Film Review: 100 Years

Sobering documentary about activist Elouise Cobell, who led the fight to force the U.S. government to account for money owed to Native Americans.
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Our country's original sin and lasting shame is its treatment of Native Americans. 100 Years follows a 14-year class-action lawsuit that attempted to reclaim some of the monies stolen by the federal government. In the process, the documentary serves as a tribute to activist Elouise Cobell.

Director Melinda Janko starts with imagery of the West at its most beautiful, but within a minute has narrowed the focus to generations of broken promises. In particular, 100 Years looks at 1887 laws that essentially gave the government control over monies generated from Indian lands.

As Keith Harper of the Native American Rights Fund explains, the government is supposed to hold these monies in trust through agencies like the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In practice that meant that Indians were sent royalty payments that often had no correlation to profits being made from their mineral rights.

Many of the Indians in the documentary are living in abject poverty, with no electricity or running water. Yet their lands are crisscrossed with oil and gas wells and pipelines that often contaminate their water and kill their livestock.

Elouise Cobell of the Blackfeet Nation remembers begging to be allowed to attend school as a child. Graduating from a commercial college with an accounting degree, she began questioning government records about Indian monies. Eventually she filed the largest class-action lawsuit in American history to reclaim the estimated $27.5 billion owed to Native Americans.

If 100 Years has ragged passages, it may be because Janko worked for 14 years on the project. For long periods Cobell and other figures were prohibited from discussing the case on-camera. A large cast of politicians stretching over three administrations can seem overwhelming at times.

But what emerges watching 100 Years is Cobell's indomitable spirit and passion, her conviction in pursuing a case that seemed impossible to win. Winning a MacArthur Foundation award helped increase her visibility. But the real drive behind Cobell and Janko is the need to correct an injustice stretching back decades.

100 Years is functional in its approach. Talking heads alternate with brief shots of landscape vistas. There are few graphics and little archival footage. But Janko does capture indelible images of the harsh conditions on Indian reservations.

And 100 Years is especially valuable for its portrait of Elouise Cobell, someone who succeeded in countering centuries of oppression. She is an inspiration for everyone.

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