‘On Sacred Ground’ Ending, Explained: Did Dan McKinney Stop Dakota Access Pipeline Construction Work?


On Sacred Ground is a drama film based on the very real Dakota Access Pipeline controversy that has been raging since 2016 in the USA. The plot is centered around a journalist, Dan McKinney, who visits the Black Hills region in South Dakota to write articles about the ongoing Native American protests against the construction of an oil pipeline that encroaches upon their sacred land. Although the film initially seems quite promising, especially with regard to the real background that it uses, it ultimately disappoints with a rushed and extremely superficial presentation.

Spoilers Alert

‘On Sacred Ground’ Plot Summary: What Is The Film About?

Directed by documentary filmmakers Joshua and Rebecca Tickell, On Sacred Ground first sets the location and main conflict in an appropriate fashion. Texts appearing alongside visuals state how a private oil company from Texas had applied for permission from the federal government to build a 1200-mile-long pipeline capable of moving 500,000 barrels of crude oil every day. This project, called the Dakota Access Pipeline, had high promises of providing 10,000 construction jobs and paying millions of dollars in tax money. But the problem was that the pipeline would directly pass through the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, which is sacred burial land owned by the Lakota “Sioux” Tribe, who immediately feared that the oil pipeline would harm their main source of water and destroy historical and cultural sites. Despite such fears and immediate protests, the federal government found the project to cause no harm, and in 2016, the US Army Corps of Engineers also approved the pipeline route. This resulted in the Sioux Tribe suing the authorities and also indulging in a series of protests that often turned violent.

Amidst such times, in October of 2016, ex-army photographer Daniel McKinney still suffers from PTSD following his time in Iraq. As he struggles to make ends meet financially, Dan is contacted by an official from the Houston Daily News named Ricky Scott. Ricky tells Dan that the newspaper is looking for some serious reporting from Dakota on the pipeline project and the subsequent protests. The man had earlier written an article about a refinery, from which the official got to know about him, and she now wants Dan to write a similar article focusing on the project’s impact on jobs and the economy. Finally getting some decent-paying work after seemingly spending months unemployed, Dan agrees to the work and is flown to the Black Hills region of Dakota the very next day.

What Are The Problems Dan Faces In His Personal Life?

On Sacred Ground establishes a series of problems that the protagonist Dan has to face in his personal life in order to give more shade and depth to the character. However, it all comes off as superficial, almost as if putting ticks on a checklist. Dan had been deployed as part of the US Army in Iraq, and even though he was not probably involved in any direct military action as he worked as a photographer, there is plenty of trauma still taking a toll on him. Later on, we are made aware that the man had faced a horrible helicopter crash in which he was physically injured as well, and it can be assumed that most of his PTSD stem from this incident. From the very scene where we are introduced to the character, Dan keeps helplessly remembering his times in Iraq, where he would be mostly aboard helicopters taking photographs of the land below. The stress and trauma have evidently made him a bitter man who is impatient with the modern generation and is distant from most people.

Dan is married to Julie, who is also pregnant with his child at present. But the couple has been going through a rough time, mostly due to Dan’s unemployed status and financial turmoil. Money is not the only problem either, as Julie desperately wants her husband’s love and company, especially during the days of her pregnancy, but Dan is hardly ever available. The woman has to run the house mostly by herself, even taking on redecorating chores alone while Dan is outside. There is no chemistry between the couple whatsoever, and the constant sense of discontent makes one wonder why they are even together. This relationship does take a turn at the end of the film when Dan returns home from Dakota as a changed man who is loving and caring towards Julie, and then their child, but this turn is not convincing at all.

The man’s financial situation also makes him the perfect target for the Houston Daily official, Ricky, as she herself tells someone over the phone. It becomes clear that the newspaper is essentially looking for a writer who would state positive things about the Dakota Access Pipeline in their article and who would agree to go and be amidst the protests as well. Clearly, Dan’s low income, negligible credit score, and impending expenses because of his wife’s pregnancy make him an ideal target who would be desperate enough to take the job. Ricky also mentions that Dan is a Republican supporter, which perhaps suggests that she believes him to be less influenced by the protests and takes the side of the oil company.

How Does Dan Have A Change Of Heart?

After first meeting up with the contact that Ricky arranges for Dan, he is introduced to a man named Elliot Jameson, who further introduces him to the people at Dakota. Elliot admits that he actually works for the oil company itself, which makes it clear that Dan is expected to take a certain position in his article that would favor the company. His first interaction with the protests is at a roadblock where a group of protestors demands access to clean water, which they believe would be affected if the pipeline was built. As Dan goes to take photographs of the incident, one of the protestors charges at him, and the man is instantly hit by another PTSD episode.

