Today, the land base of the Oglala Lakota Nation is roughly 2.7 million acres of pristine grasslands in southwestern South Dakota. Pine Ridge Reservation’s land base is the result of many acts that broke and forced together small pieces of Unci Maka, our Grandmother Earth. This is the place of the Wounded Knee Massacre, an attempt to end a way of life and annihilate our circle, our connections, and our homelands.
But look at the lands, the beauty, the colors, and perspectives we share with you through the camera’s lens, to uplift our truths in the time of the pandemic. We, as a nation, stand strong and hold tight to our beliefs, protecting our people amidst new policies, shutdowns, virtual connections with inadequate infrastructure, sheltering in place, permitting, confusion, hunger, fear, loss with an inability to mourn, and movement stifled. Hope remains. Despite the circumstances, we share our story.
I want to tell you about the Stronghold Unit, which many call the South Unit, 133,300 acres of tribally owned land within the boundaries of the Pine Ridge Reservation. You might know it as part of the Badlands National Park.
This land was originally small allotments given to tribal members, generally 160 acres for a head of household and 80 acres for a single member. Of course, there was no justice in this land distribution process; how can one own and divide their grandmother? Then came WWII and the US needed a place for practice and training. What better than an Indian reservation? An aerial gunnery range was created through condemnation and eminent domain proceedings, forcibly taken from tribal members, again, and trashed for over 20 years through bombing, training, and target practice. Today there are many places where unexploded ordnance is exposed as the land erodes.
After many years, tribal members were able to purchase lands back, except for the Stronghold Unit. In 1968, Congress wanted 133,300 acres to create the Badlands National Park. With it, Congress expanded National Park Service boundaries outside of the bombing range and drew management lines across individually allotted land, intruding and creating more emotional harm.
Much of my work is an attempt to address that harm by seeking a way forward, with community members speaking clearly about their wants and needs, in a way that honors the land and our history here, and will be beneficial for us all.
We’re aware of what’s been taken, of the harm that’s been done, and we’re looking forward. That’s why we established the Community Stronghold Working Group and are creating a Declaration of Priorities, with representatives from several of Pine Ridge’s districts, to make sure everyone is heard.
With our photos, we hoped to capture this tragic story, to capture the beauty and the opportunities that our nation speaks about, and to share what we wish to pursue within this space. In the past, in the United States we Indigenous people didn’t have a voice in what happened to our land. Well, now we do have a voice. So rather than come from a place of oppression, we hope these pages reflect the truth: We are resilient, we have hope, and we have a voice. We seek healing and equity for the members of our nation, Unci Maka, and our connections to each other.
And we choose to have a voice in future decisions about our land.