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  • American Outrage: A Documentary That Rides the Rails of Indian Hating
  • Anne Keala Kelly
American Outrage. Directed by Beth Gage and George Gage. New York: First Run Features, 2009. 56 mins. DVD, $24.95.

American Outrage follows the decades-long legal battle between the United States and Carrie and Mary Dann, two Western Shoshone elders referred to by many affectionately as "the Dann sisters." It's beautifully shot, edited, and written, something to recommend. Everyone should know the Danns and what is happening to their part of the world. This film does this with power and grace. Viewers will come away with a sense of the sisters and their struggle, and the scene where Carrie Dann resists arrest and climbs into a cattle-loading chute to block BLM agents from confiscating her horses makes the film a must-see.

In brief, what the film discloses is that in 1863 the United States and the Western Shoshone signed a treaty of peace and friendship called the Treaty of Ruby Valley. At that time the United States was engaged in a civil war and needed money—even civil wars are expensive. The discovery of gold in the West became a source of funding for that war, but in order to get to the gold Americans had to pass through Shoshone territory, thus, the need for a treaty.

Fast-forward 110 years: the Danns are grazing their cattle and horses on the open ranges of the Western Shoshone nation, and the BLM says they and their livestock are "trespassing" and "degrading the land." A year later the Danns are being sued by the United States and are told that the Western Shoshone lost their land to what the U.S. government refers to as "gradual encroachment," a throwback to the "doctrine of discovery." We then learn that in 1979 the Indian Claims Commission, part of the federal government, stated that the loss occurred in 1872. So, unbeknownst to the Shoshone, they'd been trespassing in their homeland for over a hundred years. [End Page 125]

Further, the Department of the Interior, that bastion of enlightenment and advocacy for Natives that will one day receive a Nobel Peace Prize no doubt, accepted $26 million from the United States as payment on behalf of the Western Shoshone people for 24 million acres of land. The U.S. government decided that it should pay for the land (which was never for sale) at what it would have been "worth" in 1872 dollars when the United States began its ominous "gradual encroachment."

Yes, it's an outrage. Almost every film made about American Indians portrays outrageous acts of evil and cruelty in one way or another. But as this film reveals, some of the inner workings of America's old-fashioned Indian-hating ways, in part through a voice-over by Mary Steenburgen, served up with a calmness that belies the anxiety of watching people fight for their lives, the perspective becomes more and more non-Native. With a film as well constructed as this one is, that's an issue that often goes unacknowledged, but it's important to think about who's making the film and who its intended audience is. Typically, the majority audience for a film like this is white, which could explain the motivation for excluding sharper narrative edges.

History is very present for documentary filmmakers, and it's also very political. So what are this film's politics? We know what is being shown and articulated, but what isn't there? All filmmakers want the audience to look at what is presented without any notice of the guy behind the curtain; however, documentaries are different, especially political stories like this one. They have to embody the "rules" of the medium but are bound to a more literal truth telling than anything one expects from fiction.

Although it's hinted at, this film doesn't say that what is happening to the Danns is a reflection of white supremacy and that philosophy's systematic erasure of Natives in America, an enduring, methodical process as bad as anything Hitler had going on. Instead, the lawyers and filmmakers take us on the...


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pp. 125-128
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