"When the lights go out for good, my people will still be here. We have our ancient ways. We will remain."
October 25, 2012 9:11 PM   Subscribe

In the Shadow of Wounded Knee. Along the southwestern border of South Dakota is one of the most poverty-stricken places in the United States—the Pine Ridge Reservation, home of the Oglala Lakota people. After 150 years of broken promises, they are still nurturing their tribal customs, language and beliefs. Via

This was National Geographic Magazines cover story for August 2012, which combined reporting from Alexandra Fuller as well as photography from Aaron Huey. A photojournalist, Mr. Huey spent seven years documenting life on the Pine Ridge Reservation. A "Behind the Words" podcast associated with this story can be heard for free at iTunes. (Look for publication date 8/1/12.)

2012 Photo Gallery, and Photo Camp: Pine Ridge, South Dakota 2009 (The photos in the latter gallery were all taken by students.)

The Voices of Pine Ridge: Photos and audio interviews, and the Pine Ridge Community Storytelling Project, in partnership with Cowbird. The Project is a collection of stories told by Pine Ridge residents about life on the Reservation. The cowbird link goes to an archive of (currently) 165 stories. Mr. Huey's personal archive.

Map: The Lost Land. How broken treaties have reduced reservation lands.

"Did you ever want to be on the cover of National Geographic?"

Related: Mr. Huey's powerful and moving talk at TEDxDU, in which he discussed his own relationship with the Lakota and the history of their interactions with the US government. The talk featured slides of photos he took at Prisoner of War Camp #334, also known as the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The TED talk gave rise to a collaboration between Mr. Huey and Shepard Fairey: Honor the Treaties.

NPR's story on the National Geographic cover story.
posted by zarq (32 comments total) 64 users marked this as a favorite

It's worth pointing out that--as the TED video mentions--around the year 1900 was the low point of American Indian population, at around 250,000. Essentially all those 250,000 were forced onto reservations, which invariably where the most remote, unproductive, and unwanted bits of land available. And of all those, Pine Ridge was and still is pretty much the worst of the worst. It's rather like a bit of an utterly impoverished 3rd world country grafted right into the middle of a prosperous U.S. state.

But the counterpoint to that story is an important one, too. And that is: Since 1900 we have gradually, gradually, and bit by bit seen a resurgence of American Indian life and culture. In many ways, American Indians are now as strong, powerful, and numerous as they ever were--or at least, very close to it.

We tried our damndest to kill of American Indians and their culture. But you know what--it didn't work. They're back . . . .

After the low point of 250K in 1900--and plenty of death by starvation, poverty, neglect, and disease after that--the 2010 census showed 5.3 million American Indians, meaning that those tribes had essentially regained their 1491 population (though estimates of that pre-Columbian population vary by a lot).

Most still have ties to the reservation, but today most do not live on the reservation. Because like most Americans, American Indians go where jobs, health care, and opportunities are--and that means cities. So reservations tend to have all the same problems as anywhere in rural America--weak economy, dwindling and aging population, lack of services, educational opportunities, and jobs, brain drain--and a lot more besides.

If you live in the U.S. but don't know any or many American Indians, it is probably because the population is very concentrated in a few states--only 7 states have American Indian populations greater than 4% and in 36 states the population is 1% or less.

A major factor in this American Indian cultural resurgence was the emergence in the latter half of the 20th Century of the Powwow Circuit. Powwows in some form go back much earlier than that--hundreds of years, perhaps--but as American Indian population and culture started to make a comeback, the powwow took on a new and important role.

For starters, powwows and the culture they have helped create are pan-tribal. They are a living tradition, based on many ancient cultural elements, but carried on as a living tradition, not a dead one. Dancing, drumming, singing, and religious ceremonies have all adapted and incorporated elements from several cultures--creating something of a pan-tribal universal culture that never existed before. The powwows simultaneously created, universalized, spread, and transmitted a culture that might otherwise have disappeared entirely.

