Directed by Jesse Short Bull, Lakota Nation vs. United States is a righteous documentary about countering American colonialism.
Lakota Nation vs. United States (2022) is a documentary that centers the Oceti Ŝakowiŋ, which the film defines in the opening as the Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota people, and their relationship to the Black Hills from pre-colonization to today. This site is considered sacred and spans from South Dakota to Wyoming. The Oceti Ŝakowiŋ claim that the land cannot exist without them, so to take the land, colonizers had to destroy the indigenous people who revered it. Destruction came in many forms: open warfare, treaties in foreign languages — from English to legalese — and criminalizing their way of life. The film mixes memoir, history, poetry, critical cultural media analysis, and a call to action for a stirring finish.
Directors Jesse Short Bull and Laura Tomaselli open with a sunrise over the Black Hills then divide the film into an introduction — three parts (titled “Extermination,” “Assimilation,” and “Reparation”) with a brief intermission between the first and second act. Considering that the runtime is under two hours, the intermission is a stylistic choice and serves a similar function as the numerous montages of archival news footage and clips from classic cinema featured throughout the documentary. It reminds viewers of the violence that majority culture’s imagination imposes on real-life people.
In the right hands, the medium that dehumanized Native Americans can validate them by juxtaposing real places and stories side-by-side with their fictionalized counterparts, sets, or created characters. Fiction pales in comparison. For instance, instead of showing an uninterrupted clip from Custer of the West (1967), when the characters reference locations, Bull and Tomaselli splice awe-inspiring landscape scenes filmed exclusively for this feature. This jarring moment reminds viewers that while history and media images are stories and theoretical to many, to others it is more majestic than anyone who has not encountered the original can envision.
“The most sacred place in the world.”
The overall narrative follows a poetic structure with poet Layli Long Soldier punctuating as the on-and-off-screen narrator reading her poems “38” and “135 X’s.” The scene starts with an empty chair on-screen until Soldier enters the frame to sit, read, and occupy the space. Lakota Nation vs. United States repeats this visual embodiment of land back, vacant spaces which indigenous once occupied but were exiled from now reclaimed. During the introduction and first act, Soldier links the violation of historical treaties with early twenty-first century protests before engaging in a chronological history.
Beginning Lakota Nation vs. United States in medias res has the drawback of making the overall trajectory of the story unclear but has the advantage of highlighting the federal government’s see-saw approach to race. For instance, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation within the same 48 hours of his approved execution of 38 Sioux warriors. In 2016, the indigenous population reprises this federal engagement with race by paralleling widespread protests against the extrajudicial execution of George Floyd and the ensuing fall of Confederate monuments with their protest to protect and reclaim the Black Hills, which includes Mount Rushmore. The filmmakers are deft at finding common ground with and offering an entry point to non-Native viewers.
“We’re not for sale.”
Various Native American on-screen speakers are primarily identified by their names and tribal association, not their profession. Based on the substance of their clips, the film implies that they are activists, historians, leaders, and average people telling a mostly chronological historical account. Even though they are telling a personal story, for viewers, the domination of multiple passionate talking heads makes the film feel like a traditional, expository documentary and evokes the PBS-style approach to informing viewers. By waiting until later in the film before diving into the speakers’ backstories, the documentary mostly takes an academic approach.
Lakota Nation vs. United States is the kind of film that every American should be required to see as an antidote to centuries of colonizing, classroom narratives which range from omitting indigenous people to demonizing them. Convincing people to go to the theater to get educated is a harder sell. It is a preach-to-the-choir film with those already sympathetic more likely to buy tickets, not the least interested, who may need a change of heart.
A slow burn.
If viewers stick with the deliberate, professorial pacing, they will be rewarded. The last half hour evokes the emotional link between the Oceti Ŝakowiŋ and nature, which was previously elusive when described in words. The documentary suddenly becomes participatory with director Short Bull interrupting the interview to recall when he first met artist and Oglala Lakota woman Alex Romero Frederick, an activist at Standing Rock.
The film shifts from only using words to convey this connection and infects the viewer with that fervor of indigenous faith. Frederick recounts her arrival at the Dakota Access Pipeline protests in 2016. The home video footage confirms her account that indigenous claims of a solemn connection with nature existed historically by showing how it played out in contemporary times. She rode her horse, and the horse reacted in a way inconsistent with the horse’s experience and the environment. Great movies can make people suspend disbelief and become true believers, and this sequence marks the moment when this movie became more than an average documentary, but a tear-jerking, powerful sequence. It has the potential of recruiting people to the cause: empowering the indigenous so they will protect the land and world.
A human movie about hope.
Eventually, the talking heads of Lakota Nation vs. United States enter the frame with their families, allowing for a relatability that conflates the legal, human rights, and environmental issues into the speakers’ appeal. It may be propaganda, but it works. The film’s subjects invite non-indigenous people to join them in protest and make history to prevent another invasion. If the entire film was more consistent and as dynamic and resonant as the last half hour, it would attract more interest than the preach-to-the-choir contingent.
Releasing Lakota Nation vs. United States before the next presidential election feels like a conscious cautionary statement for the next election. The documentary includes news footage of Presidon’t, aka the 45th President, arriving to celebrate the 4th of July near Mount Rushmore, which the indigenous view as sacrilegious. The film never explicitly derides him, but it associates his presence with desecration and invasion. If the film succeeds in attracting and persuading unlikely allies to its side with the indigenous, it may extend to the voting booth. It’s worth noting that Presidon’t issued an executive order which enabled the pipeline to be built in 2017.
The legal battle isn’t over.
Lakota Nation vs. United States omits the fact that the protests did not stop the pipeline construction, and the legal battle is still evolving in appeal. The filmmakers leave space for imagination in a countercultural way. Instead of a film creating an image of the indigenous as a threat, the omission imagines a better world where justice occurs, the land does not get polluted, and the Oceti Ŝakowiŋ lead a new America founded on love of nature and embracing humans as stewards, not conquerors. Unfortunately this documentary is just a movie, and real life is disappointing. During the protest, there was a nearby, undetected oil spill, which did nothing to deter the creation of the pipeline. The film ends on an optimistic, empowering note, but it is as much of a fantasy as any blockbuster.
Lakota Nation vs. United States is now playing in select theaters. Watch the trailer here.
Images courtesy of IFC Films. Read more articles by Sarah G. Vincent here.
LAKOTA NATION VS. UNITED STATES - 7.5/10