Rarely do documentaries make one feel like their grade school education left out a lot of crucial details about their country’s history; Lakota Nation vs. United States does just that. It also highlights the perverse perspective many mainstream media productions – mainly Hollywood’s – created to assuage non-Native Americans that their people were on the right side of historical events. Touching on the decades-long struggle of the Očéti Šakówiŋ (or the Seven Council Fires of the Great Sioux Nation) to reclaim their land, the documentary, directed by Jesse Short Bull and Laura Tomaselli, hones in on the Lakota Nation’s efforts to regain control of the Black Hills region of the Great Plains.
The duo’s project is eye-opening, enthralling, well-executed, and frustrating. Told from the perspective of the Lakota people, one of the few films in this medium to do so, it effectively presents a series of viewpoints and facts contrary to what most non-Indians know about. These truths and statistics are primarily informative, but they are often gut-wrenching and awful too. Learning about what the Lakota people have endured from the Oyate (people/tribe/nation) themselves is simultaneously revelatory and disturbing. And while the documentary serves its audience one side of the issue, seeing the intercut clips of Hollywood films like John Ford’s The Searchers portraying Indian Americans as caricatures and savages somehow makes it feel right. As the Lakota interviewees make evident, their oppressors and the ignorant have stripped their voices and reputations away for too long, such that a film like Lakota Nation vs. United States feels just in its intentions.
Structurally speaking, Short Bull and Tomaselli split their documentary into three parts, a somewhat chronological ordering of the Lakota Nation’s fight for justice and reparations, the latter goal constituting the theme of Part 3. It begins with an introduction to the overall issue: the United States government’s deception over a broken treaty and thievery of the sacred Black Hill. It then goes back to the beginning of the Lakota’s struggles, emphasizing critical historical moments like the Native boarding schools, General Custer’s expedition into the Black Hills, and the pivotal Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868. As the film progresses, the directors carry us further ahead, even spotlighting the protest over Donald Trump’s visit to Mount Rushmore on July 4th, 2020; this structure adds a convenient and logical form to the documentary’s narrative.
Given its complex subject matter and heavy tone, there’s little room for joy or excitement. However, that is not the purpose of Lakota Nation vs. United States, which becomes painfully evident within its first few minutes. On the other hand, the movie advocates for change in a powerful and inspiring way, and it becomes increasingly difficult to pull away from it or root against the Lakota people. It informs, provokes, and boisterously calls for understanding and justice. It does all of this despite its simplistic editing style and cinematography, though it does make effective use of on-the-ground footage and archival material.
Lakota Nation vs. United States is not a documentary that will instill awe with incredible effects or shock with controversial shots or interviews. Still, it does what it needs to do efficiently, and for that, it is a critical and impressive spotlight on a genuine American issue—one that requires the exposure this documentary gives it.