Political Matters – September 2023


By Mordecai Specktor

Native issues on film
When I’m not watching “Reservation Dogs” and “Dark Winds,” I watch Native documentaries on cutting-edge issues. (Maybe this column should be called “Film Matters.”) The following films illuminate Indigenous struggles in North and South America:

• “This Stolen Country of Mine” (2022), streaming on Ovid
This amazing 93-minute documentary directed by Marc Wiese updates the story of colonization in Ecuador. In this South American nation, the bad actors seeking to extract energy and mineral resources from Indigenous lands are from the People’s Republic of China.

The film focuses on Paúl Jarrín Mosquera, a charismatic leader of the Indigenous resistance to oil exploitation, and journalist Fernando Villavicencio, who gained access to contracts that the Ecuadorian government signed with Chinese firms and became the target of government repression.

In short, the administration of President Rafael Correa granted oil concessions to Chinese firms that guaranteed energy resources worth 10 times the monetary value of the contracts. When Villavicencio exposed the government’s corrupt dealings with China, paramilitary police raided his family home, forcing him to flee and take refuge in a Native villages in the Andes.

The Indigenous resistance portrayed in the film features wise and courageous leaders caught up in revolutionary events. The camera travels along when Indigenous fighters burn up a Chinese mining camp.

Villavicencio, who eventually fled to Spain, returned to Ecuador, against the advice of associates who feared for his life. Past the timeline of the documentary, Villavicencio declared his candidacy for Ecuador’s presidency in May 2023. On Aug. 9, following a campaign rally in Quito, he was assassinated by a gunman.

• “Lakota Nation vs. United States” (2023), in theaters, or rent on Prime Video
Over close to two hours, this entertaining and stylish documentary, directed by Jesse Short Bull and Laura Tomaselli, chronicles the long struggle to gain back Lakota land. Starting with the 1851 and 1868 Fort Laramie Treaties between the U.S. government and the Great Sioux Nation (along with the Arapaho and Cheyenne), the film looks at the perfidious conduct by the U.S. in unilaterally abrogating the terms of the 1868 treaty following the discovery of gold in the Black Hills.

“Lakota Nation,” which covers a lot of ground – from the protracted legal fight over the Black Hills to Indian boarding schools and the contemporary #LandBack movement – employs clips from cartoons and Hollywood films depicting Indians in stunningly crude, stereotypical and negative images. Layli Long Soldier, one of the film’s writers, reads from her works, including passages about the U.S. Dakota War of 1862 and its tragic aftermath, including the mass hanging of 38 Dakota warriors in Mankato, Minnesota. Her contributions to the film are poetic and moving.

Interviews with activists including Nick Tilsen, Phyllis Young, Krystal Two Bulls and Candi Brings Plenty give viewers a sense of the future for citizens of the Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires, or the Sioux Nation). The activists continue to convey the message that He Sapa, the Black Hills, are not for sale.

• “Oyate” (2022), streaming on Prime Video, or rent on YouTube
This 91-minute documentary, directed by Emil Benjamin and Brandon Jackson, looks at the aftermath of the 2016-17 resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock. The story of the movement to stop the Black Snake – the pipeline from the Bakken oil patch in North Dakota to a terminal in Patoka, Illinois – is told by those involved in the epochal struggle, including Chase Iron Eyes, Phyllis Young, Tokata Iron Eyes and current Department of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.

Energy Transfer Partners, the corporation behind the oil pipeline, employed private security firms that conducted surveillance on the activists and, along with law enforcement personnel from around the Midwest (including the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office), used water hoses, rubber bullets and tear gas against the Water Protectors.

In 2017, The Intercept (theintercept.com) published reports on the nefarious activities of TigerSwan, the security firm employed by Energy Transfer, to disrupt the movement of Water Protectors, which was originated and led by women and Native youth.

The Intercept found that TigerSwan, over a span of nine months, conducted “surveillance of activists through aerial technology, social media monitoring, and direct infiltration, as well as attempts to shift public opinion through a counterinformation campaign. The company, made up largely of special operations military veterans, was formed during the war in Iraq and incorporated its counterinsurgency tactics into its effort to suppress an indigenous-led movement centered around protection of water.”

The #NoDAPL movement inspired Indian Country’s resistance to colonial exploitation of energy resources. However, the threats continue, from Ecuador to the Arrowhead region of Minnesota, as corporations probe for situations where they can exploit craven elected leaders and weak regulatory structures.