February 18, 2013

Photo essay maligns Wind River

A photo essay surveys the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming:

Here's What Life Is Like On The Notorious Wind River Indian Reservation

By Robert JohnsonThe Wind River Indian Reservation is not an easy place to get to, but I had to see it for myself.

Thirty-five-hundred square miles of prairie and mountains in western Wyoming, the reservation is home to bitter ancestral enemies: the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes.

Even among reservations, it's renowned for brutal crime, widespread drug use, and legal dumping of toxic waste.

But no matter how much you hear about Wind River, there always seemed to be something unsaid. I spent over a week there and in the nearby towns. It was perhaps the most dramatic and unbalanced place I've ever been.

In the following slides I document what I saw from my more than week-long stay, in an effort to portray the plight and the perils of these forgotten tribes.
The narrative starts off innocently enough, with several slides on the beautiful land and the tragic history. But then it grows increasingly negative. These slides are among the worst:

The pictures are blurry, because when I raised the camera to take them, the school teacher who was showing me the reservation screamed that I was going to get us killed. She did not view this as an exaggeration. She seemed genuinely terrified.Drug abuse is rampant—from school-kids "huffing" Axe body spray, to alcoholism, to crystal meth throughout the state.My guide says everything is for sale on the Rez--in some way or another. Because there is so little law enforcement, crime is high, and law breakers can hide almost indefinitely from police. She had no explanation for why there are so many dogs wandering about.As we pass the community health clinic, my guide says growing up here can foster a sense of entitlement.Although Johnson spent a week there, he took many of the pictures from a car--sometimes a moving car. His guide, probably a white woman, obviously has a biased view of the rez.

In other words, this is almost literally a case of "drive-by journalism." An outsider passes through without getting to know or even talking to the residents, and he thinks he can summarize it accurately.

I've done photo essays of my trips through Indian country too. But I hope I've merely described what I saw, not tried to spin it into some grand statement. I'd never label a photo album "Here's What Life Is Like" or the equivalent. The arrogance of that claim is astounding.

Wind River responds

A reporter who apparently has covered Wind River in depth reports the reactions to this photo essay:

The reservation reacts to new, troubling press coverage

By Ron FeemsterResidents on the Wind River Indian Reservation know they have some big crime problems, but they don’t always like outsiders to write about them, especially when they seem to get everything else about the reservation wrong.

A New York Times article that appeared just over a year ago detailed a young man’s tragic, drunken murder of his teenage sister, and the heartbreak of parents who buried a daughter and lost a son to prison.

But before the Times writer got to that story, near the end of his 1,200-word piece, he had lost most of his Native readers. The article first delivered a litany of oppressive crime and poverty statistics punctuated with quotes from Tribal officials about “gloom” and “bad spirits.” To Native ears at least, these expressions capture tired stereotypes better than the views of educated, if occasionally overwhelmed, Indian leaders.

This week a new story made waves on the reservation when it appeared in Business Insider under the headline “Here’s what life is like on the notorious Wind River Indian Reservation.”

“It’s like the New York Times article, only worse,” said Layha Spoonhunter, 23, who recently returned with other reservation young people from a trip to Washington, D.C. to dance in President Obama’s Inaugural Parade. “At least the New York Times writer went around and talked to people.”

The Business Insider presented a slide show of more than 50 photographs, some of them taken off the reservation, with captions presenting the community’s problems and hard living conditions with no sources beyond his “guide,” a local teacher who remained nameless throughout the story.

“There was a lot of misinformation,” said Sara Robinson, the state tribal liaison for the Eastern Shoshone tribe. She was in Cheyenne lobbying the legislature and spoke briefly on the phone. “There were people in my family who were upset and angry. It was just not a good piece of work. Period.”

Spoonhunter paged through the photographs online, pointing out the disparities between what they showed and the written commentary.

“Picture number 37 shows Blue Sky Hall,” he said. “The caption says ’everything is for sale on the Rez—sex, drugs, booze, houses, tires, trucks.’”

Blue Sky Hall is a gathering place for the Northern Arapahoes, where the tribe holds events from elections and public meetings to performances and Thanksgiving dinners. “The tribe’s substance abuse and diabetes awareness programs are in that building,” Spoonhunter said. “It’s nothing like a place where sex or drugs are for sale.”
For more on drive-by journalism, see Pine Ridge Gets Media Attention and Kristof's Pine Ridge Column.

Below:  "Children play on a fence outside Blue Sky Hall in Ethete. Residents say the Wind River Indian Reservation is often a more hopeful place than is portrayed in press reports." (Lindsay D’Addato/WyoFile)


Anonymous said...

I've also noticed that the topic of modern Native Americans never seems to be raised without the spectre of alcoholism. Even by native writers like Louise Erdich (I'm reading Shadow Tag right now) and Sherman Alexie. I know it's a problem, but surely not every single 21st century Native American is an alcoholic, right?

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Anonymous said...

But drugs are for sale (well, for a price of $0) there. Diabetics shooting up insulin, small children getting a hit of this season's flu vaccine.

I hate MSM coverage of Indians. It's either poverty porn or magical porn.

Anonymous said...

I think who ever wrote this f##king article needs to get the facts straight before they start putting my reservation and my people down.. Our life is no different then anybody else in this world or other cities... So get it right... Before you even want to put anything out to the public .... Who ever wrote THIS f##king DISRESPECTFUL.... THAT'S MY COMMENT.. HATERS