For girls across Turtle Island and beyond, it can be difficult to find positively portrayed Indigenous women characters who are represented in a respectful way in television and film. For most of film history, Native women on the big screen are either exaggerated fairy tales, horrendously referred to as squaws or perhaps they are spiritual ghosts carrying an ominous message.
When Native women are extras on the set, they are either background decoration or part of a massacre sequence. Native women are either a white man's exotic love interest or a corpse. Sometimes both. But every once in awhile, an Indigenous actress steals the show, and breaks away from 100 years of film stereotypes.
Here is a list of great Indigenous women characters in film and television. Editor’s Note: There will be spoilers in the write-ups below.
Maggie Eagle Bear (Oglala-Sioux) in Thunderheart; played by Sheila Tousey
Michael Apted's 1992 film takes inspiration from the 1973 Wounded Knee standoff. Val Kilmer plays the leading role, but the heart of Thunderheart is Maggie Eagle Bear, played by Sheila Tousey.
Maggie Eagle Bear is a Dartmouth graduate who comes to her reservation to make a difference for her people. She opens a shelter for battered Native women after being sexually assaulted and uses her resources to help the Aboriginal Rights Movement. Unfortunately, her efforts make her a target for violence and she is murdered.
Maggie's diligence and strength can be found within politically active Native women throughout the world. She stands up for herself, her family, and her people even in the face of certain death. The film’s famous quote, “Sometimes they have to kill us...they have to kill us, because they can't break our spirit,” resonates.
Maïna (Innu) in Maïna: An Unusual Love Story; played by Roseanne Supernault
Maïna: An Unusual Love Story is set in a pre-colonial time, when the Innu and Inuit people first made contact. The title character of Maïna,played by Roseanne Supernault, is a complicated and fascinating woman who illustrates that good representation does not mean an absence of character flaws.
The film addresses many uneasy realities, including Maina getting kidnapped when the Inuit encounter the Innu and fighting breaks out. Maïna is raped by a man who later becomes her husband and is forced to assimilate into Inuit culture. Her relationship with her husband is not easy and adjusting to a new culture takes its toll on her. Maïna's situation is also not used for shock value and she is not sexualized in the film.
Amidst challenges, Maïna stays true to herself and her Innu culture. She hunts, though it’s forbidden for women, she refuses to be “shared” with her husband’s best friend, and ultimately, her choices help bring the two tribes together.
Moana (Polynesian) in Disney’s Moana; voiced by Auli’i Cravalho
Many in the New Zealand communities expressed worry about the potential stereotypes that could have been portrayed in Moana. Though the film has a few critics lambasting the over-exaggeration of physicalities of the characters, Moana has been well-received by indigenous communities.
Moana is the daughter of the chief who will be her tribe's future leader. As a toddler, the ocean chose her for an important mission. A character in this scenario usually gives up a crucial part of who she is so she can pursue her destiny. It is refreshing that Moana can be both: she is the hope of her people as well as the hero who delivers the heart to Te Fiti. She's not a "warrior princess," but still holds her own against demigods and monsters while maintaining a gentle, loving heart.
Moana’s story isn’t about enduring colonialism, overcoming racism, or facing off with an evil government official. It’s about a very special girl going on an adventure to save her people and to discover her own self-worth.
Nani Pelekai (Native Hawaiian) in Disney’s Lilo & Stitch; voiced by Tia Carrere
Before Moana, Lilo & Stitch was the Polynesian-themed fan favorite among Disney lovers. The animated sci-fi adventure takes place in Hawaii sometime after 1973, with a diverse cast of characters. Despite cultural differences, the main characters are accessible to a non-Hawaiian audience. The most relatable and sympathetic character in the film is not the title character, but her older sister.
Lilo appeals to younger viewers but Nani Pelekai speaks to their older brothers, sisters and parents. She had to step up to the plate when her parents died, making her both a big sister and a new mom.The film flirts with subtle colonial elements familiar to Indigenous people; Nani works at a “fake luau” to support her family while a government official threatens to take away her sister. Life keeps throwing her curve balls, but she goes above and beyond to keep her family together. Nani's love for Lilo is the heart and soul of a story about a botched alien invasion.
And while the story doesn’t have a central romance, Nani has the greatest boyfriend in Disney history. He gives her time to sort out her personal problems and offers her emotional support when she needs it. David Kawena is the Disney Prince she deserves!
