Surviving Wounded Knee
The history of Wounded Knee, though forgotten by many Americans, is very much alive on the Pine Ridge Reservation, where the lives of the Lakotas are still defined today by what happened on December 29, 1890. On that cold day, the U.S. 7th Calvary slaughtered more than 300 Lakotas, most of them women and children. The Wounded Knee Massacre is known as the event that brought an end to the 19th century “Indian Wars” waged by the U.S. government on the native people of North America.
My first trip to the Wounded Knee Massacre site was on an evening of bitter cold. Dense clouds hung overhead and the dull gray light appeared lifeless. Snow seemed to fly horizontally, while the wind stung like tiny needles poking just beyond the skin’s surface. As day began to fade, the sun appeared through a break in the clouds. The rays of light burned bright, a red haze soaked the scene around me. The wind seemed to fall silent, like a dancer suspended in a moment of flight. The crimson sky pulled my gaze west toward the Black Hills, “Paha Sapa”— the land that was at the heart of the war between the Lakotas and the United States.
The Black Hills are the sacred spiritual center for Lakota traditions. In 1868, the U.S. government signed a treaty with the Lakotas, guaranteeing them rights to territory that included the Black Hills. General Custer discovered gold there in 1874, and soon those hallowed lands were invaded by prospectors eager to strike it rich. The Lakotas fought back and U.S. forces punished them severely—ultimately forcing all Lakotas onto reservations and subjugating the tribes. Over 100 years later the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Lakotas, stating that the terms of the 1868 treaty had been violated and the land taken illegally. The Court awarded the Lakotas a cash settlement, but the tribes refused payment, demanding instead the return of the Black Hills. To date, the legal battle is unresolved.
Just south of the Black Hills, in the poorest region of the United States, sits the Pine Ridge Reservation (home to Wounded Knee and the Oglala Lakota). Two out of three people on the reservation live below the federal poverty line. Lakotas suffer rates dramatically worse than the national averages for life expectancy, disease, addiction, sexual abuse, and suicide. These conditions are the continuing legacy of American’s progress in the West, progress attained without virtue or compassion.
My time on Pine Ridge has cultivated in me a respect for the Oglala Lakota that I cannot express in words. That, I do with my photographs. These are my record of the beauty and hardships I have witnessed there, my feelings about a people whose love for their land and their culture remains remarkably resilient, whose determination to maintain their heritage perseveres more than a century after the bloody events at Wounded Knee.
Throughout his career, Danny Wilcox Frazier has concentrated on covering issues of marginalized communities both in and outside the Unites States. During the past six years, Frazier has photographed people struggling to survive the economic shift that devastated rural communities across his home state of Iowa.
Frazier’s freelance work includes: TIME, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, Life, People, Fortune, Forbes, BusinessWeek, The Washington Post Magazine, and Der Spiegel. Frazier is a contributing photographer for Mother Jones and CR magazines. He has collaborated with CR magazine’s creative director, Yolanda Cuomo, on numerous projects. Frazier has received prizes from Pictures of The Year International, the National Press Photographers Association, Society of Professional Journalists, and Chinese International Press Photo as well as numerous grants and fellowships for foreign and domestic projects. He was named a finalist for the W. Eugene Smith Grant in 2007 and 2008.
Frazier’s foreign assignments have taken him to Afghanistan, India, Cuba, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, Côte d'Ivoire, Kosovo, and Mexico. In 2004, Frazier received a master’s degree from the University of Iowa, where he taught photojournalism during his graduate studies.
Surviving Wounded Knee Lesson Plan
The six images that Danny Wilcox Frazier offers in this section communicate the very personal convictions of the photographer. He explains, “My photographs personalize the struggle of the Oglala Lakota on the most legendary and impoverished of the Lakota reser
vations, Pine Ridge. The work connects these people to their sacred land in Paha Sapa (the Black Hills) and the Badlands. My approach does not ignore the hardship endured on the reservation, but also highlights the cultural heritage of the Lakotas. I work to add
my photographs to the growing public voice backing the return of the Black Hills to the Lakotas and tribes of the Great Plains.” As you view this collection, consider the role that a single image can play in an attempt to communicate a very complicated historical narrative. Do you see how or where Danny Wilcox Frazier’s beliefs and values might have translated to his photographs?
