I took the following pictures of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation during a road trip across the western U.S. in 2009. I often struggle with my desire to take photographs, to so openly document the things I see; many of the photos below are blurry because they were taken quickly, often from a moving car. I did not want to appear to be what I was: a privileged white tourist merely on her way through one of the poorest spots in America.

Entering Pine Ridge res  2009 466
Pine Ridge reservation (Oglala Lakota), 3,469 square miles in southwest South Dakota. Population 28-38,000. Established in 1889.
Pine Ridge trailers 2009
The unemployment rate is 80-90%.
Per capita income is $4,000.
Pine Ridge 2009 468
Pine Ridge has:
8 times the U.S. rate of diabetes
5 times the rate of cervical cancer
Twice the rate of heart disease
8 times the U.S. rate of tuberculosis
Road Trip 2009 469
Farm animals wandered about without pens or barriers. One of the most striking images of the trip I did not photograph: a dead cow had been dumped behind a low, roadside billboard, I am assuming because there is no garbage collection, or it is too costly.
PR 2009 471
The alcoholism rate is estimated to be as high as 80%.
25% of infants are born with fetal alcohol syndrome or effects.
PR 2009 494
The suicide rate is more than twice the national rate.
Teens commit suicide 4 times more often than in the rest of the U.S.
PR 2009 473
Out of respect, or fear or shame, I didn’t photograph the dozens of roadside crosses we passed.
PR 2009 475
We stopped and bought bracelets from one family selling them by the road. They were full-blooded Oglala Lakota, which seemed to be a great source of pride. She said the previous winter, they were snowbound in their trailer for many weeks and could not even make it to the outhouse.

PR 2009 492

There were no swingsets or seesaws at this park.
There were no swingsets or seesaws at this park, just the sign in a grassy area.
WK  2009 481
The town of Wounded Knee, on the reservation
WK Memorial 2009 482
Memorial at the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, when 300 men, women, and children were killed, often at close range, often unarmed, and sometimes running away. It was the last official clash between American Indians and the U.S. government in the war for the frontier.
WK cemetery  2009 483
Cemetery in Wounded Knee. Life expectancy on Pine Ridge is the lowest in the United States and the 2nd lowest in the Western Hemisphere, after Haiti.
WK cemetery 2009 484
The grave of Lost Bird, an infant at the time of the Wounded Knee Massacre, who was found alive under the frozen corpse of her mother at the site of the massacre. She was adopted by a white couple and died of influenza in 1919; her remains were brought back to Wounded Knee from California in 1991.
WK cemetery 2009 488
The infant mortality rate on Pine Ridge is three times the national rate.

I didn’t share this simply to depress you, or throw you into a fit of guilt–though, for me, that often comes with the territory. Here’s what I do with this information:

The Friends web site has other ideas–if you’re a teacher, you could teach there. If you’re a doctor, you could offer free clinics. If you’re a business owner, you could do business with them. Or you could do something as simple as donate your coupons.


I’ve read these statistics in many places; for this post, I referenced: http://www.re-member.org/pine_ridge_reservation.aspx

Lost Bird: http://www.sdpb.org/Lostbird/summary.asp


14 responses to “Pine Ridge”

  1. Barbara Ackles Avatar
    Barbara Ackles

    Wonderful story about a very sad time in our American history. Pictures say it so much better than words. I too will suscribe to friends of pine ridge and send books. Excellant and informative blog.

  2. aliceelizabethcook Avatar

    I’ve been there. It is sad. The Cheyenne River reservation just a few hours north is just as bad. I have some friends who started a school there to give the kids a better education than they were getting at the public school. It’s Windswept Academy. You should drive up that way the next time you’re out there. Their website is http://www.windsweptacademy.org

    1. Jessica Vealitzek Avatar

      Very cool; I’ll look it up. Thanks for reading.

  3. Mary Avatar

    Thank you for the story and photographs, Jessica. The photo of the spray-painted Massacre at Wounded Knee sign was especially striking.

    1. Jessica Vealitzek Avatar

      Yes, that was one of the more heartbreaking moments of the trip.

  4. melanie conklin (@MLConklin) Avatar

    Thank you for teaching me something I did not know, and following through with ways that I can help. I appreciate it. 🙂

    1. Jessica Vealitzek Avatar

      I’m so glad you’ve found it useful!

  5. muddledmom Avatar

    Absolutely useful! And very inspiring what you do. Thanks for sharing this.

    1. Jessica Vealitzek Avatar

      Thanks for reading!

  6. bravesmartbold Avatar

    I’ll be using it and sending it to my friends. It’s something everyone should know, and I don’t think it’s depressing. I think letting kids watch too much television and play too many video games is depressing.

  7. Berit Avatar

    Thanks for your story. I did pass through The reservation a few days back. The sign at wounded knee has been replaced by a new one, but pine ridge and the other settlements were just as depressing. The handful of natives I had the chance to talk to were friendly, but only interested in my money. Shame. Thank you for your links. Although I am not American, I feel utterly ashamed about how these people are treated and their culture left to rot. So I want to help, and the links mentioned are a good start.

    1. Jessica Vealitzek Avatar

      Thank you, Berit, for caring and for doing what you can to help.

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