This engaging, illuminating,
but ultimately depressing film by Beth and George Gage chronicles the
struggles of the Western Shoshone Nation in general, and the Dann sisters
in particular, against the impenetrable force that is the United States
American Outrage asserts
that, beginning in the 1960s, the US Government began seeking ways to
seize Native American land in Nevada to pave the way for the sale of
private mining rights there. In the course of pursuing this goal,
the Bureau of Land Management ran afoul of Carrie and Mary Dann, Shoshone
sisters and ranchers whose livestock grazed in places that made the
BLM uncomfortable. A series of bureaucratic clashes led to the
USA suing the Danns for trespassing on public land. This documentary
focuses on the decades-long fallout of that lawsuit, which stretches
over the last 25 years and continues to this day.
The relationship between the
Western Shoshone people and the federal government is a tense one, fueled
by centuries of mistrust and the continual erosion of native cultures.
According to the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley, the Shoshones agreed to
allow the federal government safe passage across their land during the
highpoint of the Civil War; the agreement helped the Union expedite
the war effort by opening a quick route to the California gold fields.
In a weird twist of irony, it was one hundred years later that corporate
mining interests appealed to the government for access to the gold fields
that lay beneath Shoshone land, so that they could extract the precious
metal via cyanidation. This wasteful, toxic process virtually
kills the land, leaving enormous, uncultivatable, mountain-sized tailings.
The Dann sisters spent decades
standing for Shoshone sovereignty against all odds, in the face of opposition
that held all the cards, all the force, and the authority of the United
States court system, the Bureau of Land Management, and the Department
of the Interior. Their fight to retain ownership of the land their
family had lived on for countless generations led to a finding by the
United Nations that the US had acted in poor faith with regard to their
treatment of the Western Shoshone and urged the US to immediately open
dialogues with them on the matter of land rights.
While American Outrage effectively
introduces viewers to what is almost certainly an unjust situation,
it leaves some very large unanswered questions. Do the experiences
of the Danns and the Western Shoshone have any similarity to those of
other native peoples? Is this part of a larger US policy to encroach
upon native lands? The film does not place the Danns' story
in the context of contemporary native societies, US policy, corporate
influence peddling, or upon any other larger narrative stage. This
is not to say that the Danns' plight is unworthy of documentation,
but the filmmakers seem to have bypassed an opportunity to give their
subjects the extra weight they deserve.
There is ample footage of the
Dann sisters working their ranch, conducting household chores, and visiting
family and friends. There is also good, informative interview
footage with them, their lead lawyer, and others associated with the
Danns' fight. The choice to incorporate music by Iroquois singer
and songwriter Joanne Shenandoah was not a good one; her music sounds
very dated, with silly lyrics that undercut the power of the Dann sisters'
The documentary appears to have been shot on video, and the image is
presented full-screen. Given the project's low budget and local
focus, the quality here is acceptable but not particularly strong.
Muddy blacks and odd bits of noise crop up now and then.
A simple, clear 2.0 stereo
soundtrack is provided. Again, this is not a film that relies
upon technical presentation for its power; the track is adequate.
A short coda entitled Crisis
at Mt. Tenabo is included, running 6 minutes. It focuses on
the protest against a planned chemical bomb test upon Shoshone land,
which was mentioned briefly in the feature. (The test was cancelled.)
A worthy film that tackles a subject that ultimately embraces the whole
history and foundation of the United States, American Outrage
is valuable as an introduction to the fact that the struggles and injustices
faced by Native American peoples are far from being relegated to dusty
history books. Unfortunately, the film misses opportunities to
place the stirring story of the Dann sisters in relation to other issues
among contemporary Native Americans. Still, it's recommended.
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.