Next, Dan is taken to the construction site of the oil company, where he is given a chance to speak with the workers. He realizes how the pipeline would definitely help in the faster and safer transportation of crude oil, which is an absolute necessity in the modern world. Dan is shown a video of a train accident that had taken place sometime earlier, as trains are the current method of transportation for oil, and the possibility of such accidents makes it an extremely dangerous affair. While going around the place, the journalist finds a small object in the ground inside the construction site, and it seems like a small arrowhead. As Elliot allows him to keep it, Dan sends it to an expert back home in order to take a look at it and tell him more.

In an effort to know more about the exact details of the protests, Dan next sits with Marty Sherman, who is the head of security for the construction project. It is quite clear that Marty is part of a private security agency that is overseeing the construction of the pipeline and possibly using all means necessary to keep protestors away. During their conversation, Marty recounts a recent incident in which protestors seemingly ran into the private land of the construction site to stop bulldozing work. He mentions that arrows were being fired at his security personnel and other objects were being flung at them amidst war cries and shouts. Marty says that the people were all very riled up and agitated against the workers for no apparent reason. However, the man does not mention anything about the security forces spraying some gas at the protestors first, which clearly got them agitated and retaliating. Elliot also seems to step in here and stop the conversation before it goes any further, suggesting that the company surely has a lot to hide.

Dan writes the article, and it is published, following which he returns home for only a couple of days before being contacted by Ricky once again. Now the woman asks him to return to Dakota and write a second article, but this time he is to infiltrate inside the protestors’ camp and essentially write an article that would harm the protest campaign. Dan agrees once again because of the money, and he returns to Dakota, this time going to the protest camp. It is now that he learns more about the protests and the people gathered fighting for the cause, which includes a considerable number of army veterans, and gets more depth about the situation. Dan understands how the people have to be very careful about every action of theirs, as protestors are always under intense scrutiny by the outside world, and any small misstep can smear their reputation. He is also shown the exact map of the pipeline that is being laid, and Dan also realizes that he had been lied to earlier by the company representatives.

Dan starts volunteering for chores at the camp, as is expected from every protestor and even journalist living at the camp. He also makes acquaintance with a number of Native American members of the Sioux tribe, most notably a young woman named Mika. Although Mika is initially quite wary of Dan’s intentions, she gradually becomes friendlier toward him. From them, he learns about how the company workers and security forces often misbehave and even abuse the Native populations on their own land. It is Mika who then takes Dan to see the real construction site, which is very different from what he had been shown by the oil company earlier. He realizes that the company members had lied to him in this respect as well, and he starts to grasp the real matter that has been going on. However, around this very time, the protestors also find out about Dan’s earlier article, which was completely in favor of the oil company and the pipeline construction, and they are livid with the man.

‘On Sacred Ground’ Ending Explained: What Happens To The Pipeline Construction Project?

Towards the end of the film, Dan McKinney faces a real dilemma from both sides, as the protestors have already learned about his earlier stance, and the oil company officials know about his change of heart. As the protestor group turns Dan away from their camp, Ricky informs Elliot to get Dan away from Dakota so that the man does not write any articles favoring the protest. Around this time, another protest is staged, and this time it gets more violent and tense than before. The security officials get ready to shoot Mika with a supposed rubber bullet gun, and Dan now jumps in to save the woman but is hit by the bullet instead.

Dan survives and recovers with the help of the tribe healers, and when he emerges healthy, the man has completely turned supportive towards the Native protestors. The arrowhead he had found earlier at the construction site and sent in for examination had been found to be proof that the construction site was also built on Native American sacred lands. Dan now hands over the document showing proof of this to Mika before leaving Dakota and returning home.

Although the construction is temporarily halted because of heavy snowfall in the area, Dan later watches on a news video that the protestor’s camp was burned down by the security officials, and Mika and the rest of her tribe members were arrested by the authorities. On Sacred Ground ends with information about the pipeline construction and the protests. The Sioux tribe refused payment for their land that was being given by the US government and instead still insisted that the Black Hills area should be returned to them. In March 2020, a federal court stopped the Dakota Access Pipeline construction work and ordered that a full environmental review be done regarding the project. No resolution about the matter has been reached yet, and protestors still remain hopeful that the court might order the entire pipeline construction project to be stopped.

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Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya keeps an avid interest in all sorts of films, history, sports, videogames and everything related to New Media. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies, he is currently working as a teacher of Film Studies at a private school and also remotely as a Research Assistant and Translator on a postdoctoral project at UdK Berlin.

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