Tribeca 2022 Interview: Jesse Short Bull and Laura Tomaselli on Covering Sacred Ground in “Lakota Nation Versus United States”

As soon as Jesse Short Bull arrived in New York for the premiere of “Lakota Nation Versus the United States,” he knew he was getting off on the right foot when he stepped into his ride into the city.

“The guy in the driver’s seat, without provocation [or us] telling anything about where we were from, just goes on about Crazy Horse and how he was his hero,” said Short Bull. “I don’t know if that was some sort of good sign, but you could see where I would think people really would like to get some understanding of this history and this story.”

Anyone looking for an education in Native American history, and those who don’t even know it yet, would do well to give themselves over to the enthralling experience Short Bull and co-director Laura Tomaselli have put together as a way of conveying the foundation of the Landback movement in South Dakota to return millions of acres of ancestral homeland back to the indigenous community. While Short Bull and Tomaselli give a platform to a number of voices from Lakota Nation, most prominently Layli Long Soldier, the Ogala Lakota poet whose words give shape to the profound connection between the people and the land, the Black Hills themselves are allowed to speak as the film positions scenes of vibrant landscapes against the devastating history around it, acknowledged in 1868 by the U.S. government as territory of the Sioux in a treaty and subsequently stolen away once gold was discovered in the soil.

This theft is revealed to be hardly limited to property in “Lakota Nation Versus the United States” when the rights to the land are gradually diminished by the way Native Americans came to be viewed by much of America as well as how they saw themselves, severed from their traditions and any feeling of controlling their own destiny as they were forced into cultural assimilation. A barrage of pop culture ephemera give credence to the notion that images became as effective a weapon of subjugation against the indigenous community as barbaric practices intended to break their spirit such as child separations and mass executions and “Lakota Nation Versus the United States” brilliantly reframes much of the history that Americans have come to know, from the division of the Lakota into separate reservations to the establishment of Mount Rushmore, as acts of aggression and injustice.

Although it remains a question whether the land will be returned, “Lakota Nation Versus the United States” is able to give back some of the power as leaders in the Landback movement are able to reclaim their narrative and the film provocatively — and often playfully — upends assumptions about the U.S. government’s claim to the Black Hills. As the film wins new supporters for the cause at Tribeca, where it its beginning its festival run, Short Bull and Tomaselli, who previously helped craft another electrifying reconsideration of American history as an editor on Sam Pollard’s “MLK/FBI,” spoke about how they came to collaborate and create frames that could hold centuries, as well as navigating a production during the pandemic.

How did the two of you join forces on this?

Jesse Short Bull: It was crazy because we have a mutual friend [Ben Hedin], the producer of the film, and it was through that mutual friend that we struck up the conversation to get this project on the move and that was the first snowflake. Then pretty soon Laura was the next snowflake and it became a snowball and it just kept moving down the hill and picking up a lot of amazing people.

Laura Tomaselli: We met on the phone a couple times, but the first scout trip we took last year in May, and I remember our first conversation, [with] us chain smoking – I was still terrified, being like, “What are we trying to do with this movie?” [Jesse] said something to me that I think about all the time, which is, “We got to get around the walls of how people already think about this story.”

Jesse Short Bull: Once I met Laura for the first time, I was like, “She gets it.” Because in the Indian country, there’s a lot of controversy around this [Landback] project. There’s a lot of passionate feelings around this, so it’s not something that you can go into very lightly. Once I met Laura, we had the same vibe and I knew we would work together on this project with as much devotion and care as we could come up with.

There’s a verite version of this film where you embed with the backers of Landback. What made you want to go back in time to the extent you do?

Laura Tomaselli: There’s something that [Jesse] says about the treaty, which is it’s 1868, 150 years ago – a lot of people think it doesn’t matter. But [my] entry point was the court case, which is called Sioux Nation versus United States, and then gradually as we’re putting it together, it expanded to be the Lakota Nation and the history of them actually fighting colonization. But I wasn’t trying to necessarily cut another archival movie, because they’re hard, and it seemed okay in terms of being pressing today.

Jesse Short Bull: What I think is unique is that people of the Lakota Nation, the Oceti Sakowin, all the people that we feature in the film, this little cross-section, every generation has always had that. Once that treaty was inactive, there’s always been these active people that have been trying to maintain that all this time. It’s just a lot of them are either lost to history or we may never know their faces, or their names, but they’ve always kept that alive. It’s never been a relic [so] even though a lot of these people they don’t necessarily work on the treaty, per se, they’re still carrying that same spirit that their relatives a long time ago did. But a lot of America just don’t have access to a lot of this history. It’s hard because I work in tribal government and one of the biggest obstacles we have to overcome with people that aren’t from the reservation is just getting [everyone] up to speed. There’s people, even in our own state, that don’t think that we exist anymore. It’s hard.

