Movie Review: The Exiles

The Exiles (1961)
Written and Directed by Kent Mackenzie

A Native American man looks out over a parking lot.
Movie poster of The Exiles (1961),
written and directed by Kent Mackenzie.
(Poster design by Scott Medla ©2008
Milestone Film & Video | Wikipedia)

In the movie, The Exiles (1961), you will see evidence of the real-life experiences of Native American men and women who were, in fact, “exiled” from their home communities of the reservations. Starting in the 1940s, the federal government offered assistance with the relocation of Native Americans from their reservations to urban areas. Also known as the Indian Relocation Act, this program offered limited resources and was one which American society-at-large was not quite ready to accept. 

The movie takes place in the big city of Los Angeles, where many Native Americans faced antilocution and challenges in finding jobs. They also endured culture shock, and many struggled with identity crises. Some were in dire straits and felt like giving up. They felt stuck in a cycle of day in and day out with no direction and no progression in the city. The Relocation Act Program was a temporary fix that put a band-aid on the “Indian Problem” for America. 

In this film, you will also catch how Western gender roles* begin to appear because the men cannot land jobs and thus cope with it through alcoholism and getting high, whereas, on the reservation, things were different. There, men and women each had their roles and a sense of pride. They were culturally accepted and could practice ceremonies. In Los Angeles, they felt like they were always being watched and couldn’t relax. They managed to discover a hill just outside of the city where they could gather after bar closing hours and sing traditional songs and drum together. It was a way for them to feel safe and be themselves without anyone bothering them. 

One scene that choked me up was when one guy was waiting outside the liquor store for his friend. He pulls out a letter and a picture from his pocket that he had received from his parentsremembering a moment of them together in Arizona. His dad is singing and shaking a rattle while his mom and little sister are togetherhanging out under a tree in the shade. He reminisces about the vegetables that were grown on the reservation and how things were back home. Before you know it, his friend comes out with a bottle of alcohol, and he folds the letter back up quickly and puts it back into his pocket. They make their way back to their house to get some money from their little savings jar, intending to pay their rent. They are then met by their girlfriends and a handful of young children, but soon take off and head out to gamble, leaving the family alone. 

It was these raw scenarios that won me over to believe this was a great film (or documentary, if you will) because it demonstrates the negative aspects of Native American urbanization and its impacts on our people. I could relate to the film because of hearing stories from my elders during the relocation era (the 1940s-1960s).  It also helped me to understand some fragments of my family in general. 

Seeing the struggle of survival in the Native American communityfacing unemployment, racism, loss of culture, and placement into poor housing communities—did not convince me that the Indian Relocation Act was a great move in a positive direction by the federal government. I felt it was a disguised method of assimilation— although that is also a question of whose perspective you are referring to. Was assimilation the answer? I don’t know. Maybe these struggles are also a sign of the adaptability, perseverance, and resilience that my community has in our struggle to survive.

*It is also important to note that the movie disregards Two-Spirit persons despite their historic prevalence in Indigenous communities. Yet another sign that American society-at-large was not ready to accept Indigenous people and culture into the mainstream.