Perhaps most important of all, the powwow circuit is a traveling social gathering and helped create social cohesion, pride, and identity among widely scattered, widely separated groups. The importance of this can't be overstated in a population was incredibly small and incredibly scattered. Many families did and still do plan their summers around the powwows. Many friendships, romances, and alliances start and are nurtured there.

I'm not really sure the story of the powwow and resurgence of American Indian culture has been told the way it should be, but the photo book reviewed here and this book published by the University of Nebraska Press might be good starting points.
posted by flug at 11:49 PM on October 25, 2012 [21 favorites]

From the UK, this aspect of American culture and history is almost invisible. I could make a fist - certainly facile and inaccurate - of outlining what's going in with African-Americans, Hispanics, the poor South, urban evolution and post-industrial decay... all these things are in the press, the TV, the writing that comes across the wires.

But the Native Americans? Crude cliches are all that come to mind.

Will have to give this post close attention over the weekend.
posted by Devonian at 1:25 AM on October 26, 2012

Nothing has done more for my understanding and appreciation of modern Native American culture and issues than regularly listening to Native America Calling. It's not the slickest-produced bit of radio, but it's a spotlight shining into a crevice of US life which I don't get to see first-hand. I always appreciate it, and recommend listening to it every day for a month to anyone who wants to have a better grasp on what is being thought about and talked about on and off the Rez by Native Americans today. It's possible that a public radio or other similar sort of station near you carries it.
posted by hippybear at 1:41 AM on October 26, 2012 [6 favorites]

"In many ways, American Indians are now as strong, powerful, and numerous as they ever were--or at least, very close to it.."

I wish this were true. As numerous: perhaps, although obviously pre-Columbus they were 100% and they're now less than 2%. This story tells you exactly how they're still marginalised, just as powerfully as it tells you what some Oglala Sioux are doing about it.

RIP Russ Means.
posted by imperium at 2:58 AM on October 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

I hadn't heard about Mr. Means' death. Thank you for mentioning it.
posted by zarq at 4:21 AM on October 26, 2012

For dead-tree insight into Lakota wisdom, tradition & history, I cannot recommend Black Elk Speaks highly enough. He was a young teen during Little Big Horn who knew Crazy Horse, and was interviewed at great length in 1932. His spirituality is powerful.
posted by Devils Rancher at 4:48 AM on October 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

I wonder what the numbers look like when you add in all the white people who claim to be 1/32 or 1/64, or 1/128 native american
posted by Renoroc at 5:12 AM on October 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Us acculturated part-natives are fucking everywhere.
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:43 AM on October 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Look at the hand feeding me in my profile pic -- that is the hand of my 1/4 Blood (Kainai) grandmother.
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:45 AM on October 26, 2012

I wonder what the numbers look like when you add in all the white people who claim to be 1/32 or 1/64, or 1/128 native american

That census figure includes anyone who ticked that box on the form; it is completely self-reported data like all current census racial/ethnic data. Ancestry percentages matter for being enrolled as a tribal member, but not at all for current census statistics. If you tick the box, they count you.

The 1900 census was not self-reported; the census workers did the racial categorizations based on how a person looked and how they were seen in the community, which is going to produce much lower numbers than contemporary self-reporting, and totally elides racial mixing.

While it is clearly true that there has been tremendous recovery, there is also a lot of unpacking of the numbers and concepts that complicates simplistic statements like "those tribes had essentially regained their 1491 population."
posted by Forktine at 5:52 AM on October 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

There is currently an effort to get legal recognition for a Republic of Lakotah. Russell Means was one of the primary people involved in that. I watched his video on "Our Part of Worldwide Wreckage" a few days ago and I was wondering when the next update would be. Sadly, there won't be one.
posted by nTeleKy at 7:28 AM on October 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

My brother, who recently finished his masters degree in Native American Studies, is currently working on Pine Ridge, and the stories he's been telling me are heartbreaking. Most of the kids he works with never had a chance. Thanks for posting this zarq.
posted by AElfwine Evenstar at 7:44 AM on October 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you go to Wounded Knee, there's a huge red sign erected by the US government declaring it to be the Historic Site of the Battle of Wounded Knee, extolling the bravery of the men who fought and died there. Across a small dirt road from the sign is a hill. Atop the hill is a tiny graveyard. The hill itself is a grave, too-- the Lakota killed at Wounded Knee were lumped in a pile and covered with dirt. Someone has placed a piece of wood on the red sign which covers the word 'Battle' with the word 'Massacre,' in the same typeface, but it's obviously not part of the original.
posted by shakespeherian at 7:46 AM on October 26, 2012 [6 favorites]

West of San Antonio in the lower Hill County, I came across 2 historical markers on the same day.

The first marked the site of "The Massacre of [some] creek" wherein three white brothers had gone in search of lost cattle & happened upon a hunting party of Commanches who gave chase. One brother was killed, one escaped unharmed, & the third was captured & held by the Commanche for some weeks, then released unharmed. So, a "massacre" of one.

The second marked "The Battle of [some other] creek" wherein a brigade of US cavalry surprised a small band of Commanche sleeping in their 5 tipis before dawn, raided the camp and killed 16 men, women & children before they could roust & return fire, then burned all their homes & belongings after the survivors escaped.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:01 AM on October 26, 2012 [4 favorites]

Yup. It's been a while since I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee but essentially what happened was that the US government told the Lakota they wanted a treaty (stop fighting back when we kill you, basically) and sent some emissaries out to negotiate/sign the treaty, and then the night before, while all the Latoka--men, women, children-- was sleeping in tents, the US soldiers snuck up and slaughtered them, chased down the ones that ran, and then since they were all dead there was no need for a treaty. This is the Historic Battle at Wounded Knee in which brave men fought and died.
posted by shakespeherian at 8:12 AM on October 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I wonder what the numbers look like when you add in all the white people who claim to be 1/32 or 1/64, or 1/128 native american

Who are you, the race police? The identity police?

Here are some links about blood quantum.

From the last link "...being native isn’t about the amount of Indian blood you have. It’s about how you live your life day to day. It’s the values you carry and the traditions you hold."

The people who tick the Indian box on the census aren't the "white people who claim to be 1/32 or 1/64, or 1/128 native american". They're the people who self-identify as Indian, however they care to define that. That definition is not up to you or anyone else.

I have a low blood quantum, but I check the American Indian box on the census because I'm proud to be an enrolled member of my tribe.
posted by elsietheeel at 8:12 AM on October 26, 2012 [3 favorites]

Okay, I just finished the first article at Natl. Geo. I'm kinda tearing up, with despair & hope & pride all at the same time. Is there a Lakota word for that?
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:30 AM on October 26, 2012

Devils Rancher: "Okay, I just finished the first article at Natl. Geo. I'm kinda tearing up, with despair & hope & pride all at the same time. Is there a Lakota word for that?"

If you haven't yet, I suggest watching the TED talk. Huey speaks about the history involved with exceptional clarity. He tears up himself a couple of times.

More than anything else, the articles and video made me angry that the Sioux have been treated this way for so many generations. No Native American tribes were spared maltreatment by the federal government, but the indignities the Lakota have endured are particularly nasty.

Two years ago, I created a post when after centuries of petitions, the Shinnecock Indians were granted recognition by the US government. They had been recognized by the State of New York since 1792. The Shinnecock literally had to prove they existed to the federal government by submitting thousands of pages of tribal records. The self-serving political machinations by the US government in their relations with Native Americans have been unbelievably sad and outrageous.
posted by zarq at 9:29 AM on October 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Their rights never really had a chance when the government and the businesses behind them wanted their lands. So many lost generations.

posted by arcticseal at 9:41 AM on October 26, 2012

Looking for better demographic numbers and census definitions led me to this article (link to a google doc preview), where the author teases apart both the demographic data and the changing census definitions and methodologies.
posted by Forktine at 10:27 AM on October 26, 2012

My friend from college teaches on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, in Todd County which does ever-so-slightly better than Pine Ridge's Sullivan County . But both reservations are incredibly poor, located hundreds of miles away from any kind of population center, and the towns there are located hours apart by car; even so, you see people walking along the side of the highways because they can't afford cars. Some of her students' families can't afford heat, and South Dakota is very cold in the winter. The tribe will provide wood for heating, but some families can't afford the woodstoves.

