Oyate (Photos: Films With a Purpose)

By Matt Brunson

★★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Brandon Jackson & Emil Benjamin
STARS Chase Iron Eyes, Deb Haaland

The documentary Oyate is one of those movies fueled by the fires of righteous fury — from those who see it, from those who made it, and from those who lived it.

In a broad sense, it’s about the mistreatment of Native Americans throughout this country’s history; more specifically, it’s about the 2016 #noDAPL protests in which the members of the Lakota Nation bravely stood firm and stood tall against those pushing the Dakota Access Pipeline while good people from all across the globe lent their support.

The historical material, which touches upon everything from the first Europeans hitting these shores to the 1973 Wounded Knee Occupation, is fascinating but too brief and scattershot to fully make an impact. For example, there’s a discussion of how Native American children in the early stretch of the 20th century would be taken from their families and placed in boarding schools, where they routinely endured beatings and other tortures. It’s a horrendous subject worthy of its own movie, meaning that the mentions here ultimately raise more questions than they answer.

Oyate (which means people or nation) is at its best when it focuses on the DAPL crisis. The racist approach to the pipeline is immediately clear, as it was originally planned to run north of Bismarck, North Dakota, until it was revealed that it might eventually poison the water supply of the area’s predominantly white population. No problem! The pipeline is then rerouted far off its logical path and ends up running next to the only water supply for the people of the Standing Rock Reservation. Of course, the p.r. flacks for the company behind the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, then have the audacity to claim that, while there was worry that it might have contaminated the Bismarck area water supply, there’s oddly no chance of it doing likewise to Standing Rock.

There’s also the disturbing correlation between the plight of indigenous women and massive projects such as the DAPL. Indigenous women are sexually abused and murdered at 10 times the rate of the national average, and various studies have shown that these atrocities spike with the presence of “man camps,” makeshift living areas for the men who are hired to work for lengthy periods on these projects. Since U.S. law enforcement usually ignores these crimes, the perpetrators go unpunished and are emboldened to continue. (For a fictionalized take on this problem, check out 2017’s excellent Wind River, starring Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen, and reviewed here.)

Oyate Still 3
Chase Iron Eyes and Tokata Iron Eyes

As in most sagas involving unrepentant villains (in this case, everyone from the blue-collar rapists to the vile Energy Transfer Partners CEO), there are fortunately heroes fighting to make a difference. In Oyate, we meet several of the people opposed to the pipeline, primarily politicians such as Deb Haaland, one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress and currently serving as the Secretary of the Interior, and activists like the tireless Chase Iron Eyes.

While most of Iron Eyes’ interludes involve the pipeline, there’s an amusing scene in which he believes he can gain “white privilege” by being smarter than the white people around him while his teenage daughter Tokata, herself an activist, insists that he’s misunderstanding the term and that he can never experience “white privilege.” (If the name of Tokata Iron Eyes is familiar, that’s because the 18-year-old is currently missing and believed to be with actor Ezra Miller, who reportedly has been brainwashing her since she was 12, has been mentally and physically abusing her, and has turned her against her parents.)

While Oyate is focused on the issues that have affected and are still affecting indigenous people, it also touches upon two other factors affecting the country as a whole. One is the specter of police brutality, as there are numerous scenes in which uniformed thugs harass peaceful protestors. The other is, naturally, the insidiousness of the Trump Administration. It took Barack Obama too long to address #noDAPL, but he finally decided to use his office to halt construction of the DAPL. On the other hand, it took Donald Trump a mere four days in office before he signed a memorandum allowing the pipeline to continue, a move cheered only by his idiotic followers and his opportunistic financiers.

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