When the towering image of Will Sampson’s “Chief” Bromden smashed through the caged window of a mental institution and began running to his freedom in the movie with Jack Nicholson, ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,’ a Native American character became the heart of one of the most iconic scenes in film history. It is undeniable proof that when indigenous characters are written outside of the usual, tired stereotypes, they can become legendary and unforgettable.
Throughout the world, indigenous people are coming together in solidarity for our common goals: tribal sovereignty, rights to fishing and hunting, protesting corporations and defending the environment and water, and demanding justice for the atrocities committed against indigenous people. In the world of media storytelling, they are still largely absent.
When Natives appear in film, it is often in a western or set in a distant time period rather than a contemporary, modern-day setting. And while this portrayal is a relevant part of history, gestures that show indigenous people outside of stereotypical narratives are welcomed by indigenous communities.
That said, here is a list of several indigenous main characters who stepped outside of the proverbial stereotypical image and still established themselves as heroic, innovative, as well as entertaining.
Title: Edge of America
Character: Annie Shorty (Portrayed by Irene Bedard)
Chris Eyre’s Edge of America, a made-for-TV movie, is a sports drama about a rez girls basketball team featuring a cast of several Native actresses. While the film centers on the struggles of an African American man who moves to the reservation to coach the girls' basketball team, Irene Bedard’s role as assistant coach Annie Shorty is equally compelling.
YouTube Movie Trailer
Annie Shorty is sweet, maternal, and protective of her team. She’s not afraid to confront the main character when he disrespects an elder or shames a pregnant girl on the team, but is willing to compromise and communicate in order to work with him. She is a modern woman who holds her heritage and tradition close to her heart but is not without her flaws. The film tackles the complex tension between African Americans and Native Americans, highlighting the negative and positive interactions between the two communities. Although the two characters are off to a bumpy start, they learn to work together and learn how to lead and guide their basketball team.
To see a Native woman as a high school coach is rare in and of itself. This demonstrates that Native actors are capable of tackling a wide variety of roles rather than ones based on historical figures, offensive stereotypes, or characters trapped in the 1800s and earlier.
Title: Kisima Inŋitchuŋa - Never Alone
YouTube Video Trailer
In several video game platforms, indigenous characters are rarely portrayed with authenticity and respect. Never Alone is a puzzle-platformer game that doubles as a documentary about the history and culture of Iñupiat people, by Iñupiat people. It is based on the story “Kunuuksaayuka,” and at the heart of this story is a little girl and her arctic fox companion.
While Nuna remains silent throughout the game, she and her companion at the heart and soul of the story. She is a hunter and explorer, interacting with animals and spirits in a mystical setting that breathes new life into the story she comes from. Her friendship with the fox begins when he helps her escape from a polar bear attack, and then guides her on a journey to find the terrible man who destroyed her home and later to stop the never-ending blizzard. This relationship is innocent and pure; even when the fox shapeshifts into a more human-like form in the second half of the game, there is no implied romance.
The story is simplistic and whimsical with beautiful art direction. Nuna and her Fox companion are not fighting against colonialism or oppressive, racist authority figures. They take the player on an adventure, exploring the beauty of the world they live in and all of the spirits and creatures who live within it.
Game site - http://neveralonegame.com/game/
Title:The Legend of Korra
Character: Korra (Voiced by Janet Varney)
NIckelodeon’s animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra takes place in a fantasy world run by four nations of elemental “benders,” who can manipulate and control their tribe’s chosen element. Each nation is inspired by various Asian and Indigenous communities, and the designs and homeland of the Water Tribe influenced and coded as Inuit. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, the female lead was a Waterbender named Katara who, while a crucial part of the story, was still aiding and guiding the journey of the story’s main character, Aang. In the sequel series The Legend of Korra, the main protagonist and title character is another heroine from the Water Tribe, whose growth and adventure is the focus of the plot from start to finish.
Korra is the new Avatar or a bender that can control all four of the elements with the guidance from the spirits of past Avatars. She’s a public figure and the heir to a great legacy but is still a teenager trying to figure out where she fits in the world. She can be impulsive, impatient, and selfish, but also a loyal friend and daughter who genuinely wants to help change her world for the better. Each antagonist she fights in every season represents a different type of oppression such as anarchy and fascism, and Korra learns something of value from each one of her enemies in order to bring balance to the world. In the fourth season, Korra develops a post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the violence committed against her that almost leaves her paralyzed. In overcoming her trauma she pulls herself out of a dark place in her life and learns to be compassionate to others, including her final antagonist. She is a warrior, a peacemaker, and the only hope to bring balance to the world.
With the series’ famous finale, creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino confirmed that Korra is in a bisexual relationship with her second female lead, Asami Sato. This is expanded on in the sequel comic book series The Legend of Korra: Turf Wars, where Korra and Asami have several romantic interactions.
With the announcement of the new live-action Netflix remake of Avatar: The Last Airbender, actress Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs expressed interest in playing either Katara or Korra but believes it is best for an Inuit actress to take the parts.
Title: The Sixth World: Trail of Lightning
Character: Magdalena “Maggie” Hoskie
In a world where Native women are rarely the main characters of their own stories, Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning came in like a tempest with the main character who can truly be described as “badass.” Maggie Hoskie is a Dine’ (Navajo) woman working as a monster slayer in a post-apocalyptic American Southwest. When Native women in leading roles are reduced to a white man’s tragic love interests, Maggie is not only revolutionary but the hero Native American girls needed.
