Film: Thunderheart

Thunderheart is a 1992 Western film starring Val Kilmer.

In the 1970s, FBI Agent Ray Levoi is tasked to investigate a possibly political murder on the Native American reservation in South Dakota because of his partial native ancestry. In the process, he discovers a conspiracy involving uranium mining.

This film provides examples of:

  • Braids, Beads and Buckskins: If you want to see how Lakhota people dress and live today, watch this movie. Or go to a pow-wow. You can see the differences and similarities between different tribes. There are several documentaries about pow-wows showing everyday attire along with the regalia worn for the dances.
  • The Coroner Doth Protest Too Much: Maggie tells Ray about a man who supposedly committed "suicide" by shooting himself in the back of the head.
  • Good Flaws, Bad Flaws: Ray Levoi, the FBI-agent protagonist, manages to be a consistently sympathetic character despite having more than a casual contempt for Native American culture from the outset - something that was rare even in The Golden Age of Hollywood. Being young and good-looking helps (Levoi is being played by Val Kilmer in his early thirties, after all), as does his Punch Clock Villain status when the FBI sends him to a Sioux reservation to investigate a murder and basically requires him to harass and interrogate suspected political radicals (at one point even pulling a young Sioux out of his tepee during a religious ceremony, prompting the arrestee to demand if he'd ever arrest a Christian while that Christian was praying in church). Most crucially, however, Levoi is half-Sioux himself. While this doesn't grant him N-Word Privileges (though the full-blooded Sioux characters seem to have this, derisively calling Levoi the "Washington Redskin"), it does make him supremely confused about his identity and ambivalent toward the memory of his ne'er-do-well Sioux father. He's also naturally resentful that he's been assigned to this case specifically because of his heritage, and doesn't want to be on the reservation in the first place. Finally, Levoi does fall in love with a full-blooded Indian woman, manages to get over his prejudices and reclaim his roots, and ultimately solves what proves to be a Chinatown-level mystery marked by corruption Inherent in the System.
  • Magical Native American:
    • "Grandpa" Sam Reaches fits the trope, but the movie earns points by presenting a brutally unromanticized view of reservation life at the time, with government corruption, violence, alcoholism, and crushing poverty. Also, everything Grandpa does is what Lakota people would reasonably expect a wikchasa wakan (holy man) to do; he leads a sweat lodge and later an outdoor prayer session, prays and leaves food out for animals, telepathically picks up on some facts about Ray's father, and offers to share a sacred pipe with him.
    • Jimmy Looks Twice has a reputation for shape shifting, but the film keeps it sufficiently ambiguous.
    • The film also dodges Political Correctness Gone Mad by having the main character, a federal agent assigned to investigate a murder at Pine Ridge Reservation (and the hero of the piece, mind you) be contemptuous of and sarcastic toward Sioux traditions at first - even though he is of part-Sioux ancestry himself, which is something he usually doesn't discuss. By the end of the film, said federal agent also fits the trope, to an extent.
    • And spoofed by tribal police officer and Deadpan Snarker Walter Crow Horse, who claims that he heard a message on the wind that the protagonist was exceeding the speed limit. Later when the federal agent has a vision, Horse gets rather annoyed because he has never had one!
  • Politically Incorrect Hero: Ray is a quarter Native American, but identifies as white and has almost completely turned his back on the heritage of his half-Sioux father. When he's assigned to a Sioux reservation to investigate a murder, he's not at all happy about it. Throughout most of the film, he feels almost no sympathy toward any of the Native American characters (except for a schoolteacher with whom he falls in love) and even mocks Sioux religious beliefs. He does eventually come to embrace his heritage, though.
  • The Rez: The movie is made of the political rez. Given that it's based on Pine Ridge in The '70s, yeah.
  • Scarily Competent Tracker: Walter Crow Horse, sheriff of the Native American reservation, tries to convince the FBI that a footprint left at a murder site was of a man who walked like a white man, which the prime suspect doesn't do. The FBI remain unconvinced, so he proceeds to tell one of them about his own weight, eating habits, and ankle holster from footprints. When the FBI agent sarcastically asks how much change was in the man's pockets, the sheriff gives that information too. Given that Crow Horse is a Deadpan Snarker, one assumes that he's joking.
  • Stealth Hi/Bye: A few of the locals pull this trope on Ray as an insult, implying that a real Sioux wouldn't fall for it. That implication is never tested.