Faraway: Get Out of Your World
Native Americans. A Sense of Place.
A few years ago, I listened to a talk, "America's Native Prisoners of War", by Aaron Huey on T.E.D. Today, which is Columbus Day, a day that is set aside by some to honor indigenous people everywhere, I watched Aaron Huey’s presentation again. Huey is a photographer and storyteller. His award-winning work has been published in prestigious magazines like the National Geographic, the New Yorker, and the Smithsonian. He has traveled the world and spent quality time with many cultures. He states in his biography, "My success is not measured in money. I have no financial security. I have no savings account. I measure my success by asking myself if I'm telling a story that the world needs to hear, if I am educating people."
His heartfelt talk on T.E.D. was about the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota and the Lakota people who live there. The theme of his talk was centered around an old expression used by the Lakota people that means, "the one who takes the best part of the meat".
In his presentation, Huey gives a thorough history lesson by using a timeline of the European invasion of Native American land. He presented this history in a calm and factual manner, yet encased with deep emotion. Huey starkly related that in 1492 there were eight million Native Americans. In 1900, there were only 250,000 left.
Huey spent five years living among the Lakota, learning first hand about their existence. I say existence because that is about all they are doing - existing - not thriving, not living a full life, not privileged to celebrate abundance. My jaw dropped when I learned that the average life span for a man on the reservation was between 46-48 years. That's in the same range as Afghanistan and Somalia. 90% live below the poverty line. Average annual income is $3,800. Unemployment is 85-90% and that isn't the fault of the Great Recession. It's been at that level for who knows how long. Actually, how could it be any other way? Jobs are scarce on the reservation. Economic development couldn't get a toehold even if it tried. There is no industry nor commercial operation on the reservation. Resources are scarce. The land is infertile.
On December 9, 2009, Theresa Two Bulls, President of the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe declared a Suicide State of Emergency at a press conference that day. I've never heard of anyone issuing a declaration like that. Suicide has reached epidemic proportions on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Theresa Two Bulls organized a campaign to call their local, state and national elected officials on February 16, 2010. She instructed the Lakota people to please be respectful when they placed these calls to tell political leaders about the suicide epidemic and the extreme poverty. She asked that they please remind President Obama of his promise to help.
I'm sure President Obama wants to help. So did President Clinton when he toured the reservation in June, 1999 on his "Economic Empowerment Tour." Maybe every president has wanted to help. Maybe not. Maybe it's too overwhelming. Maybe some people think that it's the Indian's own fault that they're in such a mess. Alcoholism is rampant. Drugs. Gangs. They're all on some form of public assistance. Generations upon generations living on welfare. They should pull themselves up by their boot straps, right? Just like the rest of us. Self-sufficiency. It's the American way, right? But then, please ask yourself: Who's the American? For centuries before the Europeans arrived, Native Americans were doing just fine, caring for the land, the animals, and themselves, without receiving public assistance from anyone.
After I listened to Aaron Huey's talk, I thought of the famous quote by Chief Joseph, "Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever."
What do you do with a people who have no fight left in them? Broken spirits in need of repair.
Native Americans were here first. They deserve our respect. Their history goes back for thousands of years. Native Americans know a few things about this land. They have stories to tell. Wisdom to share. We should listen.
Learn more about Aaron Huey's work on his website. Here is a little on his story:
In 2001, Aaron Huey entered the professional photo world as an assistant to Steve McCurry in New York City. At the end of his assistantship Huey left New York, was dropped off at the Pacific Ocean and walked 3,349 miles across America to Coney Island with his dog Cosmo, one camera and one lens. The journey lasted 154 days. There was no media coverage. They walked every step.
The varied topics Huey has photographed include Taliban ambushes and drug eradication in Afghanistan, antiquities smuggling in Mali, lost temples in Burma and circling sharks in French Polynesia (without a cage).
He is currently working on a book and a film based on his five years photographing on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
Before photography Huey studied stone sculpture in Slovakia. In his second life Huey is a rock-climbing photographer and has authored seven books on rock-climbing.
Huey is a frequent contributor to the National Geographic magazines, the Smithsonian Magazine, Harper's Bazaar, The New Yorker, The New York Times and many more in the foreign press. Two years ago Huey was awarded a National Geographic Expedition Council Grant to hitchhike across Siberia. He was named to PDN's 30 in 2007 and has won numerous prizes in NPPA's BOP and POYi.
He is a Masthead Contributing photographer for National Geographic Traveler and lives in Seattle, WA in between adventures.