Profit and Loss. Directed by Christopher McLeod. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films, 2013. 57 minutes.

Islands of Sanctuary. Directed by Christopher McLeod. Oley, PA: Bullfrog Films, 2013. 57 minutes.

Reviewed by Lucas Savino

The documentaries reviewed here are part of the Standing on Sacred Ground four-part series directed by Christopher McLeod.1 On the official website, the films are presented as portraying “indigenous communities” resisting “threats to their sacred places…in a growing movement to defend human rights and restore the environment.”2 Upon closer examination, the films address much more, such as the everyday practices that Indigenous nations and their communities enact to consolidate place-based forms of self-determination. Through these acts of sovereignty, Indigenous peoples not only limit the global reach of colonial discourses (e.g., “development”) and their material practices (i.e., forcing young people to attend residential schools, evicting Indigenous people from their lands); they also practically render colonialism a failure despite its ongoing genocidal impulses.3 Indeed one of the strengths of the films is the portrayal of “development” not as an abstract process of social improvement or positive social change but as the growth of extractive capitalism on a global scale supported by local governments, often bypassing constitutional and treaty obligations and other legislation aimed at protecting Indigenous peoples’ lives and their land.

Each film builds on interviews with traditional leaders (i.e., elders), storytellers, and other members of the community (particularly women), as well as representatives of organizations supporting grassroots movements and professionals—both Indigenous and non-Indigenous. The interviews and the stories shared on camera are weaved together with Graham Greene’s off-screen narration. Heightening the impact of these films are the outstanding images of the land, both protected by Indigenous communities and under assault by the forces of extractivism, the latter of which involves large-scale activities that remove natural resources destined for global markets.4 Extractivism is often present in the mining and oil sectors as well as in farming, forestry, and fishing.

Profit and Loss places human connection to land and territory at the center. On the one hand, the film focuses on the relationships between profit-driven initiatives, private and public corporate interests, and economic growth. These are the forces associated with extractivism, “development,” and capitalism at a global scale. Whether supported by government policies or ongoing colonial legislation, these forces continue to infringe on the capacity of Indigenous people to exercise control over the territories they use or inhabit. On the other hand, Profit and Loss successfully portrays what Anishinaabe activist Winona LaDuke refers in the film to as “the power of place.” In the context of ongoing colonial relations, state-sanctioned violence, and development discourses (e.g., “job creation”), the film shows how the Bosnum in Papua New Guinea and the Athabasca Chipewyan, Mikisew Cree, and Métis in Northern Canada (Alberta) enact practices to protect their fishing, hunting, and farming grounds as well as their sacred places and spiritual practices.

In Islands of Sanctuary, restoration of land and community take center stage. The film explores the ways in which Aboriginal peoples living in the Northern Territory (Australia) and the Native peoples of Hawai’i rely on decision making at the community level, ancestral knowledge and storytelling, and collective responsibility to restore the land from the degradation suffered under settler occupation. In the Arnhem Land Plateau case (Northern Territory), one sees the results of years of struggle to protect the land from resource extractivism. In the kaho’olawe case (Hawai’i), one witnesses the restoration of place as a site of learning, refuge, and spirituality after decades of US military exercises and use as a weapons test range. Treating the two cases together undoubtedly helps the viewer to make the connection between ongoing colonialism and economic and military power more explicit.

Both films will be a good companion to classes that explore themes related to globalization and global development, as well as courses focused on the intersections between culture, power, place-based movements, and community. The films can enter a productive conversation with some “classic” works on Indigenous peoples, colonialism, and “development.”5 Furthermore, they could engage with a more recent body of literature on “decoloniality” and Indigenous sovereignty, which analyzes how Indigenous communities organize to propel self-determination in a context of ongoing colonialism.6

1 Other films in the series are Pilgrims and Tourists and Fire and Ice. Each film in the series focuses on two Indigenous nations.

2 The official Standing on Sacred Ground website includes teaching and discussion guides for instructors, thus facilitating inclusion in the classroom.

3 For a critical study on the intersections between development discourses and practices, see Arturo Escobar, Territories of Difference: Place, Movements, Life, Redes (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008).

4 Maristella Svampa, “Commodities Consensus: Neoextractivism and Enclosure of the Commons in Latin America,” South Atlantic Quarterly 114, no. 1 (2015): 65-82.

5 Eric R. Wolf, Europe and the People without History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982); John H. Bodley, Victims of Progress, 5th ed. (Lanham, MD: AltaMira, 2008).

6 For a good introduction to the notion and debates surrounding the notion of decoloniality, see Ramón Grosfoguel, “The Epistemic Decolonial Turn: Beyond Political-Economy Paradigms,” Cultural Studies 21, no. 2-3 (2007): 211-23; Catharine Walsh, “Shifting the Geopolitics of Critical Knowledge: Decolonial Thought and Cultural Studies ‘Others’ in the Andes,” Cultural Studies 21, no. 2-3 (2007): 224-39. To explore some of the recent literature on Indigenous sovereignty and place-based self-determination, see Taiaiaki Alfred and Jeff Corntassel, “Being Indigenous: Resurgences against Contemporary Colonialism,” Government and Opposition 40, no. 4 (2005): 597-614; Eve Tuck and Marcia McKenzie, Place in Research: Theory, Methodology, and Methods (New York: Routledge, 2015).

Lucas Savino (; @Prof_Sav) teaches in the areas of globalization and global development in the Centre for Global Studies at Huron University College (London, Canada). His research focuses on the politics of self-determination of the Mapuche peoples in the region of Patagonia (Argentina). His latest article “Landscapes of Contrast: The Neo-Extractivist State and Indigenous Peoples in ‘Post-Neoliberal’ Argentina” has been published in the journal The Extractive Industries and Society (3, no. 2 [2016]: 404-15).