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I'm here today to show my photographs of the Lakota. Many of you may have heard of the Lakota, or at least the larger group of tribes called the Sioux. The Lakota are one of many tribes that were moved off their land to prisoner of war camps now called reservations. The Pine Ridge Reservation, the subject of today's slide show, is located about 75 miles southeast of the Black Hills in South Dakota. It is sometimes referred to as Prisoner of War Camp Number 334, and it is where the Lakota now live. Now, if any of you have ever heard of AIM, the American Indian Movement, or of Russell Means, or Leonard Peltier, or of the stand-off at Oglala, then you know that Pine Ridge is ground zero for Native issues in the U.S.
So I've been asked to talk a little bit today about my relationship with the Lakota, and that's a very difficult one for me. Because, if you haven't noticed from my skin color, I'm white, and that is a huge barrier on a Native reservation. You'll see a lot of people in my photographs today, and I've become very close with them, and they've welcomed me like family. They've called me "brother" and "uncle" and invited me again and again over five years. But on Pine Ridge, I will always be what is called "wasichu," and "wasichu" is a Lakota word that means "non-Indian," but another version of this word means "the one who takes the best meat for himself." And that's what I want to focus on -- the one who takes the best part of the meat. It means greedy. So take a look around this auditorium today. We are at a private school in the American West, sitting in red velvet chairs with money in our pockets. And if we look at our lives, we have indeed taken the best part of the meat. So let's look today at a set of photographs of a people who lost so that we could gain, and know that when you see these people's faces that these are not just images of the Lakota; they stand for all indigenous people.
On this piece of paper is the history the way I learned it from my Lakota friends and family. The following is a time-line of treaties made, treaties broken and massacres disguised as battles. I'll begin in 1824. What is known as the Bureau of Indian Affairs was created within the War Department, setting an early tone of aggression in our dealings with the Native Americans. 1851: The first treaty of Fort Laramie was made, clearly marking the boundaries of the Lakota Nation. According to the treaty, those lands are a sovereign nation. If the boundaries of this treaty had held -- and there is a legal basis that they should -- then this is what the U.S. would look like today. 10 years later, the Homestead Act, signed by President Lincoln, unleashed a flood of white settlers into Native lands. 1863: An uprising of Santee Sioux in Minnesota ends with the hanging of 38 Sioux men, the largest mass execution in U.S. history. The execution was ordered by President Lincoln only two days after he signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
1866: the beginning of the transcontinental railroad -- a new era. We appropriated land for trails and trains to shortcut through the heart of the Lakota Nation. The treaties were out the window. In response, three tribes led by the Lakota chief Red Cloud attacked and defeated the U.S. army many times over. I want to repeat that part. The Lakota defeat the U.S. army. 1868: The second Fort Laramie Treaty clearly guarantees the sovereignty of the Great Sioux Nation and the Lakotas' ownership of the sacred Black Hills. The government also promises land and hunting rights in the surrounding states. We promise that the Powder River country will henceforth be closed to all whites. The treaty seemed to be a complete victory for Red Cloud and the Sioux. In fact, this is the only war in American history in which the government negotiated a peace by conceding everything demanded by the enemy.
1869: The transcontinental railroad was completed. It began carrying, among other things, a large number of hunters who began the wholesale killing of buffalo, eliminating a source of food and clothing and shelter for the Sioux. 1871: The Indian Appropriation Act makes all Indians wards of the federal government. In addition, the military issued orders forbidding western Indians from leaving reservations. All western Indians at that point in time were now prisoners of war. Also in 1871, we ended the time of treaty-making. The problem with treaties is they allow tribes to exist as sovereign nations, and we can't have that. We had plans.
1874: General George Custer announced the discovery of gold in Lakota territory, specifically the Black Hills. The news of gold creates a massive influx of white settlers into Lakota Nation. Custer recommends that Congress find a way to end the treaties with the Lakota as soon as possible. 1875: The Lakota war begins over the violation of the Fort Laramie Treaty. 1876: On July 26th on its way to attack a Lakota village, Custer's 7th Cavalry was crushed at the battle of Little Big Horn. 1877: The great Lakota warrior and chief named Crazy Horse surrendered at Fort Robinson. He was later killed while in custody. 1877 is also the year we found a way to get around the Fort Laramie Treaties. A new agreement was presented to Sioux chiefs and their leading men under a campaign known as "sell or starve:" Sign the paper, or no food for your tribe. Only 10 percent of the adult male population signed. The Fort Laramie Treaty called for at least three-quarters of the tribe to sign away land. That clause was obviously ignored.
1887: The Dawes Act. Communal ownership of reservation lands ends. Reservations are cut up into 160-acre sections and distributed to individual Indians with the surplus disposed of. Tribes lost millions of acres. The American dream of individual land ownership turned out to be a very clever way to divide the reservation until nothing was left. The move destroyed the reservations, making it easier to further subdivide and to sell with every passing generation. Most of the surplus land and many of the plots within reservation boundaries are now in the hands of white ranchers. Once again, the fat of the land goes to wasichu.
