Who Gets to Tell Indigenous Stories

Who Gets to Tell Indigenous Stories

From the epic Killers of the Flower Moon to several smaller productions, a host of recent films and a groundbreaking art exhibition illustrate how the Native American narrative is controlled by who holds the camera, who holds the pen

By Tazbah Rose Chavez
Jeffrey Gibson
Jeffrey Gibson

When I began writing this piece, my cursory internet search for “Native American iconography” brought up feathers, headdresses, war paint, arrows and, to my relief, Jefferey Gibson, who was discussing Native iconography from his studio in upstate New York.

Jefferey is a celebrated Choctaw-Cherokee artist known for colorful, multimedia art that connects Native American iconography with contemporary culture. From April to December 2024, he will represent the United States at the Venice Biennale with a solo show, marking the first time Indigenous art has been represented there since 1938. Finally—a First American artist representing America.

A search for “Native iconography in film” conjured up more war bonnets, war parties on horseback, Native American Heritage Month, men dressed in leathers and feathers as Western warriors, Pocahontas, Sacheen Little Feather, actress Lily Gladstone (thankfully) and the derogatory term “squaw.”

Historically, Native American iconography in film has been depicted in time capsules with audiences envisioning us as mythical creatures, spirit guides, victims of horrific trauma, aggressive savages and an ethnic group going extinct to pave the way for civilization. All are convenient metaphors for Manifest Destiny, the belief that white settlers were divinely destined to settle the entire North American continent.

These images are imprinted so deeply in the American psyche that most people don’t know who Native people are beyond the inaccurate images and iconography they’ve been fed for the last 100 years of cinema. I want people to start thinking about us outside of Westerns, outside of time capsules from the past.

In 2023, Native American iconography in film was internationally spotlighted by Killers of the Flower Moon, directed by Martin Scorsese. (This makes me ponder when a Native filmmaker will represent the United States globally.) Killers of the Flower Moon brought attention to the tragic history of the Osage Reign of Terror (1920-1925) when white settlers murdered Osage people for their land and oil in Oklahoma. The film put history to the forefront for audiences to sit with, and in that way, I appreciate white people having to consider their role in an uncomfortable history. The Osage Nation exercised narrative sovereignty by choosing to engage in the film to ensure authentic representation of their people’s history. Their involvement shifted the iconography of Killers through collaboration—we got to see specificity in Osage language, hairstyles, wardrobe, customs, food and cultural traditions. Killers displayed unseen iconography of Osage people in the 1920s who were among the wealthiest people in the world, offsetting much of what audiences generally think of Native people in the ‘20s.

For me, Native iconography in 2023 is connected to who holds the camera, who holds the pen. When Native people are pointing the camera at Native people, we can see ourselves reflected and it shows in storytelling and production. We not only see Native actors but we also individually and collectively see our cultures embedded in languages, songs, ceremonies, landscapes, homes, rugs, art and lifeways. It extends into storytelling, casting, production design, set decorating and location choices.

Native people don’t walk around and only experience Native things. We don’t only listen to powwow music all day, only wear traditional regalia. Culture evolves and so must our iconography. So if we’re going to celebrate Killers of the Flower Moon, then we also must shine a light on Fancy Dance by Erica Tremblay, Frybread Face and Me by Billy Luther and Gush by Fox Maxy. These three feature films—written, directed and led by Native filmmakers— represent what Native American iconography is today, and they must be amplified in the cinematic lexicon.

These are important films that reset what Native imagery is in films. A common thread through all four was the commitment to Tribal specificity and the power of Native women. But it’s clear to me when a story is made for general audiences versus made for Native people.

Killers of the Flower Moon was made by and for non-Native audiences. I think it’s important for non-Native audiences to sit in the shoes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro’s characters and to reflect on who benefits from the tragic histories of killing Indians and land theft. However, I think an Osage point of view on the Reign of Terror is still needed.

In Native-led productions like Frybread Face and Me, filmmakers shared their lived experiences of growing up on reservations, their home communities, the cultural styles of dress and contemporary ways that cultures evolve. Authenticity is inherent.

In the case of Fancy Dance, Frybread Face and Me and Gush, these filmmakers are speaking to Native audiences, and by doing so they engender a specificity of lived experiences as multidimensional humans that makes them appealing to all audiences. If you want people to understand you, then you have to invite them into the conversation. They have to hear what you talk about, see what you care about, and that’s only possible with Native filmmakers at the helm of our own stories.

