100 years


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

100 Years
"Although this film lacks polish and doesn't have the dynamism one might hope for with a subject of this type, Cobell herself is a strong presence, and its historic importance is considerable."

Most people have some experience of a bank or other financial organisation messing up with their funds and leaving them, briefly, in financial difficulty. Imagine how you would feel if you discovered that such mismanagement had impoverished you and your family for over 100 years.

Elouise Cobell - also known as Yellow Bird Woman - was born into a long line of warriors and prophesied to be somebody special. She lived up to her promise early on. Growing up on the Res where almost half of young people don't manage to graduate from high school, she made it t university, studied finance, and returned to launch a new bank, finally putting Native American money in the hands of Native American people. The significance of this is explained early in Melinda Janko's documentary. Ever since the first contracts were signed to give individual Naive people ownership of land, the US government has taken it upon themselves to manage that land on their behalf. It was assumed that Native people were too stupid to handle it themselves, so they were obliged to go to the Indian Agent whenever they wanted access to their own funds, and to justify why they wanted that, to beg for the right to buy a cow or spend something on their loved ones at Christmas.

Copy picture

It gets worse. Having taken on this responsibility, the government utterly failed to pay attention to what was happening to the Native people's money. Janko visits an old woman with land on which oil wells are pumping day and night, and discovers that she lives in a shack with no running water. Poverty is everywhere. Roads are poorly maintained. Land is polluted, sometimes making farming impossible. Cobell recalls a harsh winter in which 500 people starved to death. And the oil? They come in trucks at night and take it, one man asserts. He shows Janko's camera the tyre tracks.

The story here is the story of poor people everywhere: when one has no money, it seems impossible to fight back. But Cobell was not daunted, and Janko looks back at the negotiating she did, at the legal case she brought at the multi billion dollar lawsuit she filed against the US government - the largest in the country's history.

Sadly, Cobell has since passed away (which didn't stop her being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by the outgoing President Obama), but Janko has a wealth of interview material with her here. Although this film lacks polish and doesn't have the dynamism one might hope for with a subject of this type, Cobell herself is a strong presence, and its historic importance is considerable. Janko does a good job of communicating the impact that remote legal and political decisions can have - or fail to have - on people on the ground. 100 Years captures a pivotal moment in US history whose full significance may not become apparent to the majority of Americans for many years to come.

Reviewed on: 20 Nov 2016
Share this with others on...
100 years packshot
The story of Elouise Cobell, who took the US government to court over its mishandling of Native American money.

Director: Melinda Janko

Writer: Melinda Janko

Starring: Elouise Cobell

Year: 2016

Runtime: 76 minutes

Country: US


Search database: