Pine Ridge Pow Wow

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There are probably plenty of folks out there who would debate whether South Dakota is part of the “West.”  The Rockies don’t run through it.  It’s name doesn’t conjure up an image of cowboys. It’s basically on the same longitudinal coordinates as Nebraska.  And Nebraska is not the “West.”  Right?  But South Dakota — it feels Western.  You can sense that something is on the other side. The state is like a dinner bell, telling you to wash up for a supper of hearty mountains and quenching rivers.  And when the corn fields end at the precipice leading into the badlands it becomes all too clear that the stitching on the national hem has busted loose.  “Be prepared for the unfamiliar,” it should say, because that’s what you get a few hundred miles past the Missouri River when unrivaled kitsch meets sacred native lands.

Ross demonstrates the inverted back-flip at the Boys and Girls Club for the photo workshop students.

The world’s tallest prairie dog statue.  A giant angry smoke breathing T-Rex.  Cups of coffee for a nickel.  Wild buffalo herds.  Moon-like topography.  Expansive grasslands.  Chinese tourists.  Fleets of RVs.  Indian reservations.  All of it becomes a big jumble of gaping contrasts around the Black Hills of South Dakota. And in no place was this more evident than in Pine Ridge, in the southwest corner of South Dakota, on one of the poorest Indian reservations in the country.


Pine Ridge is a community that knows poverty unlike almost any other zip code in America, not to mention diabetes, teenage pregnanacy, gang violence, and alcoholism.  In the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, Pine Ridge stands out as a great exception.  Running water and electricity are absent from a huge number of homes.  Families are broken as frequently as windows.  And in twenty years, one woman told us nothing had changed except for the new Subway. So it was with a certain degree of trepidation that we arrived on the “res.”  Being two young white males from Virginia with big cameras around our neck, we knew we would stick out. And we did.  But it led to one of the greatest experiences of the trip.

Ben Smith at the end of our epic weekend.

As it turned out, where we entered as isolated strangers, we left invigorated by new friendships, the warmth of the people at Pine Ridge, and the intimate tour of the traditions of the Oglalla tribe.  In a single day, we participated in a sweat lodge ritual, viewed a sundance ceremony, witnessed the wildest display of horse races, and photographed the evening session of the Pow Wow.  We owe tremendous gratitude to Ben and Diane Smith who offered their front yard to two young homeless strangers and then showed us a day we will never forget.  Thanks also to James Rhodes whose idea it was for us come to Pine Ridge to join him in photographing the Pow Wow.

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As you’ll see in this post, we diverged a little from our customary documentary style approach to dabble in portraiture.  It would have been too painful to leave Pine Ridge without portraits of these men and women in beautiful “regalia.”  So on a hot too-sunny-to-get-good-pictures afternoon, we pulled in participants after they finished a competition and asked them to stand for us.  We’re thrilled with the results from our makeshift studio.  And it also gave us a chance to meet and talk with lots of different people who had traveled from different states to compete.  In fact, the entire element of competition was something we hadn’t forseen.  But we weren’t surprised; prize money is a common theme among the events we attend.  Just like at the rodeo or the Lumberjack games, Pow Wows offer prize money for different categories, and so most participants are moving week to week to a new location on the circuit.  And the tug of tradition and family heritage is an equally important aspect along with the money.  But just like so many other festivals we’ve covered, it’s unclear if prize money will be enough to keep these traditions alive.  On the Pine Ridge reservation, fewer and fewer of the younger generation are speaking Lakota.  Basketball is far more popular year round than native dancing.  And traditional garb is worn far more infrequently than contemporary urban labels.  In an era of surging wealth for Indian communities who are distancing from their past and profiting from casinos and natural resource extraction, it’s unclear how Pine Ridge will evolve and transform, if ever.  For the time being, it is a community close to its history, and struggling, just as the rest of the US does, with how to hold onto the past as it moves into a new and unpredictable future.

Pine Ridge Pow Wow from American Festivals Project on Vimeo.

Posted by Ross, posted on 09/04/2009 at 1:48am. Bookmark this post.


  1. Posted 09/04/2009 at 2:50am


    Beautiful images. I’m glad you did the portraiture, too.

