July 03, 2012

Anti-suicide campaign at Lakota college

Native Sun News: Lakota College students inspire hope for youth

By Karin Eagle“What does hope look like to you?”

The introduction to business class at Oglala Lakota College in Pine Ridge posed that question to hundreds of young Lakota people, then asked them to take a picture of their answers. The results were staggering to the organizers of the project, aptly named the Lakota Voice Project.

Jason Alley, creative director and principal of Message and board member of the Black Hills Chapter of the American Advertising Federation, both based out of Rapid City, approached the class with the challenge of developing an advertising campaign that could enact change in their community. The idea was simple, on the part of Alley: Let the class research, plan and develop the campaign with the mentorship of Alley and his group.

The class itself, comprised of Lakota college students, came to an almost immediate agreement that the suicide prevention movement should be the focus of the campaign. Hundreds of disposable cameras were handed out to reservation schools with that one question–“What does hope look like to you?”–as the only instruction.

This collection of photos will figure prominently in a suicide awareness campaign set to be launched in the fall by the Sweetgrass Project, the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s suicide prevention program.

The photographs were presented to the public on the evening of June 22 at the Little Wound Elementary School auditorium. The class participated in the creation of the displays, which featured larger-than-life banners with some of the more poignant photographs. Long streamers of photographs linked together in two-sided fashion formed the centerpiece.
Comment:  We stopped here June 25 during my visit to South Dakota. The place was almost deserted--perhaps because it was a Lakota holiday, or the spring term was over, or it was late in the day. Probably the holiday, I guess.

The point here is one I make all the time. If you're depicting life on the rez--e.g., Children of the Plains or SCALPED--by all means show us the dark side. Show us the poverty, crime, substance abuse, and suicide.

But don't show only that. Show that people are aware of the problems and fighting them. Don't show that they've given up and lost; show that they're trying to win.

For instance, I imagine there are dozens of efforts to combat the suicide epidemic. You can show a montage of anti-suicide efforts, or you can show one as an example and allude to the others. Whatever you do, show that the problems aren't beyond hope.

Artistically speaking, if you devote 50% of the time to the problem and 50% to the solution(s), I'd say that's fair. Children of Plains didn't quite meet that standard. It was more like 60-40 or 70-30.

SCALPED isn't anywhere in the ballpark. If it's ever shown a majority of its fictional population doing anything positive--participating in a Sun Dance, going to college, or battling suicide--I must've missed it. Its negative portrayal of rez life is badly stereotypical.

Showing only the negative side is an exmaple of "poverty porn." You're showing the negative to gain sympathy (Children of the Plains) or titillate the audience (SCALPED). What you aren't doing is presenting a realistic portrait of both sides.

A one-sided portrayal is stereotypical even if it's technically accurate. It may depict the problem accurately, but the problem is only half the equation. The missing half makes rez life look more ugly, depressed, and savage than it really is.

In other words, if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem. SCALPED's stereotypical depiction of rez life is a great example of this.

For more on the subject, see Economic Development on Pine Ridge and Kristof's Pine Ridge Column.

Below:  "From left, Pte Ska Win Poor Bear, Lyle Pilcher and Jason Alley discussing the Lakota Voice Project photo exhibit in Kyle June 22." (Karin Eagle)


Scamp said...

I've enjoyed looking at your South Dakota photos and reading about your experiences - as I've never been to the US, it's a world I'm not familiar with, though I've read much about Pine Ridge, Rosebud etc.

As far as Scalped goes, the last issue came out recently. I was initially very, very skeptical of Scalped when I started reading it (already being familiar with Lakota history, culture and the more infamous reservations), and like you I also saw it as exploitation - but I kept on with it. And I'm glad I did. To me, it evolved in the best comic I've ever read. By the end of the series there were much stronger, positive female characters - no whores or junkies in sight, and there were no "evil" or "dirty" Indian men - just fully established, realistic characters, none who were the same as they were at the first issues (except maybe Franklin Falls Down, who remains a decent, hardworking guy throughout the series). Obviously the series is sensationalised - it is a fictional comic book, after all - and there's plenty of darkness, but I feel that made the more positive moments stand out even brighter. I've also met other fans of the series with no prior knowledge of Lakota people, and not one of them has expressed any racism or "savage" comments towards Natives based on reading the comics, nor do they believe the comic is a documentary. On the contrary, some have expressed a newfound interest in Lakota language and culture.

Rob said...

If it takes that long to create "fully established, realistic characters," I'd say it's a problem. Some writers do it in one or two issues, not 60.

People don't always say, or even realize, what they've internalized about a subject. You'd have to question them carefully to be sure what they think.

Anyway, I'll read some more SCALPED eventually. And give you my opinion on it.

Rob said...

For more on the anti-suicide campaign, see:


Ad campaign takes aim at teen suicide on Pine Ridge Reservation

What does hope look like in those parts of South Dakota littered with broken windows and broken lives? A group of advertising professionals and college students thinks one answer could help save countless young people on the Pine Ridge Reservation.

A collaborative effort between the American Advertising Federation of the Black Hills and Oglala Lakota College has created a public service campaign called the Lakota Voice Project to help stem a tide of suicide among reservation youths that is twice the national average.

The first radio and television messages will begin airing in the next week or two, featuring Pine Ridge residents and focusing on a message that hope can overcome bullying, dysfunctional home life and relationships gone bad on the reservation.