Aaron Huey On his Defining Vision of the Pine Ridge Reservation

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Photo by Juan Luis Garcia

By Aaron Huey

Over the past seven years I have made many stories, but one project has come to own me.  That story is about the Oglala Lakota of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.  Many of you may have heard of the Lakota, or at least the larger group of tribes called the Sioux.  Pine Ridge is located about 60 miles southeast of the Black Hills in South Dakota.  It is sometimes referred to as Prisoner of War Camp Number 344, and it is where the Lakota now live.  If you have ever heard of the Wounded Knee Massacre, the American Indian Movement, Leonard Peltier, or of the stand-off at Oglala, then you know that Pine Ridge is ground zero for Native issues in the United States.

In 1980, the longest-running court case in U.S. history, United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians, was ruled upon by the Supreme Court.  The court determined that, when the Sioux were resettled onto reservations and seven million acres of their land were opened up to prospectors and homesteaders, the terms of the second Fort Laramie treaty had been violated. The court stated that the Black Hills were illegally taken and that the initial offering price plus interest should be paid to the Sioux Nation. As payment for the Black Hills, the court awarded only 106 million dollars to the Sioux Nation. The Sioux refused the money with the rallying cry, "THE BLACK HILLS ARE NOT FOR SALE!"

In 2010, I took to the stage at TED Talks determined to give voice to those who had trusted me with their stories and given me a doorway into their world by allowing me to share their lives through my lens.

From TED it began to grow, snowballing until it landed on the doorstep of National Geographic magazine, where my Pine Ridge work and the real story of the Oglala Lakota was published as a 38-page cover story.

Pine Ridge was a project that I tried to escape many times.  In the seven years that I have been returning to Pine Ridge, 30 people who were in someway part of my project have died unnatural deaths and, as for the rapes, I dare not ask as it would break my heart beyond repair. Despite my attempts to give up I am always lured back by an email from someone I know and a desire to go deeper because I knew the story had not been told.  In time I found new communities beyond the gangsters and impoverished, and began to spend time with the spiritual communities. Beyond the seductive photographic surface of poverty and despair, beyond the caricature that was so easy to find in drunks and pow-wows.  In my final act of print journalism on the reservation, National Geographic made sure I had the time and resources to find the heart in this story, everything I needed to do it right.  I emerged on the other side of that long journey and found myself being called "brother" and "uncle" and sitting down to eat with the family I had built in those seven years.  Mitakuye Oyasin, you are,  “All my relations.”

Photo by Taylor Kent

Since defining my vision two years ago, I have been working on behalf of that family to tell the world a story that does not fit into the pages of most magazines.  One of the greatest outlets for this has been my collaboration with Ernesto Yerena (an activist/artist working primarily on border and immigration issues) and with Shepard Fairey, the most prolific street artist in America (famous for his Obama "HOPE" campaign and his ongoing OBEY propaganda).  Together we have taken my photographs of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and the message of the Oglala Lakota to the streets of America. Our most recent installation on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles covered a 22x60 foot wall.

In an ongoing, crowd-funded, street art campaign we have seen the walls of 20 cities, from San Francisco to New York City, covered with 7,000 2x3 foot wheat-pasted images. Please take a few minutes to watch this short film about the project:

Photojournalism CAN leave the pages of magazines!   Full resolution versions of the work Shepard, Ernesto, and I made are available for download at www.honorthetreaties.org so that YOU can choose when and where this issue is seen.  The site also includes a library of every treaty made with Native tribes in the continental U.S.
 
To see more of the photo essay visit www.aaronhuey.com
 
Huey will be speaking about the evolution of his story from journalism to street art and beyond as part of our IRIS Nights lecture series on Thursday, January 31st.

 

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