In 2005, photographer Aaron Huey set out to do a project on poverty in America. "I literally found Pine Ridge because it was just another poverty statistic," he recently told me. "But when I got there, I got taken in so deep, so fast."
Before he knew it, a story about poverty in general became a seven-year documentary about the Oglala Lakota of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota. National Geographic recently asked him to shoot a story specifically for the magazine, now on the cover of the August issue.
Huey shares his experience — and some photos:
The statistics describing Pine Ridge are staggering. In a New York Times op-ed, Nicholas D. Kristof says Shannon County "had the lowest per capita income in the entire United States in 2010," that "[unemployment] on Pine Ridge is estimated at around 70 percent" and that "[as] many as two-thirds of adults may be alcoholics."
Alcohol is arguably the central modern issue; but the real issues are way more systemic, way more historic. The National Geographic article is titled "In the Shadow of Wounded Knee" — referring to the lingering psychic effects of the 1890 massacre. There's that, and the series of broken treaties that have left the Oglala Lakota with a fraction of their original sacred land.
"There is light," Huey emphasizes after a downright depressing conversation about gangs and poverty and alcoholism — citing a recent resurgence of horse culture and traditions like the Sun Dance ceremony, to which he had rare access.
The story of the Oglala Lakota still hinges on a choice — the same choice faced by chiefs like Crazy Horse a hundred years ago: assimilate or resist. "And a lot of what this National Geographic piece went into was: What does a contemporary resistance look like?" Huey says.
"I want people that see this story to think about our history," he says, "and think about how we get what we have."
Huey repeatedly insists that, although these are his photos, it's not his story. Be sure to check out the community-driven project, in which the people of Pine Ridge share their stories in their own words. Or learn more in Huey's TED talk.