Young Lakota, which is airing on PBS and available to view online for the next few days, focuses on reproductive justice on the Pine Ridge Reservation, home to an estimated 30,000 Oglala Lakota. The documentary follows the political efforts of one-time President Cecilia Fire Thunder, and introduces us to Sunny Clifford, who returned to the rez to both understand her roots, and to make a difference. While the film does a good job at highlighting some of what’s at stake on Pine Ridge, it also misses the opportunity to recognize the institutional barriers created by the US federal government that create profound poverty on the reservation.
Pine Ridge exists within South Dakota, where in 2006, voters took to the polls to decide on a ballot measure aimed to ban any and all abortions, including terminations for pregnancies that were the result of rape or incest. In response, Oglala Lakota President Cecilia Fire Thunder suggested that her nation would open a women’s clinic on Pine Ridge. As is made clear in the film, Native nations hold tribal sovereignty, which trumps state law—so while it would be controversial to open a clinic that provides abortion, it would be perfectly legal to do so on Pine Ridge, regardless of South Dakota’s law.
What follows is an internal battle between Fire Thunder and Tribal Council members. This is one way Young Lakota thrives. It doesn’t collapse all Oglala Lakota people into one. Some stand with Fire Thunder, but others do not. At a time when there are few films about Natives and the challenges their nations face, filmmakers Marion Lipschutz and Rose Rosenblatt illustrate the agency with which the people highlighted in the film come to their own conclusions.
But perhaps most central to this film is the way it captures 21-year-old Sunny Clifford’s political awakening. Clifford is transformed by the battle on Pine Ridge, and is obviously inspired by Fire Thunder. While other young people are also featured in the film, Clifford’s story is the most compelling. She chooses a side in the abortion ban battle, and her decision to campaign against the proposition and for Fire Thunder are almost metaphors for her decision to campaign for own dignity—along with the dignity of her people.
The film opens by introducing us to Clifford, and almost immediately to her boyfriend, 18-year-old Rodney Spotted Elk. He’s shy and quiet, and we don’t know much about him—but the relationship ends after Spotted Elk becomes violent. We know he is a drinker, especially at night. It’s facts like these where the filmmakers fail to make connections to larger structural issues facing Pine Ridge.
Pine Ridge borders the tiny town of Whiteclay, Nebraska, population 14. What Whiteclay lacks in population however, it makes up for in liquor stores and alcohol sales—four outlets sell more than 4 million cans of beer there per year, almost exclusively to Oglala Lakota. Alcohol was long banned on Pine Ridge, but people knew they could cross the border to obtain it. The sales are lucrative for white-owned companies, and grew so out of control that the Oglala Lakota sued storeowners, along with corporations like Anheuser-Busch, Pabst, and Miller in 2012. But Oglala Sioux Tribe v. Jason Schwarting was dismissed for lack of jurisdiction.
While the federal government holds obligations to the Oglala Lakota, it hasn’t stepped in to solve the problem of alcoholism—a problem that kills Natives on Pine Ridge, while making white corporations wealthy. The federal government also ignores the systemic issues that make Pine Ridge one of the most dangerous places to live—and to die—in the United States: average life expectancy for women in the US is 81, but it’s 52 on Pine Ridge; for men in the US it’s 76, but 48 on the reservation. The numbers are no better when it comes to unemployment, wealth, diabetes and infant mortality. While Spotted Elk’s violence towards Clifford is nowhere near excusable, Young Lakota glosses over his possible alcoholism as if it’s merely a personal issue, and not part of the structural reasons why Pine Ridge is the way it is.
Nevertheless Young Lakota is worth watching. It’s a rare glimpse into Pine Ridge that celebrates the resistance and complexity of the Oglala Lakota who live there—and remind us that people like Sunny Clifford are working to make meaningful change.