Pine Ridge Pow Wow - Pine Ridge Reservation, South Dakota

The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation (Wazí Aháŋhaŋ Oyáŋke in Lakotais an OglalaLakota Native American reservation 
located in the U.S. state of South Dakota.  
The Oglala Lakota Nation Pow Wow, features dancers from various parts of the U.S.

Pine Ridge is a community that knows poverty unlike almost any other zip code in America, not to mention diabetes, teenage pregnancy, gang violence, and alcoholism. Running water and electricity are absent from a huge number of homes. Broken families are as frequent as broken windows. So it was with a certain degree of trepidation that we arrived on the “res.” Being two young white males from Virginia with big cameras around our neck, we knew we would stick out as we photographed an evening Pow Wow. And we did. But it led to one of the greatest experiences of the trip.

As it turned out, where we entered as isolated strangers, we left invigorated by new friendships, the warmth of the people at Pine Ridge, and the intimate tour of the traditions of the Oglala tribe. In a single day, we participated in a sweat lodge ritual, viewed a Sun Dance ceremony, witnessed the wildest display of horse races, and photographed the evening session of the Pow Wow. 

As you’ll see in this post, we diverged a little from our documentary-style approach to dabble in portraiture. It would have been too painful to leave Pine Ridge without portraits of these men and women in beautiful regalia. So on a hot, too-sunny-to-get-good-pictures afternoon, we pulled participants in to our makeshift studio after they finished a competition. This approach also gave us a chance to meet and talk with lots of different people who travel weekly for Pow Wow competitions. The entire element of competition was something we hadn’t foreseen at the Pow Wow. But we weren’t surprised; prize money is a common theme among the events we attend. But just like so many other festivals we’ve covered, it’s unclear if prize money will be enough to keep these traditions alive. 

We owe tremendous gratitude to Ben and Diane Smith who showed us hospitality and a day we will never forget. Thanks also to James Rhodes whose idea it was for us come to Pine Ridge to join him in photographing the Pow Wow.