New Doc Details the Struggle of the Lakota People

Let’s face it. The vast majority of Americans have “learned” most of their Native American history from short segments in high school history classes and from movies and TV shows. It seems fair to admit that these have been mostly one-sided tales. Well, here comes co-directors Jesse Short Bull and Laura Tomaselli to provide a detailed history from the Native American perspective, and I feel confident that many of you will find it as disturbing as I did.

This history dates back to the arrival of Europeans, but the focus here is on the mid-1800’s to the present. We learn there have been more than 400 treaties between the federal government and Native American tribes, with each successive ‘agreement’ whittling away a bit more of the land set aside for those who were already here.

The film begins with some general history lessons, including the story of the Dakota 38, wherein the U.S. government hanged 38 members of the Dakota tribe, in the largest mass execution in U.S. history. The film’s focus is then further narrowed to the Lakota people and the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Native American poet Layli Long Soldier provides a voice and a bit of structure throughout, and her recurring “X marks the spot” carries significant weight regarding the treaties, the lack of understanding by tribal leaders, and the land itself. Parts one and two are labeled ‘Extermination’ and ‘Assimilation,’ respectively, and we learn about the 150+ boarding schools that were more like boot camps designed to indoctrinate the natives; including the slogan, “Kill the Indian, Save the Man!”

Lakota Nation vs. United States 2023
A still from ‘Lakota Nation vs. United States’ by co-directors Jesse Short Bull and Laura Tomaselli.

The history is presented in mostly chronological order, and we see how the Lakota people continue the battle over their land – demanding reparations, the protection of clean waters, and the prevention of oil pipelines. This is the mission of the “Landback” movement, as their leaders share their (justified) anger and history with us.

In recent years, the movement received a jolt when in 2020, while still president, Donald Trump staged a July 4th celebration at Mount Rushmore, a particularly sacred land within the Black Hills of South Dakota. This lack of respect inspired many protests.

This is an exceedingly compelling documentary. It teaches us history in a manner that stimulates emotions on a subject from a perspective most of us have never considered, yet it is so crucial to the Lakota people. Their ongoing struggle to reclaim their land is underscored by the fact that the Lakota people continue to refuse the substantial monetary settlements offered by the government, choosing instead to hold fast to their demands of having the land returned to them.