How a TED collaboration is helping residents of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation tell their own story

Posted by: Kate Torgovnick May

Pine Ridge Community Storytelling Project

Photographer Aaron Huey set out seven years ago to capture images of poverty in America. The mission brought him to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where 90% of the residents live below the poverty line and life expectancy for men is just 47 years, largely because of violence. As Huey says in his powerful TEDxTalk, the photo project soon became much more — an effort to understand the history of the native Lakota people, “a time-line of treaties made, treaties broken and massacres disguised as battles.” He sees this history as deeply connected to the statistics of today.

“The last chapter in any successful genocide is the one in which the oppressor can remove their hands and say, ‘My God, what are these people doing to themselves? They’re killing each other,’’’ says Huey in his talk.

Now, Huey’s images of Pine Ridge Reservation appear on the August cover of National Geographic magazine (see it, after the jump), alongside a piece by Alexandra Fuller, “In the Shadow of Wounded Knee.” But the printed magazine is just the beginning of the story.

Huey, who spent last year as a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University working on community journalism, teamed up with Jonathan Harris, who gave a TEDTalk about his unique platform for telling stories online, to create the Pine Ridge Community Storytelling Project. The project melds photographs, audio interviews and text to let the people of Pine Ridge “author their own story,” as Huey explains.

In the interactive portfolio, Tom Swift Bird tells the story of the “first racist I ever encountered,” who happened to be a 3-year-old. Kyra Poor Bear writes about the plight of reservation dogs. And Peter Paha talks about why the Lakota people say, “Now the Thunders are returning,” when storms move in over the Black Hills.

Funding and support for this project came from the Knight Fellowship and a grant from the John and James L Knight Foundation. And Huey also thanks TED for his project moving in such fascinating directions.

“I wanted to share this accomplishment because it would not have happened with out TED,” he wrote in an email.

Huey’s TEDTalk led to a second collaboration as well — Honor the Treaties, with street artists Shepard Fairey and Ernesto Yerena. Seeking funding via crowdsourcing, the group has placed large-scale murals, with messages like “The Black Hills are not for sale,” in more than a dozen American cities. The two also released the print below this week.

“I can’t imagine ever working alone now,” writes Huey. “Every project I have planned combines my networks and knowledge with a partner’s, and I see many TED collaborations in the future, for both myself and others.”

Aaron Huey's National Geographic cover

Aaron Huey and Shepard Fairey collaboration

Side notes: Huey writes on about being ambushed by the Taliban in Afghanistan — and the life-changing event it inspired.

Comments (10)

  • Sharice Davids commented on Oct 12 2012

    This is an interesting contradiction to the TED Talk entitled Chimamanda Adichie: The danger of a single story. Here is a link –

    She is much more eloquent and insightful than I will ever be. What I gather from her TED Talk and from the “same ‘ol story” that is being produced by Aaron Huey through TED is that the American Indian story is still the same and it is a wonderful example of the danger of a single story, as Ms. Adichie so beautifully explains.

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  • alma vasquez commented on Jul 29 2012

    hunters without lands to hunt
    these men’s identities seemed to be tied to this one way of living
    and without lands=depression
    if they have near 100% unemployment,
    it means that they have been living on charity of others
    also very depressing.
    it also means they refused to change their line of work
    refused to be ranch hands, etc….
    they are obessed with the idea that they should be hunters and nothing else.
    what they need is to change their culture.
    change the way they are thinking
    to end their depression
    yes, do visit mexico, for a vacation, a cultural exchange, a new perspective
    the people in mexico look like these indians,
    they may have a lot of genetics in common,
    mexicans are also very poor, below the poverty line of 18k/yr,
    a lot of them have no electricity or running water
    but mexico is thriving,
    if you send a few young indian men to mexico
    they will see mexicans working all sorts of jobs
    cab drivers,bus drivers, pilots, construction workers, farmers, doctors, merchants, etc….
    a whole city of diversified workers,
    all of them working at poverty levels of income (18k/yr or less)
    doesn’t stop them, they like staying busy, they like building, they like doing.
    mexico doesn’t have the best farm lands either
    alot of desert
    but mexico does grow it own food, lots of it, delicious food!!
    mexico are full of vibrant people, happy people, busy people,
    The Indians would learn alot from Mexicans.

    regarding giving lands to these indians
    so they can be hunters again,
    so they can feel proud again,
    seems pathetic.
    the current farms that would be converted to woodland if the indians were given these lands
    would deprive people of food somewhere in the world,
    those farms feed people,
    more people than a woodland would support.
    i’m against turning productive farmland to woodland wilderness.
    just so some people can feel better about themselves.

    farming is the noblest profession out there.

  • commented on Jul 23 2012

  • Ashley Kish commented on Jul 19 2012

    A fine example of perpetuating colonization that continues to dominate liberal media discourse. TED priding itself on showcasing a young white man who believes his work is needed for the peoples of the Pine Ridge to tell their own story. Guess what, they’ve been telling their stories for generations, through generations, in a myriad of ways. We must ask ourselves, as a culture, why are we only willing to notice and pay attention when it comes through the voice of a young white man? TED, please do not become the National Geographic of this generation through practices that glorify the (mis)representation of the ‘other’.

    • Mahalie Stackpole commented on Jul 23 2012

      Where are the Pine Ridge stories being told without this “young white man”? It’s so easy to point out the imperfection of others, especially around a complex issue. Colonization back-lash in the form of bourgeois hyper-sensitivity is equally oppressive. In this case, it’s just wrong, as his work is there to bridge the gap, gain the interest of wide audiences who clearly aren’t hearing the stories (being told or not, not effectively enough) and then funnel said audience directly to the actual people of Pine Ridge. That is what the Cowbird project is facilitating. Aaron Huey has worked very hard to balance this issue and should be commended for such.

  • Sebastian Betti commented on Jul 19 2012

    Great work! It’s always interesting to learn something new about these ‘unknown’ cultural worlds.