Native American issues highlight L.A. Skins film festival this weekend

Native American issues highlight L.A. Skins film festival this weekend

When “100 Years: One Woman’s Fight for Justice” screens at the L.A. Skins Fest, director Melinda Janko hopes viewers will be as appalled as she was by the injustice.

It’s why she “had to tell this story.”

Janko seized on the subject of her first feature-length documentary in Mother Jones magazine about 14 years ago: a lawsuit brought by 300,000 Native Americans against the United States government alleging the mismanaging of billions of dollars in royalties for grazing and drilling leases on their land.

“When I first read it, I thought, this can’t be happening now,” she says. “But as I read further, I realized this is happening today, and there are people that have oil wells on their land and living in abject poverty without running water or electricity.”

“100 Years” is one of about 50 features, documentaries, shorts and student films representing hundreds of Native American tribes screening for free through Sunday during the festival, now in its 10th year. From kid-friendly animated features to challenging documentaries, it brings no shortage of stories by or about the Indian community.

Along the line of “100 Years” come the documentaries “The Okra Legacy,” about a standoff between the Mohawk people of Quebec and a golf course developer with plans to expand onto ancestral land; and “Promised Land,” about two Pacific Northwest tribes trying to reestablish their treaty rights.

The festival also tackles LGBTQ stories as in “Fire Song,” which centers on a closeted man torn between his home on the reservation and the freedom of the city, which is part of Friday’s opening at the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre.

Screenings pick up again Saturday at the TCL Chinese Theatre with pictures like “Skokomish to Quinault,” about a 100-mile journey to preserve culture and custom in the modern age; the mysterious “River Monster,” about vanishing kids on the Colorado River Indian Tribes reservation.

A Navajo-language version of “Finding Nemo” from Walt Disney Pictures closes the festival Sunday.

While it was a late entry, “100 Years” will open the weekend of screenings at 6 tonight.

“Films like ‘100 Years’ are important because they do show another side of Native America where we have to struggle and fight and then litigate justice from the very entity that’s causing problems,” says Ian Skorodin, the festival’s executive director and a Choctaw filmmaker. “It’s always an uphill battle, and it takes decades to show any sign of success.”

The hero of “100 Years” is Elouise Cobell, a petite Blackfeet woman from Montana.

She’s given up her post as president of Montana’s Elvis Presley fan club to become lead plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit, the largest in U.S. history that ran through three presidential administrations beginning in 1996. The film follows her hard-fought battle for justice against incredible odds.

“As several people said in the film, they’re the invisible Indians,” says Janko, who is not Native. “They’re put on reservations that are so remote, most Americans have never set foot on them. But I like to say we’ve brought the reservation to them because if you went to a reservation and you saw this, it’s like third-world conditions in our country. And because mainstream America is kept away from that, the government figured it could get away with anything for over 100 years because what Indian has enough money to fight the federal government?

“Elouise, by the way, raised $15 million to do that,” she adds.

The film, which has been submitted for consideration in the documentary category for the Oscars, comes on the heels of an oil pipeline project near the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe Reservation in North Dakota, which has seen major protests by Native Americans and their supporters over potential environmental hazards and damage to sacred sites.

“We want to educate Americans about what’s happening in North Dakota, and how it’s the same old-same old,” Janko says. “It’s the government saying to the Indians, ‘Here’s your land but we’ll tell you what to do with it.’ That’s what they did with the Indian Trust Fund, and that’s what they’re doing in North Dakota.

“Enough is enough,” she says.