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TEDxDU 2010

Aaron Huey: America's native prisoners of war

September 19, 2010

Aaron Huey's effort to photograph poverty in America led him to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where the struggle of the native Lakota people -- appalling, and largely ignored -- compelled him to refocus. Five years of work later, his haunting photos intertwine with a shocking history lesson in this bold, courageous talk. (Filmed at TEDxDU.)

Aaron Huey - Photographer
Photographer, adventurer and storyteller Aaron Huey captures all of his subjects -- from war victims to rock climbers to Sufi dervishes -- with elegance and fearless sensitivity. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I'm here today to show my photographs of the Lakota.
00:15
Many of you may have heard of the Lakota,
00:19
or at least the larger group of tribes
00:21
called the Sioux.
00:23
The Lakota are one of many tribes that were moved off their land
00:25
to prisoner of war camps
00:28
now called reservations.
00:30
The Pine Ridge Reservation,
00:32
the subject of today's slide show,
00:34
is located about 75 miles southeast
00:36
of the Black Hills in South Dakota.
00:38
It is sometimes referred to
00:40
as Prisoner of War Camp Number 334,
00:42
and it is where the Lakota now live.
00:45
Now, if any of you have ever heard of AIM,
00:48
the American Indian Movement,
00:50
or of Russell Means,
00:52
or Leonard Peltier,
00:54
or of the stand-off at Oglala,
00:56
then you know that Pine Ridge is ground zero
00:58
for Native issues in the U.S.
01:01
So I've been asked to talk a little bit today
01:04
about my relationship with the Lakota,
01:06
and that's a very difficult one for me.
01:08
Because, if you haven't noticed from my skin color,
01:10
I'm white,
01:12
and that is a huge barrier on a Native reservation.
01:14
You'll see a lot of people in my photographs today,
01:19
and I've become very close with them, and they've welcomed me like family.
01:21
They've called me "brother" and "uncle"
01:24
and invited me again and again over five years.
01:26
But on Pine Ridge,
01:28
I will always be what is called "wasichu,"
01:30
and "wasichu" is a Lakota word
01:33
that means "non-Indian,"
01:36
but another version of this word
01:38
means "the one who takes the best meat for himself."
01:40
And that's what I want to focus on --
01:44
the one who takes the best part of the meat.
01:46
It means greedy.
01:48
So take a look around this auditorium today.
01:51
We are at a private school in the American West,
01:53
sitting in red velvet chairs
01:56
with money in our pockets.
01:59
And if we look at our lives,
02:01
we have indeed taken
02:03
the best part of the meat.
02:05
So let's look today at a set of photographs
02:07
of a people who lost
02:10
so that we could gain,
02:12
and know that when you see these people's faces
02:14
that these are not just images of the Lakota;
02:17
they stand for all indigenous people.
02:20
On this piece of paper
02:25
is the history the way I learned it
02:27
from my Lakota friends and family.
02:29
The following is a time-line
02:32
of treaties made, treaties broken
02:34
and massacres disguised as battles.
02:37
I'll begin in 1824.
02:39
What is known as the Bureau of Indian Affairs
02:41
was created within the War Department,
02:43
setting an early tone of aggression
02:45
in our dealings with the Native Americans.
02:47
1851:
02:49
The first treaty of Fort Laramie was made,
02:51
clearly marking the boundaries of the Lakota Nation.
02:53
According to the treaty,
02:56
those lands are a sovereign nation.
02:58
If the boundaries of this treaty had held --
03:00
and there is a legal basis that they should --
03:02
then this is what the U.S. would look like today.
03:05
10 years later,
03:10
the Homestead Act, signed by President Lincoln,
03:12
unleashed a flood of white settlers into Native lands.
03:15
1863:
03:18
An uprising of Santee Sioux in Minnesota
03:20
ends with the hanging of 38 Sioux men,
03:22
the largest mass execution in U.S. history.
03:25
