The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Lakota Nation vs. United States
How did the two of you first connect, and when did you know that you were going to make this film together?
Jesse Short Bull: Laura and I first met in the parking lot of a hotel in Rapid City, South Dakota… and we met nervously, over a cigarette or two or three. That was our first meeting and, yeah, it only took maybe a nanosecond or two for me to realize that Laura was an amazing person and just somebody that was willing to go all the way and just… work, so hard, for this story. And I knew that then, from the very beginning.
Laura Tomaselli: I hate going after Jesse because I like listening to him talk so much! But, I think when we… it was like a funny blind date where we were both sort of like, “well, are we gonna do this terrifying thing, to make this movie, or are we going to try and make it, anyway?” And I think what really unified us is that we were both so scared about doing justice to this story. And I don’t know if we’re the people that can say that we did do it justice, but… I think that conversation was our first step.
was it an obstacle, or was it an omen?
I read that one of the ideas in the movie was to shoot nature like a church. Can you explain that idea?
JSB: Yeah, that came from our initial conversation. Obviously the land is… we wanted to try and go a little bit beyond just seeing it as a setting, a little bit beyond a simple shot of a rock or a tree. And since we couldn’t schedule an interview with the Black Hills — they were pretty busy! — we wanted to try to let the Black Hills speak to us somehow. And the way we did that is really due to our amazing cinematographer Kevin Phillips. It really clicked with him, with his eye, and his technical ability, to try and let the Black Hills and surrounding areas say something for us that Laura and I didn’t want to try and control or edit. We just wanted that, the beauty of the land, to say something to the audience.
You use many clips of Hollywood movies and other pieces of media in order to contextualize the story and then you also add your own content. How did you approach incorporating those elements into the film?
LT: What Jesse and I had to do, what we set out to do in the beginning (after our nervous parking lot cigarette session), was try to convince people that things like treaties, that all these things that happened a hundred years ago, 200 years ago, more than that… were still important today. I think that there could be a full film just explaining that aspect. And there are full films about stereotypes of Native Americans in Hollywood movies. For me, I felt like it was effective to combine personal testimony with new context, to help people to hopefully get them to get around the walls of their preconceived ideas of this part of the world. One of the things Jessie and I talked about was how to get around people’s walls that they have up, thinking that this doesn’t matter to them, that it’s not pertinent to them. They don’t live in South Dakota, and so we hope that the combination of new material with footage they’re more familiar with will work in tandem to tell the story.
Nielsen released a study saying that Native representation had doubled between the years of 2021 and 2022. South by Southwest also highlighted the increased representation of Native peoples at their film festival, where there were five projects with Indigenous voices. Do you feel like Native voices are having a moment in media, or is it a largely a PR thing?
JSB: I do think that’s a correct assessment, because back in 2005, 2006, 2007, I really remember a lot of investment in Indigenous storytellers across the United States. And I do know that this was a dream for a lot of people, to see what we’re seeing now. There just seem to be a lot of things budding right now, and yeah, that was part of a people’s dream and I hope that only continues to get stronger.
What were the conversations like with your producing partners and your distributors, as far as bringing them along in your story? Because this film has a clear point of view and tells some uncomfortable facts, which perhaps gave folks pause?
LT: We heard that the movie was too political a couple of times, from people that potentially wanted to acquire it. But in general, I don’t know what Jesse would say, but to me, making this film was a funny road. There were a lot of obstacles. We had a joke that was it an obstacle, or was it an omen? There’s a lot of… I think sometimes the documentary about making the documentary can be just as interesting. But our producers, by and large, were wonderful. Our Executive Producers were wonderful and everyone gave us, I think, a lot of room and a lot of feedback, a lot of constructive feedback.
JSB: Yeah. And just to add onto that, as we started to build out the team of people, it can be tricky at times. And the thing is, at the end of the day, I think all of us knew that the heart of it was the Black Hills issue, which is very delicate, and sensitive, and requires a lot of great care, and we’ve seen things like this alienate and topple other projects in the past. So having that goal of keeping the Black Hills front and center for everybody, in spite of some of our cultural differences, in spite of professional differences… as long as everybody was okay with where we wanted to try and go with the Black Hills, that always was the main through line. And like Laura said, even when challenges would arise, at the end of the day, we would still go in the same direction.