Pine Ridge

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:

Lost Bird:

Should Schools Sugarcoat the Truth?

My neighbors’ son came home from school last week and happily recited the hero-worship of Christopher Columbus he’d been taught that day. They were less than thrilled because they know what most adults know: Columbus committed murder, torture, and rape, and enslaved adults and children. He also apparently combined some of those pursuits into a sex-slave trade. In 1500, he wrote: “A hundred castellanoes (a Spanish coin) are as easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of dealers who go about looking for girls; those from nine to ten [years old] are now in demand.”

Of course, my neighbors also know we can’t teach that to young children. But do we need to teach the opposite? Weren’t the Vikings here before Columbus, anyway? Do we have to be such suckers for the victor’s version of history?

Their story reminded me of an incident that occurred when I worked at the Minnesota Legislature. A very conservative woman had been appointed by Governor Tim Pawlenty to head the state’s education department and decide what students should and should not be taught. One contentious issue was her opposition to the notion that the annihilation of Native Americans and their culture in the 19th century was genocide.

On public radio, she said: “I don’t think the accidental infection of some blankets with smallpox could be termed genocide.”

Let’s put aside her total ignorance of facts–okay, let’s not: population decimation, forced assimilation of Native American children taken from their parents and dropped into American schools, reservations, the slaughter of the buffalo… Not to mention the U.S. Army’s purposeful infection of blankets with smallpox—known today as biological terrorism. You don’t need gas chambers and ovens to commit genocide and someone supposedly smart enough to lead an education department should know that. (Perhaps she was the victim of her own sugar-coated education–we tend to tell the truth when others commit atrocities, but not when we do.)

However, she made another point: Even if in some crazy, alternate universe we had committed genocide, she said, children should not be taught that in school.

But we did commit genocide. So the question becomes, do we teach our children the truth or do we lie? Do we rely on fact or do we include fiction?

This dichotomy of American thinking, the ability to acknowledge and accept conflicting ideas, is as old as the country itself: We were founded on groundbreaking principles of personal liberty—plus slavery.

Democracy, plus lack of women’s suffrage.

A nation of just laws, plus Jim Crow.

Go West, Young Man! plus the genocide of the Native Americans.

It’s no wonder our schools teach cognitive dissonance. I felt betrayed when I learned, in college, the truth about so many of our histories. What had my public education been for, simply to memorize euphemisms and half-truths? Isn’t that sort of like brainwashing?

I understand that we need to instill pride in this country, otherwise the country is lost. And America is great. It’s just not perfect.

I believe if we teach children the truth, at age-appropriate levels, then we will raise learners who question. We will nurture critical thinkers who can problem solve to save the world. I believe we can hold and accept two conflicting ideas, as long as it’s acknowledged that they are conflicting. As long as they’re real.

If we teach the bad with the good, we will show children what this nation has overcome and can overcome, which is what truly makes us great.

What do you think? Fact or fiction? Or isn’t it that simple?