Photo courtesy Tommie-Chad Mettler
Left to right, filmmakers Ethan Schaffer, Sydnee Mettler and Whitley Dupris in the Timber Lake School theater sound booth, where they recorded the narration for their award-winning 2013 documentary.

Watch: Prize-Winning Student Film 'Dammed Indians' Reexamines History

Stephanie Woodard

Three freshman from Timber Lake School, in South Dakota, have learned that their documentary, Dammed Indians: The Relocation of the Sioux, won a 2013 South Dakota History Day award. Concise, neatly organized and courageous, the movie has also earned the admiration of the community whose story it conveys. The 10-minute piece, which the three made last year as eighth-graders, has been screened locally and shared on individual, tribal and environmental-organization Facebook pages.

The movie takes the viewer through the cataclysm the nearby Cheyenne River Sioux—and other tribes—suffered in the mid-20th century, when the federal government built giant dams on the Missouri River, creating artificial lakes. The immense bodies of water flooded valuable farming and grazing land and wiped out thriving villages on reservations in Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota. In Cheyenne River’s case, 231-mile Lake Oahe devastated the way of life created after the end of the historic buffalo-centric economy.

Two of the filmmakers, Sydney Mettler, 15, and Whitley Dupris, 14, are Cheyenne River tribal members; the third collaborator is Ethan Schaffer, 15. Mettler narrates the piece, her sweet, youthful cadences underlining the human cost of the economic and cultural disruption, borne in turn by each generation.

The project got underway in 2012, when historian Michael L. Lawson visited their school to talk about Dammed Indians Revisited: The Continuing History of the Pick-Sloan Plan and the Missouri River Sioux (South Dakota State Historical Society, 2009), a revision of his highly regarded 1982 book. The historical society organized the tour, and Timber Lake turned out to be the highlight. “That was the most excited and responsive crowd I had,” recalled Lawson.


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