LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, Ruth Buffalo, Deb Haaland, Andrea Carmen
Emil Benjamin, Brandon Jackson
Nominated for the Local Heroes competition at the Cleveland International Film Festival, Emil Benjamin and Brandon Jackson's feature doc Oyate is an engaging, thought-provoking film largely centered around the #NoDAPL Movement protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline and, in a broader sense, working to preserve Indigenous rights and to ultimately protect the centuries of injustices inflicted upon Indigenous peoples.
Benjamin and Jackson undertake the ambitious task of making accessible the many injustices to America's Indigenous people throughout history. From well documented incidents of genocide to broken treaties and stolen lands, Oyate works to tie together these events and to document how they ultimately tie into the 2016 Standing Rock protests where, once again, a treaty was broken and profit over people was the rule. Yet, in some ways there was something different about the #NoDAPL Movement, a movement that attracted national media attention and a surprising amount of non-Indigenous support. Key voices included in Oyate include the late LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, Ruth Buffalo, Chase Iron Eyes, and current Secretary of the Interior under President Biden Deb Haaland. Oyate weaves together a wealth of archival footage alongside news footage and interviews to craft a comprehensive glimpse inside the injustices experienced by Indigenous peoples. While it's arguable that Benjamin and Jackson attempt to accomplish a bit too much here, it's nearly impossible to argue with the film's lofty ambitions and relentless passion. A good majority of the film is actually centered around the Dakota Access Pipeline protests and, in particular, the transition from what had been a fragile but peaceful protect to one in which the betrayal, brutality, and just plain lies by law enforcement are all well documented by both news accounts and numerous videos.
Oyate really comes into its own in its latter half as complexity of the early material gives way to focused messages and a deeper understanding of how Indigenous history informs the contemporary movement. The stark contrast of law enforcement bearing down like a military unit upon a peaceful gathering is one I knew about but one I've seldom seen captured as well as it's captured here. While Oyate accomplishes much here, perhaps more than anything Benjamin and Jackson capture how everything that unfolds here is interconnected and, perhaps, how even a hard-fought victory with the Dakota Access Pipeline may well have been inspired less by a concern about the Indigenous people and more by media images of those, including America's vets, who supported them.
Early in its festival run, Oyate is a vital and necessary documentary about a subject many Americans have only learned about in bits and pieces and a subject that, you guessed it, has most certainly been whitewashed.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic