I like to think of 2005 as the calm before the storm in Disney Channel time. Sure, they were already quite successful, but as far as DCOMs go, High School Musical was about to make its mark in 2006. And on the series side, Hannah Montana was an instant hit, too. But before all that, there was Buffalo Dreams, directed by David Jackson and written by Marjorie Nielsen Schwartz.
Buffalo Dreams is the one and only DCOM with a Native American focus. One of the main characters, Thomas Blackhorse (Simon R. Baker), and his family are Navajo. Ever since Thomas’s parents died, his sister Scout will only communicate with sign language. She works with Thomas and his friend Moon every day preserving the buffalo. Meanwhile, city boy Josh Townsend (Reiley McClendon) moves to their New Mexico town with his parents (George Newbern from Father of the Bride and Jane Sibbett from Friends). The dad is a researcher, and Josh is supposed to go with him to the lab for a summer job, but Josh Xeroxes his face (classic 2000s prank) and decides to work on the buffalo preserve instead.
Josh starts to become close to Thomas, Scout, and Moon. He earns their trust, swimming with them under a secret, sacred waterfall. Josh breaks that trust by showing the swimming spot to the local bullies, who mock Navajo customs. This is one of the most frustrating and heartbreaking examples of cool vs. uncool — Josh mistakenly thinks these bullies are cool, so he wants them to like him. After that backfires, Josh and Thomas are sent on a camping trip at Thomas’s grandfather’s behest, where they each have visions. Thomas is transported to a moment in Indigenous history, where his grandfather tells him “the land is a part of [him],” made of himself “and who [he’ll] become.” Meanwhile, Josh tells an eagle, “This place is too whack for me.” After he and the eagle chat about bird spirits, Josh starts to fly. Both kids feel out of place in different ways. Thomas isn’t so into Navajo traditions, and Josh is still finding his niche.
Josh decides to beat the bullies once and for all in a mountain bike race, but he makes himself sick by training too hard in the rain. When the day of the race comes, local radio personality Domino (Cheetah Girl Adrienne Bailon) announces every move, but Josh ultimately has to help his pals herd the buffalo. The only way to calm the creatures is to sing “Lean on Me,” and it always works. That’s when Scout sings for the first time in the movie.
We end with a celebration at Thomas’s grandparents’ home, showing Thomas and Josh to be true friends. I hope they stayed close in the Buffalo Dreams universe, preserving the land and livening up the community. I talked about this film with my friends Shane and Vicky on their podcast last year, so please check out DCOM Clubhouse if you want to hear more. Buffalo Dreams is streaming on Disney+!