The success of Prey, the fifth installment in the Predator franchise (released in 2022 and nominated for six Emmys at the 2024 ceremony), is wholly different yet required a similar gamble. “When I said I wanted to make a Native sci-fi film, people thought I was crazy,” explains Emmy-winning producer Jhane Myers (Comanche/Blackfeet). “But Native people belong everywhere—in sci-fi, in contemporary rom-coms, in all these spaces where audiences aren’t used to seeing us. I wanted to do something that took us someplace different and to show that a Native female actor could carry a big-box film.”

Actress Amber Midthunder (Fort Peck Assiniboine and Sioux) did just that, stealing the spotlight as the first female hero in the storied series. She played Naru, a young Comanche woman who proves her hunting skills in fighting off the predator. At points throughout the movie, she speaks in the Native language, practices plant medicine, and showcases other tribal traditions.

“In film history, Comanches are always depicted as villains, and I wanted to correct that image that Hollywood had created of my tribe,” says Myers. “I wanted to give little kids a Native female superhero. When Prey came out, it was amazing to see all these videos on social media of little girls throwing pretend axes and doing all kinds of stunts.”

Then there’s Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon, for which the renowned filmmaker collaborated with the Osage Nation to authentically depict their stranger-than-fiction history. After oil was discovered beneath their Oklahoma reservation land in the 1920s, the community became the richest per capita in the world—and also the target of white perpetrators hungry to capitalize on those riches. While not without its criticism, the film signals a shift beyond the exploitative, extractive nature through which Native stories were so often told in the past.

“You definitely want someone like Marty to be an ally and show interest in telling our stories,” says Killers of the Flower Moon actor Cara Jade Myers (Kiowa/Wichita), who portrays Anna Brown, sister to Gladstone’s Mollie, in the film and (is of no relation to Jhane Myers). “I’m all for allies helping, but if they are non-Native, it’s important that they start including Natives at the very beginning of development rather than bringing us on as consultants after the fact to try to correct things. We have so many incredibly talented Native creatives that there’s no excuse not to include us.”

Dubbed one of Variety’s 10 Actors to Watch, Cara is encouraged by the demand for Native talent both behind and in front of the camera, in contrast to past practices of casting non-Native actors to play Indigenous characters. “I’m excited that people are demanding authenticity,” she says. “It’s so important for people to see that Native Americans are not a monolith and that we are still here—we’re still thriving, we’re still making amazing art, and we’re still telling our stories.”

Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio in Killers of the Flower Moon

Melinda Sue Gordon

Despite this year’s undeniable progress, accurate Indigenous representation in media remains dismally low. Native characters appear in primetime TV shows and popular movies less than 1% of the time, according to research from social-justice organization IllumiNative. The good news? There are countless Indigenous creators who are telling authentic, impactful stories, even without the big budgets or box office numbers that longtime Hollywood players like Scorsese can command.

Take, for instance, Cherokee Film, which has created a first-of-its-kind hub for Indigenous storytelling in Oklahoma. Helmed by Emmy-winning director and producer Jen Loren, the commission has developed an extensive Native talent directory to entice filmmakers to employ Indigenous cast and crew members, adding to the financial incentives in place for showrunners who produce their projects at the Nation’s state-of-the-art studio.

While it’s certainly exciting that Indigenous talents are getting industry recognition—like the well-deserved Oscar buzz for Killers of the Flower Moon star Lily Gladstone (Blackfeet/Nimíipuu)—the Red Nation International Film Festival has been amplifying cinematic excellence since 1995 with its annual awards show. The world’s largest Native film festival also serves as an excellent resource for audiences eager to see more authentic stories, such as 2023 nominees Bones of Crows, Common Ground, and The Unknown Country. Other standouts worthy of your watch list include Fancy Dance, the feature directorial debut of Erica Tremblay (Seneca Cayuga); PBS streamer series Little Bird by Jennifer Podemski (Anishinaabe/Ashkenazi) and Hannah Moscovitch; and War Pony, co-written by Riley Keough, Gina Gammell, and Oglala Lakota tribal members Bill Reddy and Franklin Sioux Bob.

Many of these creatives have overlapped with other notable Native projects, which is by design. Both Podemski and Tremblay, for example, were involved with Harjo’s Reservation Dogs. “The point of the show was to bring together all of my talented friends who have never had an opportunity like this so we could tell this story better than anybody else in this industry,” he says. “Every writer on my show now has their own project in development. My hope is that this opens things up for filmmakers to have their own projects, whether that’s a horror, a heist, a comedy, or a love story. I just wanted to be part of proving that we can do all of that.”

Harjo and Jhane Myers both came up through the Sundance Institute’s Indigenous Program, then overseen by producer Bird Runningwater (Cheyenne/Mescalero Apache). During his 20-year tenure, he championed the work of more than 155 Indigenous filmmakers, resulting in 120 Native films premiering at the famed film festival. These two luminaries are in turn paying it forward, helping uplift other creatives.

For Jhane, the future of Indigenous entertainment means giving Native creators top billing. “All of these really successful shows and films have had Native people at the helm,” she affirms. “We need to collaborate above the line, because we have so many talented producers, directors, and writers. It’s our duty as filmmakers to hire the right people to reflect our cultures and communities properly.”

As for Cara, she looks forward to a time when the novelty of authentic Native representation in media wears off. “Honestly, I hope we don’t have to have these conversations in the future because there are so many Native TV shows, films, and stories out there,” she says. “Right now, we’re almost an oddity, but my vision is that we’re just seen as part of society. We can share our cultures and stories, but we can also play cops and lawyers. My ultimate goal is to play the president of the United States as a female Native American.” Now that’s a movie the world needs to see.

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