Honoring The Treaty: Aaron Huey and The Pine Ridge Reservation
Thanks to the High Country News and their Facebook page, I’ve had a chance to learn more about the work of Aaron Huey: both his photographs and his commitment to Native American communities. The High Country News linked to this recent piece by Miki Johnson of Popular Photography, which, in its opening paragraphs, expertly sets this complicated scene:
In April 2005, Aaron Huey drove into Manderson, South Dakota, the roughest town on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, and started knocking on doors. “Hey wasichu (white boy), what are you doing with that camera?” yelled a young Lakota man covered in tattoos.
“Just looking for stories,” Huey answered. “You got any to tell?” Huey, then 29, was a determined if somewhat green photojournalist, riding a wave of positive attention from his recent photo project on a solo walk across America. Pine Ridge was the first stop on a self-assigned survey of poverty in America. The survey stopped there, but a new story had just begun.
Pine Ridge, the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre, has been the poorest place in America for nearly 40 years, with 97 percent of its population living below the national poverty line in 2006. The infant mortality rate on the reservation is three times higher than the national average, the highest on the continent; life expectancy for men is 48 years old, roughly the same as in Afghanistan and Somalia.
In May 2010, Huey got up on stage at the University of Denver and unequivocally chose his side. In his 13-minute talk, which was posted to the TED lecture series online, Huey outlined 186 years of Lakota history, including dozens of broken treaties and the murder of unarmed women and children at Wounded Knee. After repeatedly holding back tears, he closed the talk by calling for the United States to honor its treaties and restore the Black Hills to the Lakota.
Mr. Huey’s talk sparked a lot of conversation; much like the photographs themselves, his audience was asked to look hard at Native American relations in this country and to consider how each American living outside of the reservations are complicit in the forces that have profited from the repeated treaty-breaking and land-grabs that began, by Mr. Huey’s narrative, in 1824.
You’ll see a lot of people in my photographs today, and I’ve become very close with them, and they’ve welcomed me like family. They’ve called me brother and uncle and invited me again and again over five years. But on Pine Ridge, I will always be what is called wasichu, and wasichu is a Lakota word that means non-Indian, but another version of this word means “the one who takes the best meat for himself.” And that’s what I want to focus on — the one who takes the best part of the meat. It means greedy. So take a look around this auditorium today. We are at a private school in the American West, sitting in red velvet chairs with money in our pockets. And if we look at our lives, we have indeed takenthe best part of the meat.…..The last chapter in any successful genocide is the one in which the oppressor can remove their hands and say, “My God, what are these people doing to themselves? They’re killing each other. They’re killing themselves while we watch them die.” This is how we came to own these United States. This is the legacy of manifest destiny. Prisoners are still born into prisoner of war camps long after the guards are gone. These are the bones left after the best meat has been has been taken. A long time ago, a series of events was set in motion by a people who look like me, by wasichu, eager to take the land and the water and the gold in the hills. Those events led to a domino effect that has yet to end.