At the conclusion of the well-intentioned but heavy-handed Standing Rock resistance drama “On Sacred Ground,” we see graphics telling us of the heritage of certain cast members. Kerry Knuppe is an Oglala Sioux tribal member; David Midthunder is Hunkpapa Lakota Hudeshabina Nakota and Sissiton Dakota, and Marshall Dancing Elk Lucas is a member of the Notoweega Nation.
It’s a lovely grace note, but it’s also a reminder that while these fine actors contribute valuable supporting work to this fictionalized telling of the 2016 Dakota Access Pipeline Resistance, they’re not the primary players. The story is told not from the perspective of the Indigenous People who protested the building of the pipeline as a threat to their water supply and an invasion of ancient burial grounds, but through the old-fashioned trope of the white outsider who infiltrates a community, only to see the light once he realizes his preconceived notions were based on unfair stereotypes and pure ignorance.
The movie they made is the movie they made, and while there are some genuinely moving moments, and filmmakers Josh Tickell and Rebecca Tickell clearly took great care in respecting Indigenous People culture and getting the details right, too much of “On Sacred Ground” focuses on William Mapother’s cliché-riddled Daniel, a freelance journalist who is living in a working-class town in Ohio and dealing with PTSD from his time in Iraq while growing more distant from his pregnant wife, Julie (Amy Smart). Then, seemingly out of the blue, Daniel gets a phone call from Ricky (Frances Fisher), the editor of the fictional Houston Daily, which has connections to the oil and gas companies and is looking for someone to head to the site of the protests and write favorable stories. Daniel, who is a Republican and is financially struggling, seems to be the perfect patsy.
Once Daniel arrives on the scene, he meets with David Arquette’s Eliot, who explains, “I connect people. I help people. The pipeline company is my client, but right now my job is to help you tell the best story you can.” Uh-huh.
As Daniel avoids contact with his increasingly worried wife back home, he witnesses the jarring sight of bulldozers tearing up the land while protesters clash with security teams and police. The first story Daniel writes is extremely oil-friendly, but after Daniel befriends Knuppe’s Mika, who educates him about what’s at stake for the Indigenous People, his writing takes on a different tone. (Midthunder’s Terry also acts a kind of cultural guide for Daniel, explaining the pipeline is called “The Black Snake” and it foretells a “time of a great trouble.”)
Eliot finds he can no longer control Daniel, who bellows, “You moved the pipeline right to the mouth of the reservation, under the widest point of the river, at their ONLY water source! We destroyed their past, but you’re destroying their future.” This leads to a moment when Ricky calls from Houston and actually says to Eliot about Daniel: “He’s off the reservation.”
Daniel writes a powerful exposé, but he eventually returns home, reconnecting with his wife, cuddling with their newborn baby and watching the protests turn ugly from the comfort and safety of his laptop. He has learned and grown from his experience. Good for Daniel.