The federal government has in recent years grappled with Western ranchers refusing to honor land leases, but it long had an unpaid bill of its own. A century ago, several Western tribes agreed that the U.S. Department of the Interior would administer leases of Native American land to oil and gas companies, paying out what should have been lucrative rents. Instead, 300,000 members of those tribes were left destitute as toxins rendered land useless to Indian farmers, the companies siphoned fuel without reporting true totals and the government doled out just pennies on the dollar.
The documentary 100 Years exposes how Elouise Cobell, a Blackfeet Indian and treasurer of her tribe, noticed the numbers didn’t add up and in 1996 filed a class-action suit. Cobell was a petite, bubbly nerd, belying her formidable character and relentless pursuit of justice.
Director Melinda Janko offers powerful details — salient facts related to the case; Cobell relinquishing her leadership of an Elvis fan club to focus on the suit — though her scattershot approach and tendency to linger on mundane events undermines the impact.
Cobell v. Salazar spanned three decades and the administrations of as many presidents, but the tribes eventually prevailed in a settlement signed by Barack Obama. The process was grueling and manifestly unfair, and the outcome, in the end, a paltry redress.
Directed by Melinda Janko
Fire in the Belly Productions
Opens October 14, Cinema Village