Almost 100 years ago, Edward S. Curtis photographed the Native American people as a proud and noble nation, mindful of their tradition despite the encroachment of European settlers. Today, the story is a bit more complicated as the increasing Americanization of their people has had vastly different results. One of the more regretful stories is the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation as presented in photojournalist Aaron Huey's powerful photo essay.
Aaron Huey is a freelance photographer, having worked in Haiti, Afghanistan, Yemen and many other places for The New Yorker, The National Geographic and the New York Times to name a few. Before his groundbreaking work on the Lakota and Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, his biggest project was his solo walk across the US which took him 154 days back in 2002.
In 2010, Huey presented a TED Talk on America's native prisoners of war; his talk was about the Lakota people and how the rest of America seemed to have forgotten about this old community.
The Lakota are a Native American tribe and are part of the Sioux Nation, being the original settlers of North and South Dakota. Today, about half of the approximately 100,000 Lakota now live in different reservations in these regions and in the surrounding states.
Huey's visit to Pine Ridge was originally supposed to be part of a larger series on poverty and gang violence in America, but he was so taken by the people and the place that he stayed on, never having finished his original assignment.
The place was designated as Prisoner of War Camp #344 during the American Indian Wars, and although it is now known as Pine Ridge, it still feels like a prison camp in many ways. The reservation is considered ground zero for Native American Indian issues as it was the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre which resulted in the deaths of over 150 men, women and children against a heavily armed US army.
The Wounded Knee massacre is not only horrific in nature, it is also symbolic of how the US government disregarded the Native American's rights and treaties in favor of their own interests. That kind of apathy is still present today and the resulting circumstance of the Lakota is the focus of Huey's work.
In Pine Ridge in particular, the worst of all possible cases is present; more than 90% of residents are below the poverty line in America, around 80 to 90% are unemployed, 70% of children drop out of school, and the life expectancy of men is 46 to 48 years of age which is on par with Afghanistan and Somalia. One would think that these figures wouldn't exist in the US, but somehow the government has continued to ignore these people.
Even when the US Supreme Court awarded a $122 million settlement to the Sioux Nation for the treaties the US government breached in taking the Sioux's land, they missed the point; the Lakota rejected the settlement saying that "The Black Hills are not for sale."
Instead of simply concluding this project and putting it on the shelf, Huey wants to increase awareness of this situation across America. While other photographers and artists would be content with an exhibition of their works, Huey opts to work at the grassroots level, tapping the talents of artists Ernesto Yerena and Shepard Fairey to help propagate the information and images he's gathered on the Lakota.
You can help by simply learning more about Aaron Huey's Pine Ridge photo essay here. His TED talk is still online and is a powerful introduction into the subject. The Honor the Treaties website is the natural culmination of Huey's work for the past six years and offers more information on the past and present of the Sioux Nation.