There are all the gang issues and drug dependency issues of urban poverty, but without any form of economic opportunity nearby. The teacher housing in town, which consists of humble ranch houses, is known as "Snob Hill".

There's also Whiteclay, which defines exploitation. Its economy is entirely dependent on alcohol sales to the Pine Ridge reservation.
posted by akgerber at 10:32 AM on October 26, 2012

After visiting the Badlands and Black Hills this summer, I read "In the Spirit of Crazy Horse" -- it's not a perfect book, but it's very good, and I recommend it for anyone who's interested in the story of Leonard Peltier and what happened on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the 1970s.

There was fact in the book that stuck with me: Several survivors of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre were present for Russell Means' trial after the 1973 Pine Ridge occupation.

Presumably there are people alive today who can recount a parent's story of what happened in 1890. It's unrealistic and unfair to dismiss those events as ancient history.
posted by compartment at 10:50 AM on October 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

From the UK, this aspect of American culture and history is almost invisible.

It's every bit as invisible in the US. American cities are almost all far, far removed reservations. In comparison, one cannot live in any city in Western Canada (from Thunder Bay west, I mean- and that's a lot of Canada) without being a stone's throw from what we call "reserves" here, and the reality of Aboriginal life is absolutely evident, every single day. Toronto and Montreal are, by the standards of cities like Winnipeg or Saskatoon, native-free. The US major cities? Give me a fucking break. Americans can and do live their entire lives without ever meeting an on- or off-reserve "Indian." And I'm not talking about the 1/32 "I'm Cherokee" types here so don't go there.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 10:52 AM on October 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

For more happy tales about the treatment of indigenous people in the (now) USA, read The Earth Shall Weep.
posted by lalochezia at 12:45 PM on October 26, 2012

Americans can and do live their entire lives without ever meeting an on- or off-reserve "Indian."

In Texas, that depends on how you rank the mestizos from Latin America. I would also guess that in the Southwest in general, you're bound to meet more natives in the general population than in New York or Chicago. I've met lots of city-dwelling natives in my years in Austin, though I know that's anecdotal.

In all reality, the closest I've ever come to hanging out on an actual reservation has been when I've been up in the hills in the Huasteca in San Luis Potosi. Mexico hasn't herded its indigenous people onto reservations so much as it has completely abandoned them to fend for themselves wherever they are. Spanish colonial genocide in Mexico was every bit as horrid as the American genocide if not moreso, but it differed in some fundamental ways -- they tended to work the natives to death wherever they found them instead of driving them off the land, so more of the survivors at least live in their ancestral regions, albiet quite poorly, and without the tangible benefit of tribal land. There has also been a lot of intermarriage, maybe because Mexico was more densely populated? I don't know the reasons why. (would love to read up more on modern native culture in Mexico, if anyone still reading this thread has any good book recs)
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:03 PM on October 26, 2012

I drove through Pine Ridge and visited the Wounded Knee Site this past September. And yes, you see people walking along the side of the road miles from any town. The mass grave site from the massacre was very sad to see, but I found the more modern graves around even sadder.
posted by weathergal at 7:19 PM on October 26, 2012

American cities are almost all far, far removed reservations. In comparison, one cannot live in any city in Western Canada (from Thunder Bay west, I mean- and that's a lot of Canada) without being a stone's throw from what we call "reserves" here

There are a lot more reserves in Canada than there are reservations in the US, but they're also a whole lot smaller and sundered from each other. Say what you will about the poor quality of the land at Pine Ridge or the Navajo rez, but those places can still function as coherent, if shrunken, nations for their people. I don't think it's at all clear whether Canada is any better than America in Native representation.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 10:31 PM on October 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

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