CANASTOTA, N.Y. – A devastating legacy is unveiled by documentary filmmaker J. Carlos Peinado, as he exposes the wounds of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in “Waterbuster.”
From Arizona to New Hampshire, Peinado is educating the public about the resilient nature of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation and its contributions to American culture and history.
A nominee for the best documentary feature at the recent American Indian Film Festival in San Francisco, “Waterbuster” has been featured at the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival, the Heard Museum Film Festival in Phoenix and the Vermont International Film Festival. In the film, Peinado embarks on a journey of self-discovery to his ancestral homeland in the upper Missouri River basin in North Dakota.
During the 1940s and ’50s, the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation faced devastating consequences with the building of the Army Corps of Engineers’ Garrison Dam. The Garrison Dam inundated 156,000 fertile farming and ranching acres along the reservation’s Missouri River bottomlands. The dam’s construction was followed by attempts by the federal government to eliminate the sovereign Indian nations through a policy of termination and relocation.
Peinado, who was living on a sailboat in California and had traveled across America and to many countries, came to realize that he never truly understood his past and the history of his people, the Mandan and Hidatsa.
Peinado attended Phillips Exeter Academy and completed his undergraduate degree in filmmaking and cultural anthropology at Dartmouth College. During this time, he completed his first documentary, “Harry’s House,” a film about the Hopi and Navajo land dispute in northern Arizona. In 1992, Peinado moved to New York City and pursued careers as a filmmaker and an actor. He held a role in TNT’s “The Broken Chain and Crazy Horse.”
“Waterbuster,” Peinado’s first feature-length documentary, traces the footsteps of his maternal grandmother, Elizabeth Grinnell, back to the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation. On the reservation he encounters a multigenerational cast of characters. The documentary features several interviews with tribal members and Peinado’s family. Through his journey, Peinado’s discovers his history and the painful memories of his family’s past.
“The Garrison Dam could have been built at an alternate site, north of the reservation, but it wasn’t,” said Biron Baker, a tribal member who was interviewed in the film. “We lost the 156,000 acres of fertile bottomland, rich with our history, our traditions and culture. It’s all gone. And I cannot imagine not having a sense of loss and anger over that.”
The effects of the Garrison Dam drama still haunt the Fort Berthold community.
“My grandmother is gone now and without her I sometimes feel lost,” Peinado said in the documentary. “Though my trip back to Fort Berthold can be measured in miles, the voyage to understand my ancestral legacy is long and far more difficult to make.”