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.
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.
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.
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.