1890, a date I believe to be the most important in this slide show. This is the year of the Wounded Knee Massacre. On December 29th, U.S. troops surrounded a Sioux encampment at Wounded Knee Creek and massacred Chief Big Foot and 300 prisoners of war, using a new rapid-fire weapon that fired exploding shells called a Hotchkiss gun. For this so-called "battle," 20 Congressional Medals of Honor for Valor were given to the 7th Cavalry. To this day, this is the most Medals of Honor ever awarded for a single battle. More Medals of Honor were given for the indiscriminate slaughter of women and children than for any battle in World War One, World War Two, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan. The Wounded Knee massacre is considered the end of the Indian wars. Whenever I visit the site of the mass grave at Wounded Knee, I see it not just as a grave for the Lakota or for the Sioux, but as a grave for all indigenous peoples.
The holy man, Black Elk, said, "I did not know then how much was ended. When I look back now from this high hill of my old age, I can still see the butchered women and children lying heaped and scattered all along the crooked gulch as plain as when I saw them with eyes still young. And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud and was buried in the blizzard: A people's dream died there, and it was a beautiful dream."
With this event, a new era in Native American history began. Everything can be measured before Wounded Knee and after. Because it was in this moment with the fingers on the triggers of the Hotchkiss guns that the U.S. government openly declared its position on Native rights. They were tired of treaties. They were tired of sacred hills. They were tired of ghost dances. And they were tired of all the inconveniences of the Sioux. So they brought out their cannons. "You want to be an Indian now?" they said, finger on the trigger. 1900: the U.S. Indian population reached its low point -- less than 250,000, compared to an estimated eight million in 1492.
Fast-forward. 1980: The longest running court case in U.S. history, the Sioux Nation v. the United States, was ruled upon by the U.S. Supreme Court. The court determined that, when the Sioux were resettled onto reservations and seven million acres of their land were opened up to prospectors and homesteaders, the terms of the second Fort Laramie Treaty had been violated. The court stated that the Black Hills were illegally taken and that the initial offering price plus interest should be paid to the Sioux Nation. As payment for the Black Hills, the court awarded only 106 million dollars to the Sioux Nation. The Sioux refused the money with the rallying cry, "The Black Hills are not for sale."
2010: Statistics about Native population today, more than a century after the massacre at Wounded Knee, reveal the legacy of colonization, forced migration and treaty violations. Unemployment on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation fluctuates between 85 and 90 percent. The housing office is unable to build new structures, and existing structures are falling apart. Many are homeless, and those with homes are packed into rotting buildings with up to five families. 39 percent of homes on Pine Ridge have no electricity. At least 60 percent of the homes on the reservation are infested with black mold. More than 90 percent of the population lives below the federal poverty line. The tuberculosis rate on Pine Ridge is approximately eight times higher than the U.S. national average. The infant mortality rate is the highest on this continent and is about three times higher than the U.S. national average. Cervical cancer is five times higher than the U.S. national average. School dropout rate is up to 70 percent. Teacher turnover is eight times higher than the U.S. national average. Frequently, grandparents are raising their grandchildren because parents, due to alcoholism, domestic violence and general apathy, cannot raise them. 50 percent of the population over the age of 40 suffers from diabetes. The life expectancy for men is between 46 and 48 years old -- roughly the same as in Afghanistan and Somalia.
The last chapter in any successful genocide is the one in which the oppressor can remove their hands and say, "My God, what are these people doing to themselves? They're killing each other. They're killing themselves while we watch them die." This is how we came to own these United States. This is the legacy of manifest destiny. Prisoners are still born into prisoner-of-war camps long after the guards are gone. These are the bones left after the best meat has been taken. A long time ago, a series of events was set in motion by a people who look like me, by wasichu, eager to take the land and the water and the gold in the hills. Those events led to a domino effect that has yet to end.
As removed as we the dominant society may feel from a massacre in 1890, or a series of broken treaties 150 years ago, I still have to ask you the question, how should you feel about the statistics of today? What is the connection between these images of suffering and the history that I just read to you? And how much of this history do you need to own, even? Is any of this your responsibility today? I have been told that there must be something we can do. There must be some call to action. Because for so long I've been standing on the sidelines content to be a witness, just taking photographs. Because the solution seems so far in the past, I needed nothing short of a time machine to access them.
The suffering of indigenous peoples is not a simple issue to fix. It's not something everyone can get behind the way they get behind helping Haiti, or ending AIDS, or fighting a famine. The "fix," as it's called, may be much more difficult for the dominant society than, say, a $50 check or a church trip to paint some graffiti-covered houses, or a suburban family donating a box of clothes they don't even want anymore. So where does that leave us? Shrugging our shoulders in the dark?
The United States continues on a daily basis to violate the terms of the 1851 and 1868 Fort Laramie Treaties with the Lakota. The call to action I offer today -- my TED wish -- is this: Honor the treaties. Give back the Black Hills. It's not your business what they do with them.
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Aaron Huey's effort to photograph poverty in America led him to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where the struggle of the native Lakota people -- appalling, and largely ignored -- compelled him to refocus. Five years of work later, his haunting photos intertwine with a shocking history lesson in this bold, courageous talk. (Filmed at TEDxDU.)
Photographer, adventurer and storyteller Aaron Huey captures all of his subjects -- from war victims to rock climbers to Sufi dervishes -- with elegance and fearless sensitivity. Full bio »