The sun begins to set in the Badlands of South Dakota, the region that is home to the Lakotas. The Oglala Lakota people have long resisted the US government and continue their legal battle over the sacred Paha Sapa (Black Hills). Originally confined to the Pine Ridge Reservation, most Oglala today live in abject poverty in what is the poorest region of the United States.
• What do you see in this photograph? What is occurring?
• What details about the way this photograph is composed stand out to you? What roles do light, shadow, and color play?
• What larger ideas come to mind in relation to the landscape and the title of this photograph?
A mass grave site at Wounded Knee honors over 300 men, women, and children who were massacred by the US 7th Cavalry on December 29, 1890.
• Imagine that you knew nothing about the title of this photograph or the context in which it was taken. What would you see? How does knowing the context impact your interpretation of the image? What do you think the photographer wants you to see? What do you think he wants you to think about?
• The cemetery/massacre site on the Pine Ridge Reservation is a site of atrocity and memory for Lakotas. It is the location of the massacre at Wounded Knee, the killing of over 300 men, women, and children in 1890 by the US 7th Cavalry. What role can sites of memory, such as this mass grave, play in our larger understanding of the Lakotas’ history?
Jay Waters holds a traditional bow and arrow on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Jay’s father, John Waters, works to teach his children Lakota traditions, including the language. The Waters family, known on the reservation as traditionalists, are active in efforts to preserve Lakota culture.
• How would you describe what is occurring in this photograph?
• What strikes you about the composition of this image? Why?
• In the caption, photographer Danny Wilcox Frazier notes that young Jay Waters’s father, John, is part of a larger movement to teach and preserve Lakota language and tradition. How does this image speak to this larger movement? What aspects of the image reinforce these ideas?
Wikuchela Waters sleeps on his parents’ bed in Allen, South Dakota. Allen, part of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, has been called the poorest city in America, with a per capita income of $1,539. Over 90% of the population on the Pine Ridge Reservation lives below the federal poverty line, while unemployment ranges from 85% to 90%.
• What words would you use to describe this photograph? What feelings does it inspire?
• Danny Wilcox Frazier notes that Allen, South Dakota, where this photograph was taken, has been called the poorest city in America. It is a place with a child poverty rate of nearly 75 percent, an unemployment rate of over 80 percent, and a per capita income of $3,515. How does this information change the way you view this image, if
at all? How would you describe the photograph with this information in mind?
• How could it be seen as symbolic that the child is sleeping alongside a blanket with the image of a wolf? What larger themes or ideas could the photographer be suggesting?
Oglala tribal rangers shot a buffalo that will be processed and distributed to tribal members for ceremonial and social events across the Pine Ridge Reservation. The Lakota tribes of the Great Plains traditionally depended on the buffalo for food, clothing, shelter, and spiritual guidance. The US government supported the extermination of the buffalo from the American West.
• What do you see in this photograph?
• Why is the image titled “Buffalo Kill”?
• What is missing from this photograph that you might expect to see?
• What larger story of the Oglala Lakota might photographer Danny Wilcox Frazier be trying to tell by juxtaposing the dead buffalo and the modern car?
• What choices did the photographer make to shape your interpretation of this image? How did he use light and shadow? What other choices seem important?
Wild horse races take place at the Oglala Lakota Nation Pow Wow on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. Lakotas celebrate traditional life throughout late summer with Sun Dances and horse races across the reservation. The Pine Ridge region is America’s poorest, but it is a part of the country rich in culture and tradition.
• How would you describe what you see in this photograph?
• What race is the photographer referring to in the title? Besides the horse race, what other races could the photographer be referencing?
• After reading the caption and taking time to look at the image, how do you think this photograph communicates the larger mission of the Aftermath Project—that is, the mission of telling the other half of the story of conflict, “the story of what it takes for individuals to learn to live again, to rebuild destroyed lives and homes, to restore civil societies, to address the lingering wounds of war while struggling to create new avenues for peace”?