Lost in the Wilderness
Photographs by Kalpesh Lathigra
Text by Kalpesh Lathigra unless otherwise specified
LOST IN THE WILDERNESS … feeling at home, at one in a place that is not your home; it’s not East London, England, not India, not Africa. Pine Ridge is a vast area of land. I did not go out to make a photojournalistic essay on life in Pine Ridge or a study of the Lakota Sioux tribe. I am not Edward Curtis. These photographs are of people, places, moments, and things (still life and details) I connected with. This, I feel, allows stories to be told within the individual photographs themselves.
Take for example the house on the hill painted with the Stars and Stripes. This photograph is titled Fort Robinson. The fort sits near this house. The fort’s history is ingrained with the history of human and civil rights in the United States. It was here that the first black cavalry regiment, now known as the Buffalo Soldiers, was based. It’s the place where the legendary Lakota warrior Crazy Horse was killed. The fort is a site layered with history. Landscapes, interiors of homes, a man with a bonnet, or a gravestone inscribed ‘Lost Bird’ make it difficult to represent the issues still faced by the Lakota on Pine Ridge. Poverty, death, and harshness of the everyday are real, and yet there is a positive sense of hope and pride not diminished in the people. I’m not an expert on the politics of this place. I work in the visual. I can only photograph what I feel is right.
My work is an incomplete visual poem. I rewrite, reread, and rework the visual stanzas until they settle on the eye.
I made my first trip to South Dakota in the summer of 2007. At first, I photographed very little — I wanted to meet the community, to see and feel the land. I was concerned about voyeurism and stereotypes and whether I would be able to connect with the people. But those fears were soon laid to rest as they told me stories about life on the reservation — how it used to be, what their lives were like now, and about their hopes and fears for the future. They accepted me with kindness, guidance and dark humour. More often than not I was called “the real Indian”.
As I awoke from a dream, that left tears
fallen from my eyes
I felt my people in pain, and the children’s
fright on with painful cries
I heard gunshots as if there was a time
The men in blue suits showed no mercy
to those who died
My dream over and over again
I wonder will this madness end
Still is this new age, a different chapter
a different page,
We keep growing in endless rage,
The hate, pain and revenge
And with it our hopes and dreams come to a
The madness carries our rage to the edge
then your [sic] left all alone where death may take its toll
Where is the love of are [sic] hopes and dreams?
The love that carries us to the spirit world
through each other
Mother Earth gives us the shelter of the food
water, let the mountains stand strong with
the animals of the land
Father Sky watch over us high up above,
where the eagles soar through the clouds
Great Spirit, I thank you for showing us the love
of life, and the soul of light.
IT’S FUNNY HOW AS a child we don’t question the games we play and the slow burn of what we take in via popular media like film, books, and the simply conversations that we have. It’s difficult to think of a child of my generation not having played cowboys and Indians, not watching John Wayne, Gary Cooper in action against the Indians, who were always the enemy.
I was always the Indian in these games, never the cowboy. Why? Because of the fact I have Indian as in the subcontinent, heritage. India is where, as a child, I was seen to be from. This fact alone made it my destiny never to be the hero. Later on in life I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Soul on Ice by Eldridge Cleaver, Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin. These books were not part of the school curriculum, rather the curriculum of friends who felt abandoned by the school. They had a profound effect on my being.
AS YOU DRIVE ACROSS the midwest of America, you are in awe of the vast endless landscape. If the land could speak, it would be a poem of people who once roamed free but were broken by the greed of others. During the period of 1860 – 1890, the Native American people were the victims of genocide.
The U.S. Government at the time broke treaty after treaty with the various tribes. Their land was forcibly taken in what became known as the Indian Wars. The First Nations, from the Navahos, Cheyenne, Apache, Cherokee and Sioux were forced onto reservations where the quality of arable land was poor and the once numerous herds of buffalo had been decimated.
OUR CONTEMPORARY AWARENESS is tainted by the continued depiction of stereotypes. The photographs of tourists visiting these sites are an antithesis to that. In the photograph that shows a Christian group visiting the site of Wounded Knee, where the only real memorial is a dilapidated sign marking the Massacre, my thoughts were to step back and show that this landscape was a significant point in the history of Native Americans, and in respect of what came after: the end of the “Indian Wars”, the indigenous population pushed onto reservations leading up ultimately to where we are today.
Wounded Knee was the location of the last major confrontation between the US Army and Native Americans, on December 29th 1890, where more than 200 men, women, and children of the Lakota had been killed and 51 were wounded (4 men and 47 women and children, some of whom died later). Some estimates placed the number of dead at 300. This led me to read contemporary literature like Ian Frazier’s On the Rez and Sherman Alexie’s poems.
I have spoken before about the feeling of belonging after arriving in Pine Ridge. It’s something that’s not tangible … just there. It is related to my upbringing in Forest Gate in London, being a person of colour, and also to the impact of colonisation, and how it remains there in the background.
IN 2010 I VISITED a graveyard at Pine Ridge but only shot this particular gravestone. Lost Bird was one of the few survivors of Wounded Knee. Many years after the massacre a journalist was having recurring dreams of her, she believed that they shared a spiritual connection. Eventually, she found Lost Bird’s grave in California and had the bones exhumed and returned to Wounded Knee.
ACROSS THE GREAT PLAINS I felt a belonging I cannot describe in words. The land has a raw beauty where one becomes lost in the wilderness of the soul.