Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The poverty of Blue Ridge reservation

A photographer began a coast to coast project to document poverty in the US. But once he stopped at Pine Ridge Indian reservation, he ended his travels across the country to concentrate on the poverty there. Aaron Huey was shocked by what he saw, saying the reservation "emotionally devastated" him.

From the New York Times Blogs, we find this Q and A with Huey, a gallery of his photos can also be found from the blog.

Q. What were you first impressions of Pine Ridge?

A.I stayed with families in the most violent town on the reservation, a place called Manderson; often referred to as “Murdertown” by locals. I could have never imagined the living conditions that I saw. I knew the statistics about poverty, but the living conditions went far beyond poverty to even deeper, more dysfunctional problems. Black mold all over the walls of childrens’ rooms. Kids eating off the floors. Infants watching violent films on TV all night.

One of my other first impressions was people showing me their scars — self inflicted scars from their gang initiations. A knife heated on a burner until it’s red hot is then pressed on the skin, usually in stripes on the upper arm, creating terrible burns.

Q. Why did you end up going back?

A. I went back because the families invited me back, and because I was so floored by what I had seen that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Now, I go back because they are family, and because I haven’t found the end of the story. It seems to get more confusing each time I return. I am not getting closer to a conclusion. It just is what it is. My photos are a witness, not a solution. They are the dark and the light and every struggle between.

Q. Is there anything that the rest of the country should know about what you saw?

A. One very important thing to know is that there are a small handful of very positive people and places on Pine Ridge and that they are making a difference. Red Cloud Indian School is a leader among these positive forces, with 13 Gates scholarship recipients graduating from its school in only two years. As one of the most successful schools in the nation, they have completely flipped the paradigm on its head.

As for the problem and what people need to know about it, I’m not sure there is much to do. The Lakota, like most tribes, are self governed. Handouts aren’t the answer. Church groups painting over the gang signs on houses every few summers is not the answer. Pity is not the answer. The Lakota are an incredibly beautiful and proud people. There are pockets of strength in this failed state. They are usually formed around a school or a traditional teacher-medicine man or a strong head of a family who spreads it to his extended family.

I think I honestly want these photos to hurt the viewer. I want people to understand that what they see in these images is a result of a very long and very calculated oppression. It’s convenient that we can now step back and say: “Oh, no! Look. They are doing it to themselves! There is nothing we can do!” Very convenient for us. The story of the Lakota is the story of all indigenous people on every continent — they are steamrolled by the dominant society and pushed to the verge of extinction. Assimilate or die.

When I would return from these trips, people would ask why they don’t just “get over it” — the old pick-themselves-up-by-the-bootstraps argument. But you don’t just “get over” hundreds of years of oppression. Just because the guards went away one day and the prison camp was opened up doesn’t mean there was any place to go. Just because the prison door was opened doesn’t mean that the prisoner mentality doesn’t remain. It does remain, for generations and generations after. And it has left a deep scar on the people.

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