Co-directors Emil Benjamin and Brandon Jackson’s feature debut documents the Oceti Sakowin Oyate Nation’s protests – known commonly but erroneously as the Sioux Nation – against the infamous Dakota Access Pipeline. A patchy structure in the film’s first half eventually gives way to an animating depiction of struggle against colonial rule.
It should be more shocking that the indigenous peoples of North America continue to suffer persecution and discrimination five hundred years after European colonisers arrived to steal their land and exterminate their society and traditions. It should be, but of course it isn’t; the racist myth of manifest destiny is explicitly alive and well among the US Right, while what passes for the US Left – embodied here by the Obama administration – implicitly endorse the continued exploitation of natural resources and the displacement of native people.
The first part of Oyate touches on the history of the genocide of the Native Americans, starting with the litany of broken treaties that squeezed their paltry reservations into nothing, the destruction of the bison that the Lakota depended on to live, and finally, the boarding schools that stole and abused native children in the name of assimilation, and which continued to operate well in to the second half of the twentieth century. As the film refreshes our history, we meet the advocates of this story: among them the historian LaDonna Brave Bull Allard who sadly died last year, and Deb Haaland, former Democratic congressional representative and now Secretary of the Interior for the Biden administration.
At the centre of the film is the protests against the Dakota Access oil pipeline. The line is planned to pass through reservation territory, threatening the community’s access to safe drinking water. The pipeline is a fitting metaphor for the historical disregard for the basic needs of the native people, not to mention another sorry chapter in the saga of broken US state promises. The most basic human requirement – access to drinking water – is no match for the might of profit. Even the great liberal hope of the Obama years – with all their lip service to hope – gives way to the ultimate power of the dollar, and that’s before Trump gets in.
Yet the Lakota, who have known for generations that poisoning the land we live on is a zero sum game with no winners, stand firm. In its first half Oyate is spinning so many plates that its dramatic lynchpin – the pipeline protests – is sometimes lost, but once it sharpens its focus in the latter half Benjamin and Jackson’s film suddenly finds its power. The lying and brutality of the police, decked out like paramilitary stormtroopers, would be more shocking if it wasn’t so damn predictable, yet the protesters continue to resist, defying the force of the state with their stubbornly peaceful encampments.
The irony is not lost that after years of struggle, the protests’ triumph comes at the hands of the US armed services veterans who side with the protesters and finally start to worry the government that teargassing army vets isn’t a particularly good look. The film ends on a note of optimism that is at once uplifting and a little naive. In the end, Oyate isn’t an extraordinary documentary, but in telling the story of some of the United States’ most marginalised and persecuted people, it is certainly an important one.