The execution was ordered by President Lincoln
03:29
only two days after
03:31
he signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
03:33
1866: the beginning of the transcontinental railroad --
03:37
a new era.
03:40
We appropriated land for trails and trains
03:42
to shortcut through the heart of the Lakota Nation.
03:44
The treaties were out the window.
03:47
In response, three tribes led by the Lakota chief Red Cloud
03:49
attacked and defeated the U.S. army many times over.
03:52
I want to repeat that part.
03:55
The Lakota defeat the U.S. army.
03:57
1868: The second Fort Laramie Treaty
04:00
clearly guarantees the sovereignty of the Great Sioux Nation
04:03
and the Lakotas' ownership of the sacred Black Hills.
04:06
The government also promises land and hunting rights
04:09
in the surrounding states.
04:11
We promise that the Powder River country
04:13
will henceforth be closed to all whites.
04:15
The treaty seemed to be a complete victory
04:18
for Red Cloud and the Sioux.
04:20
In fact, this is the only war in American history
04:22
in which the government negotiated a peace
04:25
by conceding everything demanded by the enemy.
04:28
1869:
04:33
The transcontinental railroad was completed.
04:35
It began carrying, among other things, a large number of hunters
04:37
who began the wholesale killing of buffalo,
04:40
eliminating a source of food and clothing and shelter for the Sioux.
04:43
1871:
04:46
The Indian Appropriation Act
04:48
makes all Indians wards of the federal government.
04:50
In addition, the military issued orders
04:53
forbidding western Indians from leaving reservations.
04:56
All western Indians at that point in time
04:59
were now prisoners of war.
05:01
Also in 1871,
05:03
we ended the time of treaty-making.
05:05
The problem with treaties is they allow tribes to exist as sovereign nations,
05:07
and we can't have that.
05:10
We had plans.
05:12
1874:
05:14
General George Custer announced the discovery of gold in Lakota territory,
05:16
specifically the Black Hills.
05:19
The news of gold creates a massive influx of white settlers
05:21
into Lakota Nation.
05:23
Custer recommends that Congress find a way
05:25
to end the treaties with the Lakota
05:27
as soon as possible.
05:29
1875: The Lakota war begins
05:31
over the violation of the Fort Laramie Treaty.
05:34
1876:
05:37
On July 26th
05:39
on its way to attack a Lakota village,
05:41
Custer's 7th Cavalry was crushed
05:43
at the battle of Little Big Horn.
05:45
1877:
05:47
The great Lakota warrior and chief named Crazy Horse
05:49
surrendered at Fort Robinson.
05:52
He was later killed while in custody.
05:54
1877 is also the year we found a way
06:00
to get around the Fort Laramie Treaties.
06:03
A new agreement was presented to Sioux chiefs and their leading men
06:05
under a campaign known as "sell or starve:"
06:08
Sign the paper, or no food for your tribe.
06:11
Only 10 percent of the adult male population signed.
06:14
The Fort Laramie Treaty
06:17
called for at least three-quarters of the tribe
06:19
to sign away land.
06:21
That clause was obviously ignored.
06:23
1887: The Dawes Act.
06:25
Communal ownership of reservation lands ends.
06:28
Reservations are cut up into 160-acre sections
06:31
and distributed to individual Indians
06:34
with the surplus disposed of.
06:36
Tribes lost millions of acres.
06:38
The American dream of individual land ownership
06:41
turned out to be a very clever way
06:43
to divide the reservation until nothing was left.
06:45
The move destroyed the reservations,
06:48
making it easier to further subdivide and to sell
06:50
with every passing generation.
06:53
Most of the surplus land
06:56
and many of the plots within reservation boundaries
06:58
are now in the hands of white ranchers.
07:00
Once again, the fat of the land goes to wasichu.
07:03
1890, a date I believe to be
07:07
the most important in this slide show.
07:09
This is the year of the Wounded Knee Massacre.
07:12
On December 29th,
07:14
U.S. troops surrounded a Sioux encampment at Wounded Knee Creek
07:16
and massacred Chief Big Foot
07:19
and 300 prisoners of war,
