Early on in the documentary 100 Years, the audience is introduced to Dorothy Wilson, a member of the Navajo tribe. Wilson lives in a trailer on a dirt patch. She has no running water, no electricity and watches television with a battery pack.
“People don’t understand what I live like,” she says.
With no natural gas connection, Wilson uses a propane tank for her needs. Only a few yards in front of her trailer, a high-pressure gas line cuts through her property. “It’d be nice if they could run a free gas line to me if they’re gonna use my land,” she says.
Wilson is one of the many Native Americans featured in 100 Years, playing at The Arvada Center Feb. 10. The documentary tells a story that started more than a century ago, when the U.S. government divided millions of acres of land between some 300,000 Native Americans and promised to manage the land for their benefit, including the distribution of all monies derived as a result of oil and gas, mining, timber and grazing activities. But because of bad record keeping, faulty accounting and an almost total lack of organization on the part of the U.S. government, Native Americans never received their full financial compensation. As a result of this incompetence, Native Americans living on some of the most resource-rich land in the country, are still among the poorest people in the U.S.
This mismanagement did not sit well with everyone and one member of the Blackfeet Nation, Elouise Cobell, started asking questions. As treasurer of her tribe, Cobell realized the numbers weren’t adding up and decided to demand justice.
“People are dying in Indian communities every single day … It’s time to draw a line in the sand. Enough is enough,” she says in 100 years.
In 1996, several years after her first inquires into what had happened to her tribe’s money and with no formal legal expertise, Cobell filed the largest class action lawsuit ever levied against the federal government for the mismanagement of Indian trust funds.
In 2002, filmmaker Melinda Janko was looking for a story for her next project when she stumbled upon an article in Mother Jones about Cobell’s lawsuit.
“I was blown away. I thought I was reading the article wrong, ‘Oh this is something that happened in the 19th century.’ But I read on and realized it was going on today,” Janko says.
Outraged by the story, Janko knew she wanted to help. She had never been on a reservation and she didn’t know any Native Americans. But she started getting involved in the community, taking baby steps, as she says, making connections with major players including John Echohawk, executive director of the Native Americans Rights Fund in Boulder.
After a year of research, Janko knew what to expect upon arriving on reservations to film the living conditions like those of Dorothy Wilson and others. But she remembers her crew’s strong reaction to the abject poverty. “They were just appalled,” she says. “They said, ‘Are we really filming in the United States? Is this really happening?’”
Throughout the filming, Janko became good friends with Cobell, who she calls the “petite warrior woman.”
“[Cobell is] very soft spoken, very unassuming, yet she’s one of the most powerful women I’ve ever met in my life,” Janko says. “She just does not back down. She has incredible resilience.”
After Cobell filed the lawsuit, what followed were appeals, bureaucracy, administration turnovers, agency doors closing then reopening, the removal of legal allies, and more. After 30 years of fighting, in December 2009, the U.S. government settled the suit for $3.4 billion.
While the settlement was record breaking for the U.S., it still woefully underestimated the amount truly owed to hundreds of thousands of Native Americans. Janko acknowledges the imbalance, but ultimately focuses on the good.
“We had several titles for the film, and at one point one of the working titles was Small Measure of Justice,” Janko says. But the filmmakers decided to not take focus away from the victory, “because even though it’s a small measure of justice, it’s still justice.”
While Cobell lived to see the historic settlement, she passed away from cancer on Oct. 16, 2011. Fourteen years in the making, Janko says 100 Years serves as a tribute to Cobell and all those who died waiting for justice.
Janko released the film in the fall of 2016, amidst protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. “What’s happening in North Dakota is the same as [in 100 Years],” Janko says. “It’s the government saying, ‘OK, this is your land, but we’ll dictate what to do with it.’”
She plans to visit North Dakota soon and screen her film to give the protesters there hope for the future. Hope is what Janko wants the audience to take away, especially in light of the Trump administration.
During the filmmaking process, Janko says she lost faith many times. But it was Cobell who was always there to encourage Janko and others to keep fighting for good.
“This was [Cobell’s] mantra, she would say, ‘The stars are aligned for the Native Americans to get justice,’” Janko says. “And every time she said that, I believed her.”
On the Bill: 100 Years, followed by panel discussion with Melinda Janko and John Echohawk. 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 10, Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Blvd., Arvada, 720-898-7200.