‘Lakota Nation vs. United States’ Review: A 150-Year Clash

Three years after the discovery of gold nuggets on Lakota land in 1874, the Black Hills Act stripped the tribe of most of the acreage in the Dakotas and northwestern Nebraska it had been ceded by treaty decades earlier, making way for droves of fortune-seekers. Ever since, the Lakota people have been fighting to regain that land, a plight recorded in a new documentary, “Lakota Nation vs. United States.”

This stunning film, directed by Jesse Short Bull and Laura Tomaselli, interleaves interviews of Lakota activists and elders with striking images of the Black Hills and its wildlife, historical documents and news reports, clips from old movies and other archival footage to extraordinary effect, demonstrating not only the physical and cultural violence inflicted on the Lakota but also their deep connection to the Black Hills, the area where Mount Rushmore was erected. (One activist, Krystal Two Bulls, describes the monument as “the ultimate shrine to white supremacy.”) The film covers well known instances of erasure and oppression, such as colonization and Standing Rock, but also lesser known injustices, such as the fate of the Dakota 38, in which dozens of men were executed by the U.S. Army in 1862 for rising up against the government.

In 1980, the Lakotas’ case was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted them remuneration for the lost land. But the Lakota people refused to accept the money and continue to do so, even as the settlement’s value has increased to more than $1 billion today. What they are fighting for is the land itself. Phyllis Young, one of the Lakota elders interviewed in the film, calls it their Mecca. “The land and the people,” she said, “are inextricably connected.

Lakota Nation vs. United States
Rated PG-13 for violent images and thematic elements and strong language. Running time: 2 hours. In theaters.

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