The first feature from award-winning native activist and filmmaker Cody Lucich, Akicita: The Battle of Standing Rock is a powerful and harrowing watch, telling the story of the Standing Rock occupation from the perspective of the “Native warriors” involved, while thrusting the viewer into the action. The largest Native American occupation since Wounded Knee—back in 1890—Standing Rock unfolded over the course of almost a year, as thousands of activists and environmentalists stood their ground against a militarized police force, in protest against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline on Native territory.
Shooting a separate project in North Dakota at the time the occupation began, Lucich headed to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation as soon as he learned about what the occupation. Shooting small clips while on the ground, it took the encouragement of Sundance and The Redford Center to turn his project into a full-fledged feature, detailing every transgression by the police and every bit of suffering experienced as a result.
Linking up with native activists—and land and water protectors—Kahanus Manuel and Nataanii Means, Lucich found a revelatory window into the story of Standing Rock, not to mention two powerful allies. “If some cats were messing with me because of the light color of my skin, [Kahanus] would be like, ‘No, no. Hell no! He’s cool—he’s actually native,'” the director recalled.
Stopping by Deadline’s Sundance Studio with Manuel, Lucich and producer Gingger Shankar, Means emphasized the brutality he witnessed and experienced in Standing Rock. “I think it’s important to note the militarization of the police and how they tested a lot of weapons on us. There were hundreds of nations that got together, and that really scared them—it scared the federal government, it scared the state of North Dakota,” the activist said. “I have friends who were maimed, who lost their eyes, that lost a finger. So it’s important to note the militarization of the police and how far they’re going to go just to stop a nonviolent movement.”
“The forceful removal of indigenous people from their homelands is a form of genocide, and that’s what the American and Canadian governments are executing right now,” Manuel added. “It’s not a thing of the past.”
While these occurrences at Standing Rock were undoubtedly difficult and often tragic, in this experience, Manuel also found a source of profound strength. “People will witness that it was actually a sense of freedom, of what freedom really is in this country and this land that has been colonized by the European race. When you bring that much Native people together, from hundreds of indigenous nations, it’s powerful beyond words,” she said. “Because some of these nations are warring nations in the past; some of these nations have never even had [any] political ties before. But what happened there was bringing hundreds of tribes together for one reason, and that’s to protect our water, to defend our indigenous territories and our rights to our land—our right to make the decisions about our territories. That was one collective message that we all stood on, there on the ground.”
With Standing Rock and the Akacita documentary comes some hope that change can and will happen. “I think [with] this collective consciousness right now that has awoken because of Standing Rock, people are really going to start supporting indigenous people,” Manuel said, “and this film that’s going to be coming is going to be a real shock and awe for the world.”
To view more from Deadline’s conversation with Akacita director Cody Lucich and the film’s Native warriors, click above.
The Deadline Studio is presented by Hyundai. Special thanks to Calii Love.