Case study: A Pine Ridge Story
Tribal statistics on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation paint a seemingly insurmountable picture when it comes to developing a better future for the people who live there.
The per capita income in Shannon County, which exists within the reservation, is the third poorest county in the United States at about 3,700.00 per year. Unemployment remains around 80%, alcohol abuse is rampant and 30% of the homes lack electricity or indoor plumbing. Nutrition is poor and as a result, diabetes rates are 514% higher than the national average. The average life expectancy is approximately 48 years for men and 52 for women. Pine Ridge is America's Third World.
There are many groups that participate in providing assistance for the reservation, but with limited lasting success. The well-intended but unproductive efforts are in part due to a break-down in communication with native tribal leadership, and a misunderstanding of the process that is necessary to create long-term self-sufficiency and independence for tribal members. Aid assistance groups, advocacy organizations and government representatives have been left uneducated and misdirected.
Our objective was to assist tribal leadership in providing a vehicle that would: briefly educate viewers about historical, economical and social issues; help to develop understanding and empathy; and provide contacts to help guide those interested in providing assistance. Primary demographic targets included governmental officials and humanitarian-based groups.
This was a pro bono project. All of our labor was donated.
Some assistance for travel expenses was provided through a grant from Central Michigan University.
The development of assets and research involved multiple interviews and discussions with tribal members and leadership; photography documenting people, culture and terrain; and organizing materials from multiple sources including books, tribal documents, the Census Bureau and other governmental reports, and the Oglala Lakota College archives.
"A Pine Ridge Story" uses a clean easy-to-follow navigation and contemporary color palette. Four main sections and an interactive 3-D timeline of events from the last 200+ years are used to educate, personalize the experience, and motivate users.
The two historical sections and personal photographs with biographies were important components in developing an empathetic audience. Involvement in the well-known events at the Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee are not-so-distant memories for many families living the reservation. In addition to the challenges at Pine Ridge, it was critical to highlight some of the current initiatives led by tribal members, because any long-term change must ultimately come through the people who live there. Advocacy and governmental groups must work with the native population or all efforts will be superficial and short-lived.
Obstacles for completing the project included:
Geography: The photography was shot over a period of three years on various parts of the 7,000 square mile reservation—an area larger than the size of Connecticut. The sheer size of the reservation in combination with its remote locale in southwest South Dakota presented significant challenges. Only one motel exists on the reservation. Because of this, extensive travel time was minimized by developing relationships with tribal members and staying as a guest on their property.
Culture: Interviews and photographs of some of the tribal elders in the Personal Portraits section proved difficult due to lack of phone communication, geographic distances and cultural obstacles.
Politics: Consistency in leadership within the tribal government can also be difficult when their constituents live with unemployment rates near 80%. Because of this, our efforts coalesced around tribal members that were "traditional" leaders by birth-right, individuals who had a long history of public service, and elected officials.
This project is designed as an educational tool and conduit for assisting the tribe with their own objectives. Their challenges are significant and change will be measured incrementally over time. Our “Design for Good” objectives include continuing to work with Pine Ridge on a companion piece of print material this year with the hope of some donor assistance.
This case study is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.