07:21
using a new rapid-fire weapon
07:23
that fired exploding shells
07:25
called a Hotchkiss gun.
07:27
For this so-called "battle,"
07:29
20 Congressional Medals of Honor for Valor
07:31
were given to the 7th Cavalry.
07:34
To this day,
07:37
this is the most Medals of Honor
07:39
ever awarded for a single battle.
07:42
More Medals of Honor were given
07:45
for the indiscriminate slaughter of women and children
07:47
than for any battle in World War One,
07:49
World War Two,
07:51
Korea, Vietnam,
07:53
Iraq or Afghanistan.
07:55
The Wounded Knee massacre
07:59
is considered the end of the Indian wars.
08:01
Whenever I visit the site
08:04
of the mass grave at Wounded Knee,
08:06
I see it not just as a grave
08:08
for the Lakota or for the Sioux,
08:10
but as a grave for all indigenous peoples.
08:12
The holy man, Black Elk, said,
08:18
"I did not know then
08:20
how much was ended.
08:22
When I look back now
08:24
from this high hill of my old age,
08:26
I can still see the butchered women and children
08:28
lying heaped and scattered
08:30
all along the crooked gulch
08:32
as plain as when I saw them
08:38
with eyes still young.
08:40
And I can see that something else died there in the bloody mud
08:46
and was buried in the blizzard:
08:50
A people's dream died there,
08:54
and it was a beautiful dream."
08:57
With this event,
09:01
a new era in Native American history began.
09:03
Everything can be measured
09:07
before Wounded Knee and after.
09:09
Because it was in this moment
09:12
with the fingers on the triggers of the Hotchkiss guns
09:14
that the U.S. government openly declared its position on Native rights.
09:17
They were tired of treaties.
09:21
They were tired of sacred hills.
09:23
They were tired of ghost dances.
09:25
And they were tired of all the inconveniences of the Sioux.
09:28
So they brought out their cannons.
09:31
"You want to be an Indian now?" they said,
09:35
finger on the trigger.
09:38
1900:
09:45
the U.S. Indian population reached its low point --
09:47
less than 250,000,
09:51
compared to an estimated eight million
09:53
in 1492.
09:55
Fast-forward.
09:59
1980:
10:01
The longest running court case in U.S. history,
10:03
the Sioux Nation v. the United States,
10:05
was ruled upon by the U.S. Supreme Court.
10:08
The court determined that, when the Sioux were resettled onto reservations
10:12
and seven million acres of their land
10:15
were opened up to prospectors and homesteaders,
10:18
the terms of the second Fort Laramie Treaty
10:21
had been violated.
10:23
The court stated
10:25
that the Black Hills were illegally taken
10:27
and that the initial offering price plus interest
10:29
should be paid to the Sioux Nation.
10:31
As payment for the Black Hills,
10:33
the court awarded only 106 million dollars
10:35
to the Sioux Nation.
10:38
The Sioux refused the money with the rallying cry,
10:40
"The Black Hills are not for sale."
10:43
2010:
10:46
Statistics about Native population today,
10:48
more than a century after the massacre at Wounded Knee,
10:51
reveal the legacy of colonization,
10:54
forced migration
10:56
and treaty violations.
10:58
Unemployment on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation
11:00
fluctuates between 85 and 90 percent.
11:03
The housing office is unable to build new structures,
11:06
and existing structures are falling apart.
11:09
Many are homeless,
11:11
and those with homes are packed into rotting buildings
11:13
with up to five families.
11:15
39 percent of homes on Pine Ridge
11:17
have no electricity.
11:19
At least 60 percent of the homes on the reservation
11:21
are infested with black mold.
11:24
More than 90 percent of the population
11:26
lives below the federal poverty line.
11:28
The tuberculosis rate on Pine Ridge
11:31
is approximately eight times higher than the U.S. national average.
11:34
The infant mortality rate
11:37
is the highest on this continent
11:39
and is about three times higher than the U.S. national average.
11:41
Cervical cancer is five times higher
11:44
than the U.S. national average.
11:46
School dropout rate is up to 70 percent.
