Lakota Nation vs. United States — Laura Tomaselli & Jesse Short Bull
Credit: Tribeca Film Festival
by Luke Gorham Featured Film Horizon Line

Lakota Nation vs. United States — Laura Tomaselli & Jesse Short Bull

July 18, 2023

“U.S. history is a branch of a larger tree of history… but it’s that covetous branch that thinks it’s the tree.” Proffered somewhere partway through Lakota Nation vs. United States, this assertion operates as a rough thesis for Jesse Short Bull and Laura Tomaselli’s remarkable new film. Employing a similar lens through which to view American history as Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States — that of settler colonialism; “a state based on the ideology of white supremacy… and a policy of genocide and land theft” — Lakota Nation is a clear-eyed and incendiary unpacking of the ouroboros logic of the country’s fundamentally racist, colonizer historiography. As the title implies, this documentary is most specifically focused on the history of Lakota peoples, particularly their relation to the Black Hills of South Dakota as a cultural and spiritual mecca, but it’s still effortlessly illustrative as a synecdoche of the larger Indigenous history of displacement and dehumanization at the hands of white American hegemony. It follows, then, that the portrait the co-directors present isn’t only one of persecution and persistence on the part of Indigenous populations, but also a mining of the white rage — to connect this to another recent, essential work of sociological inquiry — that has existed and bloomed since the United States’ founding. But the duo are also savvy enough to keep Lakota Nation from slipping into a purely academic exercise: platformed here are a bevy of diverse Dakotan voices, from activists to scholars to laypeople, expertly blending personal, cultural, and national histories. It’s an impressively comprehensive work, yet still manages to leverage its discursive vein to emotional ends, resulting in a work that’s as edifying as it is empathetic. 

Guiding all this through is Oglala poet Layli Long Soldier, whose 2017 collection Whereas, written as a response to the dubious, blanket congressional apology to native peoples signed by Obama in 2009, is perhaps the essential work of 21st-century poetry, Indigenous or otherwise. Operating as both screenwriter and narrator, Long Soldier’s lyrical presence here is the first indication of Short Bull and Tomaselli’s intent on crafting not just a forceful essay film — which it is — but also a work of commanding formalism. While mostly deferring to a roster of passionate voices, Long Soldier pops up in an interstitial capacity across the film’s two-hour runtime, her decelerated cadence almost metronomical as she recites poems built on linguistic repetition, a thematic reflection of the centuries of calculated, ceaseless disregard for the dignity of Indigenous populations. This careful sonic texture is carried over to the film’s soundtrack, which is largely built on sustained droning and fuzzy ambience, the past and present here engaged with fittingly enveloped in a certain ominousness, and then occasionally ruptured with colonialist propaganda like “Star Spangled Banner” and “Home on the Range.” If these choices seem overly obvious on paper, they are precisely implemented throughout, never used for cheap irony but instead as devastating reinforcements of the white American exceptionalism and evil of Manifest Destiny that the United States is fundamentally built upon.

To some degree, all documentaries must justify their existence as a visual medium. After all, there are plenty of texts that tread the same rhetorical territory, and so viewers are right to ask: why am I watching this? It’s a question Short Bull and Tomaselli are thrillingly equipped to answer, employing a variety of techniques to tremendous effect. Lakota Nation takes the shape of a collage doc, accumulating artifacts and archival documents, propagandist cartoons, paintings, and maps to accompany its “text,” all of which are stylishly implemented and formally legible. Elsewhere, crisp digital photography is used to capture modern re-enactments of historical hostilities, articulating the implicit settler lens of such spectacles through an exaggerated artificiality, frequently shooting from low angles and capturing the saturated colors of modern costuming. These and other sequences scan like the moving tableaux of myth, and indeed the directors’ often tend toward a kind of expressionism, specifically in connecting the Lakota’s relationship to their land: one memorable shot features a close-up of a sunflower, slowly pulling back to ultimately reveal a massive field of them, eyes adjusting from a single locus of attention to an abstracted whole, endlessly dotted with yellow, while the narration explains the United States’ systematic starvation of Indigenous populations in an effort to create a system of dependency and short-circuit Native sovereignty. (At times, the film even recalls the work of someone like John Gianvito, particularly Her Socialist Smile, with graceful, disembodied voiceover set to lush, thematically resonant natural settings.) Lakota Nation’s compositions are clean and symmetrical, largely images of Dakotan sky meeting land, occasionally blemished by settler iconography (a gas station named Custer, for instance). The directors even take care to gussy up the film’s talking-head compositions, shooting from oblique angles or framing bodies within double-wide door frames. 

The highest compliment one can pay a thesis-driven film of this kind is to observe that its disquisitions would be legible even if watched on mute. In that regard, Lakota Nation vs. United States is an endlessly fascinating formal document, one that would indeed likely afford rich rewards on silent rewatch, the clarity and artistry of its images fairly unmatched in recent documentary filmmaking. Fittingly, then, it ends with an explosive final scene. Earlier in the film, Lakota Nation detailed the construction of Mt. Rushmore, its crushing symbolic weight, and Donald Trump’s fireworks-heavy Independence Day celebration that occasioned the tourist spot in 2020, before later moving into its final section which details current reparational movements, environmental activist efforts, and the role of white allyship. It’s a remarkably moving section, the participants’ rhetoric shifting from a parsing of history to an articulation of hope for the future, a beautiful assertion of self in a country still mostly operating according to settler ideology. In the film’s final shot, Short Bull and Tomaselli once again turn their focus to fireworks, this time dotting the sky over a Land Back bash, serving up a moving celebration not of something past, but of what and who persist in the present, and a clarified vision of what is still to come.

Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 28.