Jesse, I understand you’re from Pine Ridge, so these images seem like they’ve lived in your head forever and the land is integral in telling the story. Were there were certain ones you had to have in this film?

Jesse Short Bull: From day one, Laura and I wanted to put an emphasis on trying to bring the land in as its own character, to try to show that relationship that our people really stress to maintain with the land, so we were both very adamant about trying to make as beautiful as we could with the rest of our team, that we show that love, [which is] how a lot of our people see it.

Laura Tomaselli: Almost in a holy way, not necessarily Christian or anything like that, but that was the goal. We had a lot of conversations where I was like, “Jesse, what are we missing?” He’d always be like, “I think we’re missing the piece of the real relationship with the land,” which as a person coming in from the outside is something that you don’t get until you sit with it and you start to understand it. At least [that’s] what I was trying to do, because [these scenes] are visceral, they can evoke that feeling that Jesse’s talking about and I’m not going to get you all the way there, but if I can get you there a little bit, it’s cool.

How did Layli Long Soldier come into this?

Jesse Short Bull: A lot of these people I had some sort of relationship prior to the film being made, and I grew up with Layli. I lived not too far from where her father was, and her father was a painter on the Pine Ridge Indian education and lo and behold, Layli would eventually become an instructor of mine. What is so critical about Layli is that she looks at the language, like in the treaty, and goes into that like in her last book “Whereas,” finds the space in between each letter, and just looks at it so meticulously and carefully, even more so than a lawyer would and really finds out what’s embedded inside there. And having Layli be a counter to a lot of the archival voices, and just a voice for all the Oceti Sakowin, her voice represents the entire Lakota Nation because how she says it and the way that she takes language so seriously.

Laura Tomaselli: I did not have Layli as a teacher or anything like that, but early on when I read “Whereas,” and then I listened to her reading – and she loves reading her own work, which is incredible. She cares about the craft of that telling – I [thought] oh my God, if we could put this in the movie, it solves this narrator dilemma to a certain degree, because when you’re trying to cover this massive history, and you’re going to have to use newscasters for exposition, just for expediency, so we have to [ask] who’s our Lakota newscaster? At least for me. Who’s the voice, that counterpoint to all the white guys at the desks? So she certainly functioned that way, but also in the poem, where she says, “I might not go in chronological order,” [I thought] I’m going to jump around in the edit. It gave us license to really [think] we can maybe move stuff around.

What was it like to figure out where to film present-day events, particularly given the pandemic?

Jesse Short Bull: Last year was really stressful because Pine Ridge was just on the verge of returning to some level of normalcy as far as large events and things of that nature and it seemed like right when we were in the teeth of doing some shooting back home, everything clamped down again. And Pine Ridge is unique because, whereas the state of South Dakota, there was no mask mandate, no vaccine mandate, Pine Ridge was just the opposite. They wanted really take care of our people, so rules were really locked out. In fact, we had checkpoints [for] people coming into the reservation, and same with a lot of the other reservations like Cheyenne River, so it did throw a wrench into things. We probably could have got some more things for Laura to feast upon as far as editing, but we make do with what we can.

Laura Tomaselli: Coming into it, I was like, “Well, we have to have [footage of] this pow wow and then this moment of catharsis, especially after COVID. It will feel so good.” But every single time, there was a spike in cases. That’s one thing that I feel really lucky is that forced our hand — I like [that there’s] the protest at the end, where it is honest and big and it doesn’t always have to be this image of a pow wow.

It was a strong point to end on. And this is just the beginning for the movie, but what’s it like getting to here and getting this out into the world?

Laura Tomaselli: We delivered our print five days ago, so I think sharing it with the room of people we’re getting to share it with tonight, it’s going to make me fully cry for like 17 hours, but it’s going to feel beautiful.

Jesse Short Bull: I’m just kind of taking it in as it comes. Once we got going, I knew that something like this would come and we would get it to a place that it needed to be. And when I go home, I really count my blessings, and just hope that maybe we could help somebody understand where a lot of our people in Oceti Sakowin are coming from. If that could help them learn a little bit more, I think that would be a good thing.

“Lakota Nation Versus United States” will screen again at Tribeca on June 17th at 5:45 pm at the Village East.