Lena Mahikan (Cree) in Empire of Dirt; played by Cara Gee
Before the age of social media, finding films with a strong Native woman in a leading or supporting role was hard. Empire of Dirt is an enigma because it stars not one but three Native women as its main characters. It passes the "Native Bechdel Test" in the first five minutes of the film: two Native women speak to each other about something other than white men. Although white men do have an impact on their lives, they are not the focal point of the story.
The film stars Cara Gee as Lena Mahikan, with Jennifer Podemski playing her mother and Shay Eyre playing her daughter. All three women come to terms with their inner demons, but Lena’s personal growth is the focus of the story.
Lena is a deeply flawed character. She’s both a recovering addict and a single mother out of a job. Rather than turn to stripping to provide for her family, she and her daughter move back to her mother’s house. Throughout the film, she reconnects with her culture and learns to forgive herself and her mother. She may not be the most flattering representation for Native women, but she is allowed to fail and to make mistakes before she can come back stronger.
Empire of Dirt is an underdog story that addresses the generational trauma within Native families. Because of this, both the characters and the Native audience can heal from it. With Lena and her family, the Native viewers learn that we are not alone and are stronger together.
Cheedo the Fragile (Maori, Cook Islander) in Mad Max: Fury Road; played by Courtney Eaton
Courtney Eaton’s character in Mad Max: Fury Road had all the makings for disappointment. She is a sex slave who is innocent, virginal, and afraid of leaving her abuser. Rather than exploit these characteristics, she avoids many tropes that are usually assigned to Indigenous women. She isn’t eroticized for her race, she’s not a chief’s daughter, she’s not an “Indian princess,” and she’s not the love interest to the white protagonist. Although the movie is exceedingly violent, she is never brutalized.
Instead, Cheedo is vulnerable, afraid, and allowed moments of weakness. When one of her “sister wives” is brutally killed, she panics and tries to run back to her abuser. Instead of punishing her for her emotional outburst, her sisters comfort her and give her time to grieve. This makes her act of true heroism toward the end of the film all the more satisfying. Cheedo is allowed to be strong without sacrificing her femininity and passive nature. She may not be able to shoot guns and drive a war rig into battle, but she helps win the final battle.
Paikea “Pai” Apirana (Maori) in Whale Rider; played by Keisha Castle-Hughes
For many moviegoers in 2002, Whale Rider was their introduction to Maori people and their culture. The film was mentioned at the Academy Awards when Keisha Castle-Hughes earned a Best Actress nomination for her role as Paikea "Pai" Apirana. Although she is quiet and solitary, she carries the weight of the film and gives a wonderful performance.
Whale Rider is a coming of age story that provided audiences with something new and heartwarming. In an industry where an Indigenous girl is often a love interest or a victim, Pai is a Prophet. Although she experiences sexism and neglect from her grandfather, she chooses to stay with him when she hears the whales calling to her. She knows she is the descendant of the same Paikea who rode on top of a whale and that something powerful is waiting for her. [text_ad]
The film shows us how she will make her people strong again in metaphorical ways. When her grandfather breaks the rope that symbolizes the strength of their people, she is the one who mends it together. When he throws his whale tooth necklace into the water, she is the one who finds it and brings it back. In the end, it is her compassion and gentleness that brings her family and community back together. Under her guidance and future leadership, she will show her people the way forward.
Aila (Mi’kmaq) in Rhymes For Young Ghouls; played by Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs
Rhymes For Young Ghouls is one of the most important films for Indigenous people in Canada and the United States. As such, Aila (played by Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs) is a revolutionary character for Native women and girls.
Through Aila, we come face to face with the harsh realities of reservation life in the 1970s. After her mother's suicide and father's incarceration, Aila "ages by a thousand years." She is an artist who is especially fond of painting strong Native women and chiefs and she takes care of her elderly neighbor who tells her traditional stories. As a teenager, she turns to drug dealing to make end's meet before she's taken to the residential school. Her story is one of immeasurable sorrow and personal pain, which is why it’s so important when Aila survives it all.
She is a Native woman who is a main character and whose story isn’t motivated by romance. She isn’t murdered or raped for the sake of drama or character development. Her suffering is never exploited: when she is stripped and her hair is cut by the nuns at the residential school, the focus is on her face instead of her body. Her pain, anger, and sadness becomes personal to the audience and although she is brutalized, oppressed, and was never supposed to live to see another day, she does. In spite of all the odds stacked against her, she comes out of this nightmare alive.
Aila is the seventh generation’s version of Chief Bromden running to freedom. She is a reminder of everything Indigenous people have survived and gives us hope for what lies ahead.
What is your favorite amidst the Indigenous women characters in media? Let us know at @IndianCountry on Twitter.