Skip to main content

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

Watch a prize-winning film made by eighth graders about the effects of the damming of the Missouri River on the Cheyenne River Sioux.

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.

“I remember those three students in the front row, along with their teacher, Jae White,” said Kathy Nelson, board president of Timber Lake and Area Historical Museum, which hosted Lawson’s talk. “The kids had clipboards and asked questions afterward. We take our history seriously around here. We live with one foot in the past and seek to understand why things are the way they are.”

Scroll to Continue

Read More

For visual material, the students turned to the museum’s large and ecumenical collection, encompassing Native and non-Native history in thousands of period photographs, maps and other items. “We were able to use primary sources, not copies,” said Ethan.

Tribal elder advisors were Casmir LeBeau and Joe Lends His Horse. “We learned that when the dams were closing and the lakes were about to be formed, they had just one day’s notice to pack up and relocate,” said Sydney. “Mr. LeBeau told us that after the move, he missed hearing the birds, he missed his old life.”

The trio used Windows MovieMaker to edit the project, said Ethan. As sound engineer, Whitley recorded—and re-recorded—Sydney’s narration in the school theater’s sound booth. “The hard part was matching the timing of the narration with the images,” Whitley said.

When Lawson saw the film, he was impressed. “The script was very comprehensive and nicely narrated,” he said. “I was particularly awed by the photographs the students found and the way they integrated them with the script. And, of course, I’m proud that my work helped them select their topic.”

Timber Lake School, with just 380 students in grades K–12, has produced South Dakota History Day Award, and National History Day Award, winners for years, said Nelson. Another team—Sydney Maher, Josie White, Morgan Ducheneaux and Loryn Schoelerman—won a 2013 award for a project about Title IX, the 1972 law banning sex discrimination in education, notably sports.

Sydney, Whitley and Ethan developed lots of skills while making their documentary. Do they imagine careers in filmmaking, sound engineering, historical research…?

The three are keeping their options open, according to Ethan. “We’re young,” he explained. “It’ll be a long time before we have to decide what we want to be when we grow up.”