Coming-of-age movies and shows can help us better understand and navigate the transition from childhood to adulthood. They’re often filled with laughter, important life lessons, and even tears. They can impact us even more when the characters are people who look like us, talk like us, act like us, and relate to us.
Indigenous representation matters! That’s why we created a list of Indigenous coming-of-age movies and shows you need to watch – like, yesterday.
- Smoke Signals – Is it surprising that this film tops our list? Your auntie more than likely loves this movie and has maybe even watched it with you. Smoke Signals tells the story of two young men who set out on a cross-country journey from the rez to the city. It focuses on different topics, from family to friendship. Watch it with your cousins or friends at your next movie night.
- BEANS – Transitioning from a child to a teenager can be challenging for some. Inspired by true events, BEANS is about a twelve-year-old Mohawk girl torn between innocent childhood and reckless adolescence. Feeling like she must grow up fast and become a tough Mohawk warrior, Beans faces the Oka Crisis – the intense Indigenous uprising that tore Quebec and Canada apart for 78 strained days in the summer of 1990. If you’re navigating adolescence or searching for your inner warrior, you need to watch BEANS.
- Indian Horse – In the late 1950s in Ontario, Canada, seven-year-old Saul Indian Horse is removed from his Ojibwe family and enrolled in one of Canada’s notorious Catholic residential schools. While in school, Saul finds comfort and happiness in hockey, and he eventually becomes a pro playing for a Native league. However, Saul has to confront painful memories to heal and find peace within himself as an adult. If playing sports is one of your passions, Indian Horse might be the movie for you. But fair wairing, be prepared to feel all the feelings.
- On the Ice – In the mood for something dark and mysterious? On the Ice might be the movie for you. In the isolated and frozen town of Barrow, Alaska, Iñupiaq teenagers Qalli and Aivaaq are met with a tragic accident at their hands and fall into a web of lies to avoid taking responsibility. This film has twists and turns and is worth watching to learn a lesson on accountability and friendship.
- Songs My Brothers Taught Me – We all have resilience in our blood. Songs My Brothers Taught Me captures the life of an Ogala Nation brother and sister working to find their way in the world while maintaining their deep connection to each other and their homelands. This film captures the emotions some of us go through living on reservations today. If you can relate, consider checking out this film.
- Slash/Back – If you’re looking for a movie where wickedly cool chicks rule the world, you’re in for a treat with Slash/Back. In the village of Pangnirtung, Nunavut, nestled in the majestic mountains of Baffin Island in the Arctic Ocean, Maika and her friends take a wild ride when they discover something unearthly ravaging their hometown. Underestimated their whole lives, the girls use their horror movie knowledge and makeshift weapons to let this invader know who’s boss. In their words, “you don’t f*** with the girls from Pang.”
- Prey – Calling all sci-fi and fantasy horror fanatics! Prey is the Indigenous take on the famous “Predator” movie – if you’re not too young to know that movie. If so, ask your parents. Set in the Comanche Nation 300 years ago, Naru is a fierce and highly skilled warrior. She has been raised shadowing some of the most legendary hunters in the Great Plains and knows the importance of protecting her people. One day, she encounters one of the first highly evolved alien predators to land on Earth. Naru fights to protect her tribe from this unknown and strong force. If you identify as a woman, you should definitely watch Prey after Slash/Back to feel more empowered!
- Whale Rider – Similar to some tribal communities in the United States, only males can ascend to chiefdom in a small Māori village in New Zealand in the movie Whale Rider. After facing a crisis when the heir to the leadership of the Ngati Konohi dies at birth and is only survived by his twin sister, twelve-year-old Pai summons the strength to challenge and embrace a thousand years of tradition to fulfill her destiny. This movie is all about perseverance and listening to your inner calling.
- BOY – The year is 1984, and the King of Pop, Michael Jackson, is changing kids’ lives. Written and directed by Māori filmmaker, Taika Waititi, BOY tells the tale of a New Zealand youth who finds that his father is far from the heroic adventurer he imagined him to be. This film is a hilarious, heartfelt coming-of-age story about heroes, magic, and Michael Jackson.
- Hunt for the Wilderpeople – From the same director of BOY comes another hilarious and heartfelt adventure that is Hunt for the Wilderpeople. A defiant young city kid finds himself on the run with his grumpy foster uncle in the New Zealand wilderness. The national chase forces the two to put their differences aside and work together to survive the adventure. If you have an auntie or uncle that you’re close to or can relate to the main character as someone in the foster system, you have to watch Hunt for the Wilderpeople.
- Rabbit-Proof Fence – Despite being from different continents, Indigenous people throughout the globe have endured similar histories and tragedies – the main one being colonization. Rabbit-Proof Fence tells the true story of three Aboriginal girls who were forcibly taken from their families in 1931 to be trained as domestic servants due to an official Australian government policy. They embark on an epic 1,500-mile journey to return home with the authorities in hot pursuit. We recommend you watch this movie to understand the similar difficulties ancestors of other Indigenous communities endured too.
- Toomelah – The reality of gangs is too real. Toomelah is about a ten-year-old boy, Daniel, who dreams of being a gangster. After getting kicked out of school and befriending a local gang leader, Daniel is caught in the middle and faced with making a choice about his uncertain future. Toomelah reveals the challenges the young Gamilaroi people of the Toomelah Community endure from being robbed of their traditional culture.
- Basketball or Nothing – This Netflix docuseries follows the Chinle High School basketball from the Navajo Nation in Arizona and their quest to win a state championship. It’s a beautiful story about Native identity and pride. Whether you’re a basketball lover or just love to see Natives demonstrating grit, Basketball or Nothing is a series worth watching.
- Reservation Dogs – If you haven’t heard of Reservation Dogs, where have you been!? This coming-of-age comedy focuses on four present-day Native teenagers who set out to escape their rural Oklahoma home for sunny California. This series is special not just because it has amazing storytelling and lovable characters, but because it has also blazed a trail as the first mainstream show in which every writer, director, and actor is Indigenous. Read that sentence again, y ‘all! It’s definitely a show to watch with the family and talk about with your Native friends.
- Mohawk Girls – Being Indigenous is fun until you try to find love in your community and realize that your cousin talked to the person you’re interested in, or that the person you are interested in is your cousin. Mohawk Girls is all about embracing the awkward to find love! It takes place in Kahnawake, where four twenty-something Indigenous women try to find a boo and their place in the world. But as we all know, it’s never simple. If you want to have a good laugh, watch this show.
Whether you’re trying to catch a good film or start a new show about the ups and downs of childhood to adulthood as a Native person, you should check out our picks on this list.
For more lists of Indigenous movies and shows to watch, check out these resources:
- 20 Essential Indigenous Movies from North America
- 8 New Native American shows and movies you can stream now
- 15 Native American Movies & TV Shows to Watch and Learn About Indigenous History and Culture
Author: Stephanie Paz is a Tigua Indian of Ysleta del Sur Pueblo. She has a Bachelor of Science in Psychology from The University of Texas at El Paso and is working towards a Master of Public Health in Health Behavior and Health Promotion from New Mexico State University.