Here we are at that time of the year again when Americans pay special attention to American Indians because, well, the foundational national myths of the US occur in autumn. Namely, we are talking about the holiday formerly known in many places as Columbus Day, and its close successor, Thanksgiving. If you are a Beacon Press fan, you will know that Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and I wrote a book about some of these myths, and tackle these two most pernicious myths fervently, “All the Real Indians Died Off” and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans.
The book came out about this time last year, and it was quite well received. We were fortunate enough to go on a national book tour, visiting bookstores, schools, universities, and giving media interviews from the Southwest to the Midwest, the Pacific Northwest, and the East Coast. We were on the road as the standoff at Standing Rock intensified, and from a hotel room in Minneapolis we watched our Facebook feeds in horror the night militarized police forces brutally attacked demonstrators with water cannons in sub-freezing temperatures. Day after day, we spoke to standing-room-only crowds who were desperate to make sense of the violence being used against unarmed, nonviolent water protectors.
Since the days of the #NoDapl encampment, now nine months in the past, dozens of films have been released documenting the event. One of the latest is an offering from award-winning documentarian Brian Malone, titled Beyond Standing Rock. Malone has been touring the film, and I recently had the chance to view it in Los Angeles at the Autry Museum of the American West. What follows is my review of the film.
The film’s title is a reference to the fact that its subject matter covers more than just the Standing Rock #NoDapl movement. It also showcases the Bear’s Ears National Monument controversy, and digs into energy development of the Southern Ute in Colorado. Sensing that this is a lot of ground to cover in just one film, your first question might be, “What is the common thread that ties these diverse topics together in one film?” And that is the correct question, but one that isn’t necessarily obvious from viewing the film, without outside commentary.
The commentary was provided at the screening I attended, when Malone was on hand for a post-viewing conversation with a museum staff member. He explained that the larger point of the film was to show how tribal sovereignty is at the heart of each of the film’s subjects. For Standing Rock, the Dakota Access Pipeline is a violation of the Standing Rock Sioux’s sovereignty, especially in light of the history of blatant treaty abrogation that shapes today’s reservation boundaries.
Bear’s Ears raises big questions about the lack of sovereignty tribes like the Navajo, Ute, and pueblo peoples have over sites they occupied for millennia and still consider sacred, having been dispossessed from those lands through processes of colonial domination.
The Southern Ute, on the other hand, with the fantastic wealth generated from decades of fossil fuel development on their lands, are a model for how the exercise of sovereignty can raise a people made destitute by colonialism into a comfortable modern life.
The film attempts to accomplish its goal of highlighting tribal sovereignty (or the lack thereof) by digging deep into legal theory, with interviews by well-known experts in federal Indian law like Troy Eid and former head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Kevin Washburn. He also does his due diligence as a journalist with in-depth coverage of opposing viewpoints in each case. It wasn’t easy to watch some of the interviews with opponents like Rep. Ron Bishop (R-Utah), who is a famous foe of Indian country, or the few conservative Navajos like San Juan County Commissioner Rebecca Benally who oppose the Bear’s Ears monument designation. But it was responsible journalism on Malone’s part, and it is perhaps the film’s greatest strength.
There are a number of reasons, however, why the film falls short, and they are too many to list here, so I will limit my critique to my biggest issues with it. Malone, a non-Native guy with no apparent expertise in Native history or scholarship outside his filmmaking experience, seems to grasp the complexity and contradictions of federal Indian law. His focus on the finer points of federal Indian law rightly shows how the legal structure fundamentally works to limit tribal sovereignty, but it does so without framing why the legal system is structured this way, as a process of colonialism. His analysis could’ve—should’ve—been so much more deeply informed with perspectives from other kinds of experts, like historians and other Native studies scholars. Instead, it seems to fetishize colonial law without ever questioning it.
This is admittedly a big conversation. I realize that editorial choices need to be made in filmmaking, but I was left with the feeling that the film bit off more than it could chew. It also left me with the feeling that because of his apparent lack of expertise in Native issues, he was the wrong person to make this film. At the very least, he needed far more advisory expertise.
In the end, especially with his post-film discussion, Malone comes off as just another white guy presenting himself as an expert on Native issues. As Native people, we’ve had more than enough whitesplaining of our realities. We need our own people telling our stories, and we have the talent to do so. Films like these can do as much harm as good when not adequately framed, and I fear this is the case with Beyond Standing Rock.
About the Author
Dina Gilio-Whitaker (Colville Confederated Tribes) is an award-winning journalist and columnist at Indian Country Today Media Network. A writer and researcher in Indigenous studies, she is currently a research associate and associate scholar at the Center for World Indigenous Studies. She lives in San Clemente, CA. She is the co-author (with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz) of “All the Real Indians Died Off” And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans. Follow her on Twitter at @ and visit her website.