A New Documentary Shines a Light on a Century of Native Americans Being Exploited
Countless Americans dropped their jaws earlier this week when it was announced that esteemed journalist Amy Goodman, longtime host of “Democracy Now!,” would be charged with participating in a riot. The charges were brought by North Dakota’s state prosecutor. Goodman, who’d previously been charged with trespassing for her work in covering Native Americans’ months-long protests against the Dakota Pipeline, had the earlier charges dropped only to be blindsided by new, trumped up charges clearly meant to intimidate and silence the press. Perhaps the only group of Americans not remotely surprised at the chilling, punitive response by the state government was Native Americans, whose entire history of dealing with the U.S. government has been defined by lies, brutality, and ever inventive cruelty.
The documentary 100 Years, which opened this weekend in New York and a few weeks ago in Los Angeles, is a fast-moving but information dense overview of the practice and effects of over a century of broken promises and sidestepped treaties on the part of the United States government in their dealings with Native peoples. Directed by Melinda Janko, it’s a blood boiling viewing experience whose heroine, the late Elouise Cobell, was a Native American (Blackfeet) banker who uncovered proof of the government’s swindling of her people and fought for over a decade to receive justice. The film opens with the quotes: “In 1887, the United States government broke up many Indian reservations and allotted millions of acres of mineral rich land to 300,000 individual Indians. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (B.I.A.) promised to manage their land. Lease payments for oil, gas, timber, and grazing were held in the Indian Trust Fund.” The viewer know from the start that what will follow will be grim.
What keeps the 75 minute film from merely being a downer isn’t only all the scenes of Cobell being a genuine badass – testifying before Congress; flipping through reams of documentation she’s compiled – but footage of ordinary Native folks pushing past the grim circumstances in which they live. One grandmother, whose family lives without electricity, gas or running water – even as a very lucrative gas line snakes across her property with all profits going elsewhere – shows the precariously Gerry-rigged portable battery setup she’s put together just for her family to have electricity. Though she’s angry and tired, she’s not broken, and while the viewer can admire her resilience and ingenuity, we also note that no one should have to demonstrate superhuman survival skills as they’re being exploited. The Navajo reservation has one of the largest gas reserves in the world, but its people live in abject poverty even as unauthorized drilling takes place on their land. “Who’s getting rich?” asks one Native activist speaking into the camera. It’s the question that sparked Cobell’s righteous crusade, and is at the center of so much of the injustice and inequality in the world.
All images courtesy Fire in the Belly Productions.