Maggie Hoskie is deeply flawed, morally gray, and has certainly been done wrong by humans and gods alike, but she is no victim. Although the person she loved most abandons her, she is far more than just the scorned ex-girlfriend even though his absence hurt her. She is hard as nails, takes a very long time to warm up to other people, but also wants to be vulnerable and loved and sensual with the right person. She is self-aware enough to know that she isn’t the most friendly or the most pleasant. She also knows that as a Living Arrow, she is driven by her need to fight and kill, but that this is something she doesn’t want to get lost in.
Despite her hard exterior, Maggie loves an elderly Dine’ man like her own family. She partners up with his grandson and promises to keep him alive and safe for his sake. While there is an attraction between the two, she keeps her guard up and forces him to earn her trust.
Maggie will be returning in the sequel Storm of Locusts and appears to be accompanied by other equally awesome female characters.
Title: Disney’s Gargoyles
Character: Elisa Maza (Portrayed by Salli Richardson)
Disney’s Gargoyles has earned a dedicated fan following for its surprisingly dark content, monstrous characters, and themes of violence, oppression, bigotry, and corrupt officials. Navigating this strange world is Detective Elisa Maza, the audience’s viewpoint character and bridge between the world of the Gargoyles and the world of the humans, who also happens to be of African American and Hopi lineage!
The only other Black / Native character to follow after her was Dr. Joshua Sweet from the film Atlantis: The Lost Empire. While both break from the stereotypes associated with both identities, Elisa Maza shines in Gargoyles with all of the excitement, adventure, and romance. She is allowed to exist as she is: a detective, a working woman in a modern world, who also happens to be black and Hopi. There’s no racial coding in her design and outfit, she isn’t “guided by the spirits, nor is she the target of racial abuse or the embodiment of anti-native stereotypes. Her relationship with the main character Goliath has been adored by fans of the series for years.
When the Gargoyles are reintroduced to the world of humans, an Indigenous black woman is their first encounter with the best humanity has to offer. It is no surprise that native and non-native fans of the series look back fondly on such a wonderful character.
Title: Resident Evil 3: Nemesis
Character: Carlos Oliveira (Voiced by Vincent Corazza)
While Carlos’ heritage is only addressed in the game manual from Resident Evil 3: Nemesis, an indigenous mercenary turned zombie hunter is not a character one comes across every day!
Instead of being the serious, stoic Indian stereotype, Carlos is warm, brave, and funny. His team was sent into Raccoon City during the zombie outbreak to search for survivors. Unfortunately, they were overrun, leaving Carlos to fight for his life before meeting the game’s main protagonist, Jill Valentine.
While there are elements of the “Latin lover” trope, Carlos is never overtly sexualized or sexual towards Jill. A flatterer and a flirt, but also loyal and accountable: when Jill is poisoned by the antagonist Nemesis, the player takes control of Carlos who not only hides her from the other zombies but searches for an antidote to heal her. While there is an attraction between the two, any romantic element takes the backseat to their partnership. They fight side by side, learn to trust and protect each other and make it out alive.
Title: Strange Empire
Character: Kat Loving (Portrayed by Cara Gee)
YouTube video clip
Strange Empire, a surprisingly progressive western television series, ran for only one season. It starred three women as the main protagonists but included several compelling secondary female characters. To have a western full of women with such agency is a rarity, but to have an Indigenous woman as the leading role was truly special.
Kat Loving is Strange Empire’s Metis main character and the newly appointed town, sheriff. She is a woman who has experienced great loss and heartache but never loses her love and comradery towards friends and her new family. As a Metis woman she is both an outsider to both native and white people alike, and navigating both worlds is dangerous. Although she is driven by revenge against the crimes committed against her family, she never lets it turn her into a monster. She’s distant, but never cold and unfeeling. She loves deeply, willing to put her life on the line in order to protect her family.
Character: Arthur Curry (Portrayed by Jason Momoa)
Aquaman proved to be a very different type of superhero from his Justice League counterparts. He stands apart from the darker, brooding heroes like Batman while being more laid back and playful than Wonder Woman or Superman. He drinks beer with his friends at the bar, is generally goofy, but isn’t afraid to fight when challenged. He isn’t bothered that the people in his community know that he’s a superhero and we discover the beauty of Atlantis for the first time right along with him. At the same time, he shows enough vulnerability to make him a fleshed out character: he loves his father, is deeply hurt by his mother leaving him and supposedly being executed simply for having him. He proves you can be strong, powerful, and dignified all while maintaining a great sense of humor and an excitement for life and adventure.
Arthur’s mother calls him a “bridge between two worlds.” This means more than just a link between the sea and the land for a biracial superhero, conceived from a (white) Atlantean woman and an indigenous father. The Atlantean metaphor is more palatable for audiences than a direct racial one, but to indigenous people, this symbolism cannot be overlooked. Arthur is a biracial indigenous character, disconnected from his roots, unsure of where he fits in the world and is met with hostility from his (white) family members and community who refer to him as “half breed.” He is an outsider, in many ways the only one of his kind, and in the end, it is he who can truly save the land and sea, knowing one cannot survive without the other. With Jason Momoa’s activism for Mauna Kea and solidarity with Standing Rock, these environmentalist themes are all the more powerful.
Ali Nahdee is Anishinaabe / Ojibwa. Creator of The Aila Test & Does The NDN Live. Follow her on Twitter at @AliNahdee.