  2. Posted 09/06/2009 at 11:05pm


    hi to both of you,
    thanks for camping in our front yard, we enjoy having you both, very beautiful pictures of our lakota dancers. one of the photos is my grand daughter…. you are always welcome to come and stay with us anytime. lots of love

  3. Posted 09/07/2009 at 12:40am

    Janet Littlecrow:

    Great pictures. Glad you found such good people to give you the whole experience & that you had a good time. If ya’ll ever want to come down to northern Oklahoma for a powwow, just give us a holler. The Otoe-Missouria Encampment is the 3rd weekend of July every year.

  4. Posted 09/08/2009 at 1:27pm

    James Rhodes:

    Really great work guys, glad you came out and visited with the kids. We showed your images in the Nat Geo photo camp yesterday, and the kids started calling out ” HEY HE IS MY COUSIN ” or ” THATS MY DAD !!! ” Both the staff and the kids really love your shots. So you have left a lasting impact on the kids here, and Demcie especially.

  5. Posted 09/09/2009 at 3:45pm

    Mark P:

    Wow. Very cool. Somehow I didn’t see this until now. Well done.

  6. Posted 09/22/2009 at 12:40pm

    Dan M:

    Just so you know, this blog has been a huge inspiration for me. Wonderful slices of America. Thank you -

  7. Posted 09/26/2009 at 2:59pm


    Amazing photos! Thanks for sharing.

  8. Posted 11/10/2010 at 8:16pm


    These are awesome pictures. I read your blog and I’m very interested in hearing about more of your experience. I am a sophmore in high school and I am currently writing a research paper, which I chose to write about the Pow Wows that take place on the Pine Ridge reservation. I think you guys would be a great primary source for my paper, if you could e-mail me?

    I have yet to actually grasp the entire idea of these celebrations and everything that happens in them.

    Please let me know if you could reply back asap!



  9. Posted 01/08/2011 at 12:51am

    Michael Wright (Ojibwa Traveler):

    Currently am ending up a Christmas/New Years family gathering in Medan Indonesia.My in-laws here are very surprised to see the faces & dress of the Oglala and other Native American peoples,as they are so the same as their own ! Thankyou for putting this page together,hope you will be doing it more ? Personally;I studied in college about migrations of Native America & have visited the Spiritual side of Wounded Knee & the Bad Lands 3 times,besides my having traveled to S.E.Asia and there marrying.Like the Oglala,the Batak of Sumut Indonesia are a proud and honorable people…your pictures have brought them closer together now with better understanding.Again, – Thankyou – M.D.Wright

  10. Posted 02/02/2011 at 5:36pm


    Thank you to the Pine Ridge Lakota for sharing your beautiful heritage and thank you for the beautiful pics and story.

  11. Posted 05/01/2011 at 9:50pm


    J’adore vois photos!

  12. Posted 05/01/2011 at 9:52pm


    *J’adore vos photos! j’aimerais savoir si c’est possible d’aller voir ce fameux Pow-Wow, ou et quand ça se déroule? nous aimerions organiser un voyage avec un groupe d’autochtone francophone du Québec.

  13. Posted 06/15/2011 at 10:31am


    Hello to all, Hope you enjoyed your day. For a very long time now, i am drawn to your country and culture. Now it s time to go and experience. I am very excited, can t explain it in words, it s a feeling (happy, like coming home feeling)
    Am i welcome to Pine Ridge Reservation. Looking forward hearing from you.

    Best regards, Johanna

  14. Posted 09/29/2011 at 7:33pm

    charles burnham:

    im interested in finding out if you allow missionaries to come bring the gospel to your tribe? ive looked at the stats for your people and have a desire to help. in the past i have helped in a small way. let me know. thanks

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    Topography The topography is generally rolling mixed grass prairie , interspersed in various location, especially to the north, into typical badlands topography. The higher elevations of the prairie are covered by wind blown sands that form dunes , blowouts , and thin sheets . The southern part of the reservation is crossed by Pine Ridge, which is probably a fault scarp , and which supports the growth of scattered pine and cedar trees. Well-developed sandhills are the dominant features along the southern boundary of the reser­vation, which extend into the sandhills region of Nebraska .

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3 Trackbacks

  1. By Pine Ridge Pow Wow on 09/04/2009 at 3:56pm

    [...] – Please check out these incredible photos from the American Festivals [...]

  2. [...] and also took a beautiful series of portraits of attendees who had entered competitions there, noting that:On the Pine Ridge reservation, fewer and fewer of the younger generation are speaking Lakota. [...]

  3. [...] and also took a beautiful series of portraits of attendees who had entered competitions there, noting that: On the Pine Ridge reservation, fewer and fewer of the younger generation are speaking Lakota. [...]

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