‘If given a chance to speak, we’ll take it’: inside the lives of Native American women

The poster for Women of the White Buffalo, a documentary about the Lakota people and their history, comes from a portrait that director Deborah Anderson took to raise awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). The photo features a Lakota woman, Delacina Chief Eagle, looking directly at the camera with wounded eyes, her hair disheveled, a feather hanging off to one side and a red handprint representing MMIWG smudged across her mouth.

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That image, which was originally on display at the Beverly Hills Leica Gallery alongside other portraits, is loaded, leaning into tropes regularly used for settler consumption over the past century. Chief Eagle, a survivor of rape and abuse, is modelled to look the stoic Native wearing recognizable Indigenous iconography, from the feather to the handprint worn like war paint. The photo is provocative in a way that also serves its purpose.

It’s safe to assume the audience at the Leica Gallery weren’t all that aware of the violence directed at Indigenous women and the myriad ways that they are silenced until coming face-to-face with those portraits of Lakota women. Indigenous women in the US are murdered at a rate up to 10 times higher than the national average.

Anderson admits to being clueless about these issues too before embarking on the documentary, which acts as an accompanying explainer to those images by covering 530 years of genocide as told through the history of the Lakota people. “I really didn’t recognize the enormity of this project until I threw myself into it,” Anderson told the Guardian over a Zoom call from her home in upstate New York.

Early on in our conversation, Anderson makes it clear she is not Lakota, recognizing that authorship when telling Indigenous stories is a contentious matter. She was raised in the Caribbean and schooled in Britain. Her father is the singer Jon Anderson, frontman for the band Yes. Her ethnicity is Scottish, Irish and West Indian. She hasn’t done a DNA test to verify the Black and Indigenous makeup of her West Indian ancestry, but she assumes there’s some component of Arawak, Taino and/or Carib-Indian.

She explains her rather circuitous journey to telling this story, which began with eavesdropping on photographers at a Palm Springs camera store as they discussed shooting wild horses and buffalo on a reservation. Her curiosity about life on a reservation was piqued. So Anderson, who had mostly been shooting ad campaigns for fashion brands and working with celebrities, went home and Googled “Native American Indian Women”.

“What came back was so horrifying to me,” says Anderson. “The missing and murdered Indigenous women; the lack of understanding around why these women were going missing; and that nobody was really doing anything about it. And then I started to see these images of how these Natives were living. And that was it. I just knew that that was what I was meant to do.”

Women of the White Buffalo broadly recaps the US genocide of Indigenous peoples through broken treaties, buffalo slaughter and boarding schools, where remains of children are being excavated. The film then illustrates the ways that genocide continues today on reservations like Pine Ridge and Rosebud in South Dakota, through addiction, suicide and victimization, as fossil fuel pipelines bring pollution and oil workers to Indigenous reservations. Just last month, the US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez presented the correlation between ”man camps” set up for fossil fuel extraction and the violence committed against Indigenous women.

“You don’t realize the domino effect,” says Anderson. “That’s really what I’m praying this film will gift people: an understanding of history and how one thing affects another.”

Anderson is far from the first to make a film at Pine Ridge. The reservation is one of the poorest places in the United States. And its proximity to Wounded Knee, the site of a massacre in 1890 and a standoff with the FBI in 1972, makes it a draw for news cameras and film-makers, the most prolific being the Oscar winner Chloé Zhao. The Nomadland and Eternals director made her first two features, Songs My Brothers Taught Me and The Rider, at Pine Ridge.

According to Lakota film-maker Razelle Benally, despite its contentious history, Pine Ridge is “a welcoming tribe”.

“I think it’s easy to come to Pine Ridge purely to extract stories out of the people,” Benally told the Guardian on a Zoom call. “We have a history where we’ve been silenced. We’re impoverished. We have issues with drug addiction, alcohol abuse and abuse in general. And obviously those issues come from colonization. So if given a chance, any chance, to speak out, we will generally take it because it’s a chance to be heard.”

Benally, an MFA candidate at NYU who has directed a number of shorts, expressed a weariness over film-makers who are not from the community telling the story of Lakota people. Her apprehension is generally shared across the Indigenous film-making community in the US and Canada.

Films already have a long and fraught history of misrepresenting Indigenous communities, portraying them as savage to justify a genocide. That misrepresentation goes all the way back to early westerns and Robert Flaherty’s 100-year-old manipulated documentary Nanook of the North. Today, the ambivalence could be directed towards settler film-makers who lean on tropes or dwell on Indigenous trauma to prop up white savior narratives. Think Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River, which casts Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen as the heroes in an MMIW narrative.

“There’s a savior-ist aspect to extractive film-making,” says Benally. “Now everybody wants to save the Indian and [tell] our story because it’s evocative or they think that they’re discovering or uncovering more about us, when we’ve been living with the effects of colonization this entire time.”

Benally, who had not yet viewed Women of the White Buffalo when we spoke, describes a tendency among film-makers to fetishize Indigenous struggle or poverty. She adds that Chloé Zhao did something different by romanticizing the Indigenous struggle in her two features. “Was it an authentic Lakota lens? No. Her films can be deemed extractive too, because she used a community outside of her own to serve her career.”

There’s connective tissue between film-makers arriving on a reservation to extract Indigenous stories and settlers arriving on Indigenous lands to take resources. But there’s also a history of films that raise crucial awareness, like Michael Apted’s 1992 documentary Incident at Oglala, which shed light on a miscarriage of justice at Pine Ridge. The difference between then and now is that there are more Indigenous film-makers finding the opportunities to tell their own stories.

“I think there’s a lot of Indigenous people right now that are really stepping up and taking matters into our own hands and showing the world that we’re capable,” says Benally, referring to a healthy global Indigenous film-making community led by Taika Waititi, Sterlin Harjo and Danis Goulet. “When we have people doing these films for us, it infantilizes us, as if we can’t do things ourselves, which we clearly can.”

Anderson says she’s a big fan of Harjo’s Reservation Dogs, a cheeky dramatic comedy about rez life. She adds that she got all the inside jokes in a series that’s loaded with specificity after spending four years with the communities at Pine Ridge and Rosebud.

“I really created this film with them,” says Anderson. She explains that she was warmly invited into the community by the late elder Carol Iron Rope Herrera. She adds that Herrera was eager for a platform to speak to what was going on before she died. Herrera appears in Women of the White Buffalo along with several other Lakota women whom she introduced to Anderson.

“I speak with them constantly, still,” says Anderson. “I have a very close relationship with most of the women because I wanted that. It wasn’t just coming in and taking a story. I wanted to make sure I did it the right way from the beginning. There was no like, ‘I’m coming in and then this is my version of your story.’ It’s their version of their story. And I was just asked to hold those stories in the right way and put it together in a tangible, palatable experience by way of the film.”

  • Women of the White Buffalo is now available to rent digitally in the US with a UK date to be announced