Frybread Face and Me by Billy Luther (Diné/Laguna Pueblo) is about a pair of young Navajo cousins from different upbringings who bond and come to learn about themselves and their families during a summer spent herding sheep on their grandmother’s ranch. It’s a coming-of-age story set in the 1990s. We see the main character is obsessed with Fleetwood Mac while his cousin carries around a Cabbage Patch Kids doll. Simultaneously, we see his grandmother carrying on the traditions of Navajo rug weaving, tending sheep, caring for family. The film weaves into the story ‘90s pop culture iconography that is meaningful to Luther and the characters on his reservation. We see the iconography of Navajo women evolving in the ‘90s from long skirts and loose blouses to big hair, perms, boots and tight blue jeans that many Native moms adopted. The location and production design of Frybread Face and Me reminded me of visiting my grandma as a kid on the Navajo Nation.

Fancy Dance by Erica Tremblay (Seneca-Cayuga) is a contemporary story about a Native woman, played by Lily Gladstone, who kidnaps her niece from the child’s white grandparents and sets out on a journey to find her missing sister and keep what’s left of their family intact. Fancy Dance is a story about Native women’s relationships with one another, the bonds between a niece and auntie on a journey that reflects strong, committed, brave, complex characters and exemplifies the relentless and powerful role that Aunties play in Native communities.

Fancy Dance gives us present-day iconography of Native women who are multidimensional, who are both victims and saviors. Set in Oklahoma, home to the Seneca-Cayuga Nation, the film is a good presentation of Native women writers telling a Native-led story, helmed by a Native director with a compelling narrative about the role Aunties play as second mothers in our cultures. My nephew once told me he knows I am one of his parents; it’s our way. Fancy Dance captures the important bonds Aunties have with children in our extended Native families.

Gush by Fox Maxy (Kumeyaay/Pay.mkawichum ) is a diaristic experimental feature about male and female power, healing and haunting, all in an apocalyptic setting. The specificity of Gush lies in perspective and generation, as we weave through Gen Z iconography and the filmmaker’s lived experiences as she compiled the imagery over many years. The film puts you inside a Native person’s iconography, it takes the audience into lived experiences of excitement, horror and the relatable act of talking shit with your cousin in a car on the rez while driving around listening to R&B—an eagle feather hanging from the rearview mirror as the only witness to your secrets.

This film is Native iconography at its purest. Fox Maxy points the camera and there is no filter to what we see as an audience. One moment you are being driven up a hill in a car, the next you are on city streets, then on the reservation, then among the leaves of a tree, followed by dancing in a nightclub and sitting on public transit while simultaneously being dipped into ocean and spring water, all strung together with a Naomi Campbell interview on the Tyra Banks show. Maxy puts you inside a Native person’s consciousness without ever saying so. Native people are humans experiencing the world around us at all times, something I think a lot of audiences fail to consider. When we talk about wanting our humanity seen on screen, I think Gush does this. And for that reason, it is the most relatable film of the year for me.

These films are updating what Native American imagery and iconography is in film. Being in control of our narratives changes how we are seen by the world, and it is only through this that we get true authenticity. Native American iconography in film comes down to who is perceiving the iconography and who is creating the iconography.

In 2020, the Native American and Indigenous Committee of the WGA released a letter to Hollywood reminding them, “We are not relics of the past or useful props to fill out Westerns and period pieces. Native American and Indigenous people are alive, diverse, vibrant and culturally specific. We are the lead characters of our stories and we live right now in cities, on reservations, in suburbs and in all walks of life. We are spouses, friends, bosses and even superheroes. We are athletes, scholars, doctors, lawyers, leaders and veterans. We are brilliant, intelligent, funny and successful.” I think 2023 Indigenous cinema has done well to hit this mark, and because of the Osage Nation’s collaboration, Killers of the Flower Moon has, too.

There are 574 federally recognized Tribes (and hundreds of others) in the United States, and we can celebrate that 2023 gave us Osage, Seneca-Cayuga, Din. and Kumeyaay stories that were tribally specific and reflected the power of women in our cultures. It’s an encouraging path toward fixing dismal internet searches.

In speaking about creating his NY studio space, the artist Gibson says, “…I’ve been able to choose the space, I wanted it to be nice so I enjoy coming here.” This is how I feel about Indigenous cinema—I want us to be able to choose our space, too, so we enjoy coming here. We have been telling stories longer than anyone in this country and should be recognized as the authentic representatives of American cinema.


Tazbah Rose Chavez is a television writer and director from the Bishop Paiute Reservation. She is a co-executive producer and episodic director on FX’s Reservation Dogs and has worked on SYFY’s Resident Alien, Peacock’s Rutherford Falls, directed on HBOMAX’s Sex Lives of College Girls and is a writerdirector on FOX’s Accused. She graced our pages with the essay, “Who Gets to Tell Indigenous Stories?”