11:48
Teacher turnover
11:51
is eight times higher than the U.S. national average.
11:53
Frequently, grandparents are raising their grandchildren
11:56
because parents, due to alcoholism,
11:59
domestic violence and general apathy,
12:02
cannot raise them.
12:04
50 percent of the population over the age of 40
12:07
suffers from diabetes.
12:10
The life expectancy for men
12:12
is between 46
12:14
and 48 years old --
12:16
roughly the same
12:19
as in Afghanistan and Somalia.
12:21
The last chapter in any successful genocide
12:25
is the one in which the oppressor
12:28
can remove their hands and say,
12:30
"My God, what are these people doing to themselves?
12:33
They're killing each other.
12:36
They're killing themselves
12:38
while we watch them die."
12:40
This is how we came to own these United States.
12:43
This is the legacy
12:46
of manifest destiny.
12:48
Prisoners are still born
12:50
into prisoner-of-war camps
12:52
long after the guards are gone.
12:54
These are the bones left
12:59
after the best meat has been taken.
13:01
A long time ago,
13:06
a series of events was set in motion
13:08
by a people who look like me, by wasichu,
13:10
eager to take the land and the water
13:13
and the gold in the hills.
13:15
Those events led to a domino effect
13:18
that has yet to end.
13:20
As removed as we the dominant society may feel
13:22
from a massacre in 1890,
13:27
or a series of broken treaties 150 years ago,
13:30
I still have to ask you the question,
13:34
how should you feel about the statistics of today?
13:36
What is the connection
13:40
between these images of suffering
13:42
and the history that I just read to you?
13:44
And how much of this history
13:46
do you need to own, even?
13:48
Is any of this your responsibility today?
13:50
I have been told that there must be something we can do.
13:54
There must be some call to action.
13:57
Because for so long I've been standing on the sidelines
14:00
content to be a witness,
14:03
just taking photographs.
14:05
Because the solution seems so far in the past,
14:08
I needed nothing short of a time machine
14:11
to access them.
14:13
The suffering of indigenous peoples
14:15
is not a simple issue to fix.
14:17
It's not something everyone can get behind
14:21
the way they get behind helping Haiti,
14:23
or ending AIDS, or fighting a famine.
14:25
The "fix," as it's called,
14:28
may be much more difficult for the dominant society
14:30
than, say, a $50 check
14:33
or a church trip
14:35
to paint some graffiti-covered houses,
14:37
or a suburban family
14:39
donating a box of clothes they don't even want anymore.
14:41
So where does that leave us?
14:44
Shrugging our shoulders in the dark?
14:46
The United States
14:49
continues on a daily basis
14:51
to violate the terms
14:53
of the 1851 and 1868
14:55
Fort Laramie Treaties with the Lakota.
14:57
The call to action I offer today --
15:00
my TED wish -- is this:
15:02
Honor the treaties.
15:06
Give back the Black Hills.
15:08
It's not your business what they do with them.
15:10
(Applause)
15:15

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Aaron Huey - Photographer
Photographer, adventurer and storyteller Aaron Huey captures all of his subjects -- from war victims to rock climbers to Sufi dervishes -- with elegance and fearless sensitivity.

Why you should listen

Aaron Huey is a masthead photographer for National Geographic Adventure and National Geographic Traveler magazines. His stories from Afghanistan, Haiti, Mali, Siberia, Yemen and French Polynesia (to name just a few) on subjects as diverse as the Afghan drug war and the underwater photography of sharks, can be found in The New Yorker, National Geographic and The New York Times.

Huey serves on the board of directors for the nonprofit Blue Earth Alliance. In 2002, he walked 3,349 miles across America with his dog Cosmo (the journey lasted 154 days), and was recently awarded a National Geographic Expedition Council Grant to hitchhike across Siberia.

The original video is available on TED.com
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