It’s Columbus Day! Here are some movies to commemorate the tragedy of colonization and the civilizations that were here first.
Many of us prefer to call today Dia de la Raza, but that doesn’t change the fact that October 9th is universally known as a celebration of the day Christopher Columbus “discovered” the Americas. Given the genocide, pillaging and rape that followed, and the ensuing prejudices and systemic oppression that persist until today, Columbus Day should really be a day of mourning.
Still, the arrival of Europeans on the shores of the New World set off a tragic but pivotal moment of humanity’s history, and it’s important to remember it. Sadly, we still don’t talk about it enough, and movies featuring indigenous cultures in any capacity are too often blatantly racist, inaccurate and reductive.
The movies listed here are not perfect, and some may still have tone-deaf elements put in by white creators that didn’t know what they were talking about, but they’re a good starting point to reflect on the past and how it still affects us, and to see more of the unrepresented history of the Americas on screen.
‘Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner’
This epic movie tells an ancient Inuit legend about love, betrayal and escape, entirely in the Inuit language. It’s a work of love by Inuit filmmakers and actors, who painstakingly researched their own history and ancient customs to bring them to life on screen for the first time. To film it, the cast and crew traveled through Igloolik, Canada, living in tents and battling harrowing weather. It makes for a beautifully accurate film that’s a glimpse into a past we don’t acknowledge enough.
The fact that it was entirely created by Inuit filmmakers makes it all the more valuable, given that Inuit culture (and indigenous cultures everywhere) has all too often been viewed only through the eyes of foreigners.
While this movie still revolves around two white characters, it’s the most famous film that actively explores the reality of much of South America during the 1740s. Jesuit priests were the only Europeans who believed that the indigenous communities surrounding Rio de la Plata had souls — and therefore should not be kidnapped and sold into slavery, a brutal custom that was tearing tribes apart. The Jesuit priests reached out to nearby tribes built protected cities with them, in a unique case of respect and loyalty in those violent times.
The project of the Jesuits is not free from criticism, but it did succeed in protecting indigenous communities enough to infuriate Crown — prompting a viciously violent attack on the new cities to rid the Americas of those who defended the rights of the native peoples. This movie, though not always accurate, is a good starting point to become familiar with a history that still leaves its mark today.
Ixcanul is a contemporary Guatemalan story, but it’s important because it’s the first movie to ever be filmed entirely in Kaqchikel, a Mayan language. The movie follows two strong indigenous women and explores the family relationships and cultural expectations placed upon a young Mayan woman who is discovering her place in her community. It also gives us a glimpse of how the racism and brutality that came with colonization continues to affect the lives of indigenous people today.
The actors were all cast in local workshops carried out by the director, who is part Mayan himself, and all dialogue is in Kaqchikel. It’s a victory for the indigenous Guatemalan population, which hardly ever sees itself reflected in the media of their own country.
‘Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron’
Spirit isn’t a true story, and its main character is a horse, but it’s both visually appealing and family friendly, and it shows the destruction that was unleashed on North America both for humans and for animals. The story is beautiful and soulful and shows an aspect of U.S. history that we don’t usually see in animated films.
The film has been criticized for being formulaic and for watering down the horrors suffered by the Lakota at the hands of the U.S. Army, but it is a children’s film, and the images seen in Spirit will stay in those children’s minds forever.