Courtesy Peter Eliot Buntaine
Judd Ehrlich’s Keepers of the Game showcases the relationship between Native Americans and sports.

Eight Movies That Capture Indian Country’s Love of Sports

Cary Rosenbaum

Many sports enthusiasts would be quick to assert that American Indians and athletics go hand in hand. Every region of North America seems to have its own specialty, like lacrosse in the northeast, hockey in the north and running in the southwest. Many would also assert that basketball is king in Indian country.

For more than 60 years, films have depicted Indian country’s love for athletics.

There’s a proud history that cannot be overlooked, which the following eight films display nicely:

Jim Thorpe-All American (1951)

Burt Lancaster starred as Jim Thorpe in the film based on the Sac and Fox tribal member’s life. Internet Movie Database

Burt Lancaster, who stars as Jim Thorpe, is white, but what other Native American had a film about himself back in 1951? Geronimo, maybe? One of the world’s greatest athletes deserved a movie, one that took about four decades after his Olympic gold performance to be made.

The movie takes you through Thorpe’s collegiate career at Carlisle to the his pentathlon and decathlon Olympic wins, to the ultimate conflict—having his gold medals stripped away.

Run, Appaloosa, Run! (1966)

Adele Palacios starred as Nez Perce horse racer Mary Blackfeather in Run, Appaloosa, Run. YouTube Screenshot

Rare for its era, Disney’s Run, Appaloosa, Run has a Native American female as its protagonist. She races horses in a movie that culminates with a run at the Omak Stampede Suicide Race, which is a Native American event on the Colville Reservation.

Though it’s just 58 minutes long, the film touches on a sport that has continued to grow in popularity, transforming into Indian relay racing.

Last of the Mohicans (1992)

Daniel Day-Lewis starred as Hawkeye in Last of the Mohicans. YouTube screenshot

Daniel Day-Lewis, as Hawkeye, jumps into a game of lacrosse during the Oscar-winning Last of Mohicans, set in the mid-1700s. This historical representation gave us a brief glimpse of Native American history in a sport that it now plays at the international level.

Smoke Signals (1998)

Gary Farmer played Arnold Joseph in Smoke Signals. YouTube screenshot

This film, based on the Sherman Alexie book of the same title, gains instant credibility in the beginning when it shows Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) playing rez ball in a Coeur d’Alene Reservation gymnasium.

It doesn’t veer off too far from the sport, with scenes involving young Victor’s epic performance versus Jesuits with his father, played by Gary Farmer, telling the story by a basketball hoop in his Arizona residence.

Mystery, Alaska (1999)

Adam Beach had a supporting role in Mystery, Alaska, which starred Burt Reynolds and Russell Crowe. YouTube Screenshot

Paying homage to the Native Americans in hockey has never been done so nicely as in Mystery, Alaska, starring Russell Crowe.

Adam Beach plays one of the two Native players, as the team from the town in the movie’s title gets a shot at the NHL’s New York Rangers.

Off the Rez (2011)

Shoni Schimmel, right, made a career out of her basketball skills, and Off The Rez shows a glimpse of how she made that dream a reality. YouTube screenshot

Relive WNBA baller Shoni Schimmel’s journey from a high school junior on the Umatilla Indian Reservation to taking the next step in moving to Portland in Jonathan Hock’s Off the Rez.

The documentary gives a personal view of the Schimmel family’s trials to put their basketball star in the spotlight. Shoni, the former WNBA All-Star, has come a long way since the film was shot, so it’s a worth revisiting.

Crooked Arrows (2012)

Crooked Arrows centers around an American Indian school participating in a lacrosse tournament. Internet Movie Database

Lacrosse is the most Indian-related sport, hands down. Sorry basketball, football, baseball, hockey, soccer and cross-country. Maybe it’s because we’ve been playing it longer than anyone else.

Crooked Arrows, which gained some credibility by adding Gil Birmingham to the cast, is a fun-loving, ‘90s family sports movie that brings to life a very real Native American culture surrounding the sport that involves a stick with a net.

Keepers of the Game (2016)

Keepers of the Game was released this year and has had great reviews. YouTube Screenshot

Any movie about Native American female athletes seems to score big points in Indian country. First there was Jonathan Hock’s Off the Rez; now there is Judd Ehrlich’s Keepers of the Game, which follows a group of Akwesasne Mohawk girls playing lacrosse.

This documentary smartly showcases a cultural conflict behind girls playing lacrosse—a sport considered to be a man’s game. The film follows four athletes dealing with their own conflicts at home and with their culture.


Cary Rosenbaum (Colville) is a correspondent and columnist for Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter: @caryrosenbaum

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