Lakota Nation vs. United States
by Christie Robb
A compelling documentary providing context for the Očeti Šakówin’s Land Back movement, Lakota Nation vs. the United States aims to help viewers understand the past so that remedies can be made to redress historical wrongs.
If I can beg your indulgence for a moment, I’m going to break the fourth wall of movie reviewership a bit.
I graduated high school in the late 1900s (as my kid would say). At that time, the school’s mascot was the Redskin. A six-foot-tall mannequin dressed in buckskins and feathers stood in the lobby opposite the administration offices to greet the almost entirely (at the time) White student body. There was a vocal minority of folks who viewed the mascot as pretty tasteless at the time, but it didn’t get retired and exchanged until 2021. You’d think that would be a sign that the district was moving in the right direction. And things did seem hopeful.
Until the school district passed a resolution banning so-called “critical race theory” in 2022.
Teachers there are no longer allowed to give assignments that ask students to question (among other things) their race, ethnicity, or culture in a way that might be “derogatory.” They can’t ask kids to question possible privilege or reflect on oppression. And this kind of thing is happening in other districts around the country.
How, then, can we talk about the history of the United States? How can we grow as individuals and as a nation without reflecting on our past? Identifying what worked and what didn’t and trying to make better choices as we make contemporary decisions?
Directors Jesse Short Bull and Laura Tomaselli lay out why it’s important to look critically at the past as it relates specifically to the Očeti Šakówin’s ownership of the area around the Black Hills in Lakota Nation vs. the United States.
See, in 1868 the US made a nation-to-nation treaty with the Očeti Šakówin to wrap up a war that the indigenous folks were doing really well at. In the treaty, the US specified a territory that was for the exclusive use of the indigenous folks and that US citizens had no right to step foot on.
But, shortly thereafter gold was discovered in them thar’ hills and the US started breaking its word so folks could weasel their way back in there and start pocketing shiny rocks. Land was stolen. To mark their supremacy over the land, four white guy’s faces were carved into the Očeti Šakówin’s sacred Black Hills. The US still wants that land, but this time it’s more for fossil fuels.
In Part 1, Extinction, the directors explain how initial contact with White settlers impacted native people and how the educational system and White-created pop culture helped reframe a story of invasion as a White self-defense narrative. In Part II, Assimilation, they describe how systematic economic destabilization, land allotment, and an abusive boarding school system tried to destroy Lakota culture so that it would be easier for Whites to take the land and resources. In Part III, Reparation, they describe the development of the modern Land Back movement and how the Očeti Šakówin’s refused a meager offer from the US to pay them for the stolen land. They want the land itself.
Short Bull and Tomaselli weave together vintage educational film strips, old Hollywood movies, news clips, poetry, interviews with members of the Očeti Šakówin, and stunning views of the Black Hills landscape to create a beautiful visual essay about the value of reflecting on the mistakes of American history.
Does it address uncomfortable truths? Yes. Does it require thinking about privilege and oppression? Yes. But it’s also an opportunity to look back, understand a different point of view, and try to do better moving forward.
It’s an invitation to think about the land differently. It’s an opportunity to learn how to treat people better. It’s moving portrait of a resilient, hopeful, people. It’s a movie that should be shown in schools.
It’s just too bad that the history teachers at my high school and schools in similar districts around the country are now banned from showing anything like it.
 The name for the Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota indigenous peoples.